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Tribe Happenings: Lowe proving his value early on

Tribe Happenings: Lowe proving his value early on
April 15, 2012
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Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians’ notebook…

Lowe and behold

So far this season right-handed starting pitcher Derek Lowe has been everything the Indians could only have dreamed about. He was acquired on Octobers 31st from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for minor league left-handed pitcher Chris Jones, and the Braves even sent along $10 million in cash to pay for two thirds of his $15 million salary for 2012.

The cost to acquire Lowe was minimal as Jones is not really much of a prospect, and the Indians are only paying him $5 million this season. Through two starts he is 2-0 with a 1.98 ERA and has gone 13.2 innings allowing 16 hits, one walk, and has three strikeouts. He is giving up his fair share of hits, but that is what sinker-ballers do as sometimes those groundballs find holes. The important thing is he has limited the extra baserunners by not allowing free passes via the walk.

Lowe, 38, is near the end of his career, but it has been a steady and effective career. Since becoming a starting pitcher in 2002 he has thrown at least 182 or more innings and made 32 or more starts for ten straight seasons. That durability and consistency is exactly what the Indians were looking for when they acquired him this past offseason to help stabilize the rotation. With him eating innings and providing quality starts, it takes the pressure off of the bullpen and also the rest of the starting rotation as well.

Lowe is coming off of a poor 2011 campaign where he went 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA for the Braves, which is why the Indians were able to acquire him for so little. With two starts in the books he is off to a great start with the Indians, though there are still about 30 more starts to go so it is too early to tell if the Indians truly got good value for Lowe and if he will hold up with his performance all season.

But you have to like what Lowe has done so far.

Lowe’s groundball rate is at 59.6% through two starts, which is up just 0.6% from last year and a few percentages below the low-to-mid 60s he was at in his prime. His strikeout rate is extremely low at the outset of the season, but that will balance out some and he has never really been a strikeout pitcher anyway, so it is not a big concern. His fastball velocity is right about at where it has been for his career as he is averaging 87 MPH with his sinker, down a little from the 88.4 MPH he has averaged for his career.

The biggest think so far for Lowe is he is back to predominantly using his sinker as he has thrown it 69.5% of the time in his two starts, which is right in line with where he has thrown it for most of his career up until last season with the Braves when he only threw it 50% of the time. Last year with the Braves he threw his slider 25.3% of the time and also his changeup 15.7% of the time, but this season the slider (10.5%) and changeup (9.5%) usage is down much more in favor of him using his sinker more.

The Indians saw the drop in Lowe’s sinker usage last season and felt that by getting him to use it more and using his secondary offerings less that he could get back to his regular effectiveness as a groundball machine that eats innings and gives the team a chance to win every night. With two starts in the books, the Indians are looking very wise on that assessment.

If Lowe can continue to give quality starts the Indians have the makings of a formidable starting rotation.  With right-handers Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez at the top of the rotation, Lowe in the middle, and right-handers Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez at the end, they have five very good to solid starting pitching options that should compete every night and give them a chance to win.

If Tomlin can get back to the success he enjoyed for the first two months of last season or Gomez breaks through and becomes the middle of the rotation rock he was always projected to be in the minors, then the rotation will be even better and rival some of the best in the game.  There are still a lot of what ifs with Lowe’s age, Jimenez’s consistency, Tomlin’s propensity to give up homers, and Gomez’s inexperience, but the potential with this rotation is there.

And the Lowe pickup may be the glue that puts it all together nicely.

Santana gets multi-year deal

On Tuesday the Indians announced that they have signed catcher Carlos Santana to a five year contract extension through the 2016 season. The deal also includes a club option for 2017.

The new deal will pay him $21 million over the next five seasons, including this season. He will make $502,000 this season, $550,000 in 2013, $3.5 million in 2014, $6 million in 2015, and $8.25 million in 2016. His 2017 club option is for $12 million and includes a $1.2 million buyout. As part of the deal he also received a $1 million signing bonus.

Santana, 26, had a solid first full season for the Indians last year as he hit .239 with 27 homers, 79 RBI and .808 OPS in 155 games.  He was the first catcher (8th batter) in franchise history to pile up at least 30 doubles, 25 home runs and 90 walks in a season. His 97 walks ranked third in the American League last year, and even though he only hit .239 he had a .351 on-base percentage. His 27 homers were a new club record by a switch hitter.

It is important to note that the contract extension does not really extend the length of control the Indians had over Santana had he not been signed to the new deal. He was under club control through 2016 anyway and simply would have been just an arbitration eligible player the next several years.  The new deal does potentially buy out one free agent year in 2017, and with the club option it is not guaranteed so it protects the Indians in the event something happens over the next few seasons where injuries or performance make them not want to pick it up.

But this deal was all about locking in Santana’s cost for the next several seasons.

Santana is an All-Star caliber player with the potential to be one of the more prolific hitters at his position and even at any position. Last season he only scratched the surface at what he could become and he is expected to be a middle of the order run producer for the Indians for a long time and only get better. As his performance improves, his yearly salary would also have jumped with each year he went to arbitration.

