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Tribe Happenings: Indians have come a long way in two years

Tribe Happenings: Indians have come a long way in two years
Terry Francona and Mickey Callaway have been the key to the Indians turnaround. (Photo: Cleveland.com)
December 16, 2014
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Then and Now

I know the popular approach in Cleveland these days is to ridicule the Indians for their lack of activity in the offseason, but if you step back and look where this team is now compared to two years ago at this time it is amazing the turnaround they have enjoyed. In fact, with all the changes implemented over the last two seasons and this past July, it did not leave the Indians with a lot to do this offseason as far as improving for 2015.

Anyway, two years ago the Indians were coming off a horrific second half collapse where they went 5-24 in August, 24-53 in the second half and 68-94 overall in 2012. They fired Manny Acta and the pitching staff was a complete mess. There was little to build around on the roster as a whole. Since then, check out some key moves and arrivals which have sparked their turnaround:

Key moves: Terry FranconaMickey CallawayYan GomesTrevor BauerBryan Shaw

Francona was the first to come onto the scene and he immediately changed the culture of the organization. He brought in a new way of thinking and a ton of leadership and has two 85+ win seasons since to show for it. With all due respect to the rest of the coaching staff, the hiring of Callaway as the pitching coach dramatically changed the success on their arms as he continues to work his magic getting the best out of almost everyone. While Francona and Callaway were the big additions in the dugout and off the field, Gomes has been the biggest addition on the field. He has been the linchpin to their success as been a top notch defender, excellent leader and an All Star performer at the plate. Shaw and Bauer have helped stabilize the backend of the bullpen and rotation.

Key surprises: Michael BrantleyCorey Kluber

Brantley had a breakthrough showing last season and has become one of the top star position players in the American League. Coming out of the minors everyone felt he would have a long, solid career, but no one expected what he did last season. The future is bright with #23 in the middle of the Indians lineup. Kluber always had the talent in the minors but never quite put it all together and was often overlooked as a result. Then, at the tail end of 2012 at Triple-A Columbus it all clicked and his emergence over the past two seasons speaks for itself. It is of no coincidence that success came after Callaway worked with Kluber a lot in 2012 when he was the organization’s pitching coordinator in the minors.

Key arrivals: Cody AllenJose RamirezT.J. HouseDanny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco

Allen had just a half a season in the Cleveland pen before the arrival of Francona, and in the last two seasons has established himself as one of the game’s best late inning relievers. Ramirez is a versatile bundle of energy who has the potential to fill so many different roles for the Indians and his arrival at shortstop last season helped bring stability to the infield defense. The emergence of Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer and House in the second half of the season as key complements in the rotation to Kluber and one of the best rotations in baseball has a lot of people excited about what they can ultimately become as a unit.

Even though they have had some disappointments or inconsistent showings from the likes of Lonnie ChisenhallAsdrubal CabreraNick Swisher and Michael Bourn, overall, the Indians have seen some growth from within on their roster that really sets the stage for a potential two or three year run with the current group of players if they remain relatively healthy.

Considering where they were two years ago it is amazing to see how they have rebuilt the roster and it has come together over the past two seasons. There has been some luck along the way for sure, but with some shrewd roster moves and the development of players from within it is all coming together. In two years Indians fans have gone from an all-time low to a feeling of hope and belief that this team can compete and win a World Series in the very near future.

Managing expectations with Ramirez

The IBI’s Jim Piascik wrote a piece last week on Jose Ramirez’s value to the Indians, a piece that elicited a pretty strong response. I happen to agree for the most part that Ramirez likely ends up as an average Major League player. He certainly has the potential to be more and wouldn’t be surprised if he does, but I think an average label is a pretty safe bet at this point. And that kind of label is actually a good thing as average is actually a good thing in this case.

Check out this chart that shows the WAR values and scouting values for players:

WAR chart     Scouting Chart
0-1 WAR Scrub   20 Poor
1-2 WAR Role Player   30 Well Below Average
2-3 WAR Solid Starter   40 Below Average
3-4 WAR Good Player   50 Major League Average
4-5 WAR All-Star   60 Above Average
5-6 WAR Superstar   70 Well Above Average
6+ WAR MVP   80 Outstanding

Many think “average” means replaceable, but that’s not the case at all. Average is a solid, everyday player. As noted  in the chart, on the 20-80 scouting scale an average player is a 50 and for fans of WAR an average player is a 2-3 WAR player. In other words, these are valuable players, but more of the complementary variety. Such players in this category last season were Brandon CrawfordMelky CabreraNick Markakis and so on. As you can see, average is not necessarily a bad word when talking about players. That’s an important distinction to make. Now, in my mind Ramirez is closer to a 60 than a 50 (probably a 55), but that still falls in the realm of average and in the list of players listed.

It is also important to have perspective on Ramirez’s abilities. The Indians have said nothing but good things publicly about Ramirez since he took over at shortstop. A lot of that is the truth, but it is important to note that they will always make their players glow a little brighter than they really are so as to create value to fans and also inflate their value to other teams as well. Trust me, I’ve been talking to them for years about their prospects so I know full well how important it is to filter that information appropriately. Outside of what the Indians themselves are saying publicly and on the record, I have not come across a scout, publication or person in the know that has ever considered him as an above average defensive shortstop prospect.

Here are the defensive comments from Ramirez’s 2014 scouting reports from national scout experts last season:

Baseball America: "He has the athleticism and versatility to play second base, third base or shortstop, but second is the only spot where he profiles as a regular. His hands work well and he has smooth actions, but he lacks the arm for shortstop or power for third."

Baseball Prospectus: "Very good glove at second; has some defensive versatility; good overall fundamentals. ... arm is fringe; not a good fit for the left side of the infield ... Realistic Role: High 4; below-average major leaguer/utility player."

John Sickels: "Solid glove but like the others he’s destined for utility work or a trade in this organization."

And here is my comment about Ramirez’s defense for his pre-2014 scouting report:

IBI: “Ramirez primarily played second base coming up through the system, but he has the skills to be a solid defensive shortstop in addition to a very good defensive second baseman. He uses his quickness and athleticism very well as a runner, and defensively it not only helps him get good jumps and range to balls well but also helps him make quick adjustments.   He shows impressive instincts as a defender with good lateral movement to his left and right, good hands and footwork, quick feet, and a solid average arm that is accurate.  As a defender he has a knack for making what he has physically work and has a good feel for the timing of the game where he has a good internal clock and knows the speed of the runners and where the ball is at.  The Indians believe he is more of a second baseman at the moment, but they have played him some at shortstop to give him exposure there and all over the diamond in order to add to his versatility. One of his greatest assets is that versatility to handle a premium defensive position at shortstop and play anywhere in the infield, which only increases his value as an everyday Major League player or a utility infielder.”

Now, I know full well that some players in the past have come to outdo their scouting reports. Also, for whatever reason, some players are just undervalued in the industry. Perhaps that is the case with Ramirez here. If he becomes a bona fide top shelf defensive shortstop, then bully for the Indians. He did surprise to some degree last season at shortstop and thankfully gives them an option to feel comfortable with at least at the outset of this coming season. At the very least he can be used as a bridge to Francisco Lindor rather than waste money to sign a veteran to a one year deal or go with Mike Aviles at shortstop early in the season.

That all said, it is important to consider the scouting reports on him and avoid comments from manager Terry Francona and GM Chris Antonetti when managing expectations for Ramirez going forward. Remember, he was replacing a pretty awful defender at shortstop in Asdrubal Cabrera so the results could be misleading to the eyes since the play was so bad for so long with Cabrera that even an average showing would look great.

Here’s hoping that Ramirez excels and is an overachiever. He played at an above average defensively in the limited time he was at shortstop, so the question remains if that is sustainable over a full season and career. It wouldn’t be the first time a player has exceeded their scouting report (I am looking at you Yan Gomes). If that happens and Lindor comes up and is all that he is expected to be, then it will be a great problem for the Indians to have considering the need for shortstops throughout all of baseball.

Managing expectations with Kipnis

Second baseman Jason Kipnis had a good showing in 2012 (.257 AVG, 14 HR, 76 RBI, .714 OPS) and All Star showing in 2013 (.284 AVG, 17 HR, 84 RBI, .818 OPS) that he parlayed into a six-year $52.5 million extension this past spring. As a 7.4 total WAR player from 2012-2013 that contract seemed like a no brainer just eight months ago, but after hitting just .240 with 6 HR, 41 RBI and .640 OPS this past season there are questions as to whether the Indians made a mistake signing him to that contract.

Was it a mistake? Possibly, but I still think it is too soon to make such a judgment.

I know people get on Kipnis for his streakiness and how his production has fallen off in each season, but if one looks at his month-to-month history since he joined the big leagues in July 2011, you see a player who has largely been an average to above average player for a majority of his career with the Indians:

  AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO wRC+
Jul 2011 .136 .208 .318 .527 .182 46
Aug 2011 .348 .412 .739 1.151 .391 216
Sep/Oct 2011 .265 .320 .412 .732 .147 103
Mar/Apr 2012 .256 .330 .436 .765 .179 112
May 2012 .295 .351 .459 .810 .164 125
Jun 2012 .267 .322 .381 .703 .114 94
Jul 2012 .250 .373 .321 .694 .071 100
Aug 2012 .180 .250 .281 .531 .101 48
Sep/Oct 2012 .274 .369 .372 .741 .097 112
Mar/Apr 2013 .200 .269 .286 .555 .086 52
May 2013 .261 .331 .550 .880 .288 142
Jun 2013 .419 .517 .699 1.216 .280 233
Jul 2013 .272 .333 .402 .736 .130 105
Aug 2013 .250 .345 .337 .681 .087 92
Sep/Oct 2013 .287 .367 .394 .761 .106 116
Mar/Apr 2014 .234 .354 .394 .748 .160 120
May 2014 .250 .333 .250 .583 .000 76
Jun 2014 .255 .299 .336 .636 .082 82
Jul 2014 .238 .314 .352 .666 .114 92
Aug 2014 .261 .305 .306 .611 .045 75
Sep/Oct 2014 .194 .266 .250 .516 .056 51

Note that a .320 on-base percentage is generally considered average, a .730 OPS is average, a .140 isolated power is average and a 100 wRC+ is average. If you think I am pounding the “average” train I am sorry, but I really think there is a bad misconception among fans that “average” is bad or what truly qualifies as average.

Anyway, knowing that, there are a few things to take out of this information. One, Kipnis has been a rather consistent player up until his oblique injury in May this past season. In each of the three seasons prior he would always have one bad month, one great month and then the other months would be about average to above average. In the end it all totaled up to an above average offensive performer at second base each season.

Secondly, there is no doubt that the oblique injury Kipnis suffered last season had an impact on his performance. He actually had an above average April, but his season fell off a cliff when he went on the disabled list on May 2nd with a strained right oblique. When he returned he was never fully 100% and was not the same player. He compensated his swing to allow him to play through the pain, but it resulted in a drop in his power and production capabilities. When projecting what he can do for the Indians going forward you still need to consider his post-April showing, but I think more weight should be placed on what he did in the seasons and months prior to the injury.

All that said, the Indians are right when they say Kipnis is a serious rebound candidate. He’s not a guy who had a bad season last year and is coming off of double knee surgery like Nick Swisher or has nagging hamstring issues like Michael Bourn. Kipnis is a guy who should no longer be affected by the oblique issue when spring training opens up in two months and he is going to be hungry to prove all the doubters wrong. Expecting a season like the one he had in 2012 would be just fine if you ask me.

Hood provides some depth

The Indians made an interesting pick up over a week back when they signed free agent outfielder Destin Hood to a minor league contract with an invite to Major League spring training. To many who don’t know him this is a “who cares” move, but this is an interesting layer of depth they have added to the roster with some upside potential.

Hood, who turns 25 at the start of next season, was a 2nd round draft pick by the Nationals in 2008 and spent the past seven seasons in their farm system before earning six year minor league free agent rights this offseason. Over his seven-year minor league career he is a .267 hitter with 41 HR, 337 RBI and .727 OPS. After a big 2011 season at High-A Potomac (.276 AVG, 13 HR, 83 RBI, .809 OPS) he struggled in 2012 (.242 AVG, .639 OPS) and 2013 (.224 AVG, .605 OPS) before rebounding with a nice showing this past season. In 106 games across three levels, 84 of them with Triple-A Syracuse, he combined to hit .298 with 11 HR, 42 RBI, 10 stolen bases and .808 OPS.

This is not a guy who is going to come in and potentially be an everyday starter for the Indians in Cleveland, but he adds some depth to the outfield at Triple-A Columbus. With top prospects James RamseyTyler Naquin and Carlos Moncrief all left-handed, the Indians only have Tyler Holt as a right-handed hitting outfield option to call upon from the minors. With Hood in tow they now have a second.

Hood was a high end recruit to the University of Alabama to play both baseball and football for them, but was wooed to pro baseball with a big signing bonus. He is a physically gifted athlete listed at 6-feet-1 and 225 pounds who has some strength, an average arm and can handle both corner outfield positions. He has some untapped power in the bat and with a few adjustments the feeling is he could hit for average. His inability to play center field hurts from a versatility standpoint as a fourth outfielder, but like we saw last season when Ryan Raburn was hurt and they had to make a small deal for Chris Dickerson, there is still a need for this kind of player in the system.

In a lot of ways, Hood may be a right-handed version of Dickerson. These kinds of players won’t make headlines and will garner little attention from most fans, but are still important when constructing depth to a roster and giving your team the best chance to handle injury and performance issues which inevitably pop up over the course of a season.