With the new CBA that was agreed to in the offseason, there is a belief that with the changes made to Super 2 arbitration status that Santana would have become eligible for Super 2 arbitration this offseason. This means he would have been granted arbitration a year early and would have four arbitration seasons from 2013-2016 instead of the normal three (2014-2016). With that in mind, and with his potential as a hitter, the Indians locked in his cost for the next four seasons.

It is a risk for both the player and team to sign such a deal. For the player, they risk losing the millions they would have received in arbitration in return for financial security as an injury is always one play away. For the team they risk the player underperforming or getting hurt, but it is a risk they take to try and control the cost of the player and have a better idea of what their budget is from year to year.

Damon is coming to town

No official move has been announced, but the Indians are expected to announce the signing of free agent outfielder Johnny Damon in the coming days.  He and the Indians have reportedly hammered out a one year deal that will pay him $1.25 million this season and includes an additional $1.4 million in performance bonuses.

The only thing holding up the deal from being announced is the completion of a physical and the dotting of some I’s and crossing of some T’s in some complex contract language, two things that were rumored to be completed on Saturday night. It is expected that he will initially be signed to a minor league contract on Monday, which will not require a roster move until Damon is ready to play after a one or two week minor league assignment. At that time he would be added to the 25-man (and 40-man) roster.

Damon, 38, hit .261 with 16 homers, 73 RBI and .743 OPS in 150 games for the Rays last season. In his 17-year Major League career he owns a .286 batting average and .789 OPS, has 2723 career hits, and has never played less than 141 games in a full Major League season.

Damon won’t be the savior for an Indians offense that has struggled a lot in the early going, and he will not be the answer in left field. But he will help. His durability, proven track record, his experience, and most of all his professional approach at the plate is something this lineup can use, even if he is another left-handed hitter being added to an already left-handed heavy lineup.

The first order of business will be to get him ready for game action, which could take one to two weeks. He reportedly is in great shape and has been working out regularly in anticipation of signing a contract with a team, so if he is signed sometime this week he could quickly go out on a one to two week minor league assignment to get some games in before being activated in Cleveland.

LaPorta still working

First baseman/outfielder Matt LaPorta is down at Triple-A Columbus and is off to a good start there hitting .314 with four homers, seven RBI and 1.056 OPS in nine games.

The performance for LaPorta is no surprise as he has always had a lot of success at the Triple-A level. In 122 career games at Triple-A Columbus he has hit .313 with 27 homers, 86 RBI and .962 OPS. So at this point the numbers are not what people should be looking at to determine if he is ready for another shot in the big leagues with the Indians.

Right now the focus is on his approach at the plate, more specifically with handling breaking balls. He needs to show that he can not only lay off breaking balls low and away, but that he can lay off them in the dirt middle of the plate in and can do damage with them when they are left up in the zone.  This is something that is going to take some time. The Indians did not send him down to the minors for two to three weeks, he was sent down there to really work on this for a few months before being an option again.

Injuries could always force their hand, but no matter how well LaPorta plays at Columbus, I would not expect him in Cleveland until June at the earliest. If and when he does come up, he could become a more regular option in left field.

Left and right extremes

The Indians have really gone to the extremes with the way their lineup and starting rotation are set up. Mostly by coincidence and not planned this way, the Indians starting lineup is heavily laden with six left-handed hitters and two switch-hitters that hit their best from the left side of the plate, and on the flip side the starting rotation is entirely right-handed.

Teams obviously prefer to have a more balanced lineup with a good mixture of both left-handed and right-handed hitters so they match up well with any pitcher they may face. This is especially the case in the late innings as a team loaded with right-handed or left-handed hitters can be matched up more easily by the opposing team’s bullpen. What side a hitter hits from ultimately does not matter if they are productive, and if you have a strong bench filled with good right-handed hitting options you can counteract these problems, so it will be interesting how the Indians fare with this lineup setup this season.

It is not as important to have a good mixture of right-handed and left-handed starters in the starting rotation, but it is an added benefit and adds a different dynamic to the rotation when there are one or two left-handers mixed in.  This helps change things up when you face a team as they often have to make a few lineup adjustments to better combat a left-handed pitcher since they are usually unable to throw out the same lineup they would against a right-handed starter.

Parting shots

Former Indians 1st round pick and top pitching prospect Alex White is with the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate to open the season. In two appearances so far he is 0-1 with a 4.32 ERA, and in 8.1 innings has allowed four runs on nine hits, two walks, and has seven strikeouts. … In a tune up start for his expected first start with the big league club today, lefty Drew Pomeranz threw four shutout innings allowing four hits, one walk and had four strikeouts for the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate. … The Indians starting rotation has been their best unit so far and rank 9th in all of baseball in ERA (3.03) and 6th in opponent’s OPS (.618). … Tuesday’s postponed game against the White Sox has been rescheduled as part of a day – night doubleheader on May 7th. The rescheduled game will be at 1:05PM and then the regularly scheduled game will follow later that night at 7:05PM.

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI. Also, his new book the 2012 Cleveland Indians Prospect Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

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.

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