Parting shots

The Indians have signed outfielder/first baseman Jerry Sands to a minor league deal with an invite to Major League spring training. The 27-year old hit .268 with 9 HR and 36 RBI in 54 games for Triple-A Durham last year before a promotion to Tampa in June. In 12 games with Tampa he hit .352 with a 1.299 OPS before suffering a season ending left wrist injury. … The Indians have also signed catcher Brett Hayes to a minor league deal with an invite to Major League spring training. Last season he was the backup in Kansas City (.135 AVG, .362 OPS) before being sent to Triple-A Omaha (.310 AVG, .936 OPS) for the final month of the season. … As of this writing right-handed reliever Bryan Price is still in roster limbo. He was designated for assignment on December 8th to make room on the 40-man roster for first baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss. His roster fate should be known by this Thursday or Friday, if not sooner.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

alton
December 17, 2014 - 8:46 PM EST
I've always liked Jerry Sands, never flt like he's been given much of a chance despite some pretty impressive throughout his minor league career. That's a big dude with some pop.
Ryan
December 17, 2014 - 4:54 PM EST
Just wondering, hypothetically, if I could guarantee you at minimum 2012 Kipnis OPS from JRam at 2B for his career, do you trade Kipnis to the highest bidder right now? I know KIpnis' value is not high, but there is the risk it becomes lower (if he doesn't rebound and his contract becomes expensive) and he has the offensive potential to out-perform JRam...so just kind of wondering. I lean towards not taking the risk on Kipnis, saving you money in the long-run before the contract becomes an albatross and go with the superior defense.
Tony
December 17, 2014 - 8:44 AM EST
See a lot of Vizquel-Ramirez mentions with regard to arm. That is true. Difference of course is Vizquel was a superior shortstop in just about every other facet of the position. That doesn't mean Ramirez is chopped liver, it's just a testament to Vizquel's greatness. He compensated for that fringy arm with an unreal clock for the game, exceptional range, outstanding hands and a very quick release. In any case, I for one am very satisfied with Ramirez at short to start next season. He's a great asset to have while we wait on Lindor.....and a nice fallback option should something happen to Lindor from a health/performance standpoint.
Rich
December 17, 2014 - 8:10 AM EST
I watched all the Tribe games last year and I never found myself thinking that Ramirez's arm isn't good enough to play SS. OK, so he wasn't gunning down runners from deep in the hole, but I never thought his arm was substandard.

He was 21 last year so maybe he hasn't completely filled out yet.

What do you think, Tony?
Larry
December 17, 2014 - 7:43 AM EST
Re: Ramirez' arm. Probably as good as another SS in Cleveland by the name of Vizquel.
Homer
December 16, 2014 - 9:45 PM EST
Chip,

If what you are alluding to is something like Noah Sydergaard for JRam, I make that deal. That's what I think it would take.
Chip
December 16, 2014 - 9:40 PM EST
I think it's the angle you're looking from that determines Ramirez's value. As a 2B he is above average. The only department he lacks in is power, but that is downplayed in today's non-steroid game. If you're looking at him as a SS then it's a little different. His arm isn't as strong as someone like Lindor's, but it's accurate and he is quick to the ball while being quick to get rid of it. His actions are fluid and nothing he does looks ever looks like he overexerts himself. His awareness at the ripe ol' age of 22 is off the charts IMHO and there are no numbers to measure that. I do believe he is one of a few Indians young players overlooked by scouts. Gonzalez and Aguilar are 2 more that come to mind.

I think someone like the Mets will make an offer the Indians can't refuse for Ramirez.
Brandon
December 16, 2014 - 5:33 PM EST
It's easy to forget that Ramirez is only 22 and he was a much better hitter in his second stint in the majors last year. I think his youth and rapid development warrant these high expectations.
Tony
December 16, 2014 - 4:40 PM EST
Got it Path. And for me, "solid" and "average" are the same thing. Just an FYI.
Homer
December 16, 2014 - 4:33 PM EST
Word is Tribe has signed Gavin Floyd for 1/$4M with $6M in incentives.
Pathofkindness
December 16, 2014 - 4:30 PM EST
Nice article Tony. I can appreciate that you are trying to educate us on your use of the word "average." Still don't find it a very useful or meaningful word though. Maybe scouting reports use the right-hand list in your table as technical terms, but as a fan the WAR list on the left side of the table make much more sense. In other words, it makes a whole lot more sense to talk about Jose Ramirez as either a "solid player" or a "good player," as opposed to an "average player." It feels more descriptive and meaningful. But hey, that's just me. If you want to use the scouting system for your terminology that's fine, esp now that I understand what it means...
Shy
December 16, 2014 - 4:13 PM EST
"Good hands, very good fundamentals, arm is fringe, lacks power." Were they scouting JRam or Omar Vizquel?
Clay
December 16, 2014 - 12:40 PM EST
Said it a couple times, like the Hood & Sands signings. At least in the sense for a team lacking solid right handed options. At their ages, Hood yet to turn 25 & Sands just turned 27, theyre good lottery tickets.

With Raburn and Aviles being the main right handed bats off the bench, either Hood or Sands have a really good shot at getting an opportunity at some point,

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