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Tribe Happenings: Offense may not be Indians biggest need

Tribe Happenings: Offense may not be Indians biggest need
A rejuvenated Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher could be what the doctor ordered for the Indians lineup next season. (Photo: AP)
October 13, 2014
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook...

Is offense a significant need?

After a frustrating showing this season by the offense, the focus this offseason by a great many fans will be to upgrade the lineup to add more offense. I actually agree that the Indians should look to add a big bat if possible, though understand the realities of such a move happening are remote. Knowing that, I also understand that the lineup as a whole was not as bad as it appeared to be this past season.

Let me explain.

If you are comparing the Indians lineup to those big Indians lineups of the 90s and early 00s then, yes, they were not very good. But so is the case for just about every team when looking at what they produced offensively this season compared to the numbers that teams put up offensively 5-10 years ago.

The game has changed since steroids and PEDs have been (mostly) removed from the game. Look at the Major League average offensive numbers for a team 10 years ago in 2004 versus this past season:

2004: .266 AVG, .335 OBP, .428 SLG, .763 OPS, 779 R, 182 HR, 1061 K
2014: .251 AVG, .314 OBP, .386 SLG, .700 OPS, 659 R, 140 HR, 1248 K

Wow, look at those numbers. Those are average numbers for a team across the league. That’s a pretty large accumulation of numbers to pull together, yet a 15 point drop in league average for batting average, 21 point drop in on-base percentage, 42 point drop in slugging percentage, and a 63 point drop in OPS. All of that has resulted in an average of 120 runs less scored in a season by teams. That amounts to about 0.75 runs a game, which significant.

Now, obviously the pitching today arguably is better. Also, teams have more data to use to play the defense to the batter’s tendencies with shifts and different defensive alignments not commonly used 10 years ago. But pitchers are also no longer as afraid to pitch inside nor are beat as much on well-located pitches away as they used to be because of the removal of performance enhancement substances from the game.

As another comparison, the top scoring team in baseball this season was the Angels who scored 773 runs. That total was below the Major League average in 2004 and would have been the 18th highest total in the league that year.

So there is no question that offense is down around baseball. It also means we need to be a little more open-minded when evaluating the Indians struggles offensively this past season since a lot of their issues are shared league-wide.

Comparing the Indians to their peers from this season and not to what the league was like 10 years ago, you see that they ranked 11th in runs (669), 13th in batting average (.253), 11th in on-base percentage (.317), .389 in slugging percentage (.389), 12th in OPS (.706) and 14th in home runs (142). They were ranked in the upper half in the league in all important offensive categories and were above the league average in all of those stats as well.

Situation-wise, the Indians ranked 10th batting with runners in scoring position (.258) and 9th in OPS with runners in scoring position (.736). They were also 8th for least amount of strikeouts with runners in scoring position (279). The league average for hitting and OPS with runners in scoring position was .253/.717 and the league average for strikeouts hitting with runners in scoring position was 307.

So was the Indians offense really that bad? Did it really perform that poorly in big situations? And, ultimately, is it really that much of a priority to address this offseason?

The Indians are right in that a return to form for the likes of Nick SwisherJason Kipnis and Michael Bourn would have the greatest impact to their lineup next season. Just getting all three to play to their career averages would be a notable boost.

The fans are also right in that the Indians need to add some more help to the lineup in order to be a better and more consistent offensive unit.

I think the answer is somewhere in between what the Indians and fans are expecting for next season.

The game is much less about waiting for the three-run homer or big offensive explosions from everyone in the lineup like it was in the mid-90s to mid-00s. It is now more about pitching, defense, baserunning and timely hitting.

The Kansas City Royals are putting on full display how important the running game is once again in baseball. Why good defense is so vital and how good pitching both starting and in the bullpen makes you competitive in every game and can really shorten a game.

This is a blueprint I expect teams to start adopting more and more over the coming years. Big bats cost a ton in free agency and on the trade market, but plus defensive players who can run and handle the bat are much more affordable. If such a player complements a team well, then they can have almost as much impact as a big bopper in the middle of the lineup who can’t run or is a below average defender.

Bottom line, our viewpoint on offense in baseball is largely skewed to what we remember from the mid-90s to mid-00s. The further we get away from that the better we will be able to more accurately evaluate just what is a good or bad showing offensively. In a lot of ways, the way baseball is played right now and the offensive numbers that result reminds a lot of the way baseball was in the 80s to early 90s when I was in my infancy following the game.

So while we wish the Indians would improve the offense, be sure to make note that the offense was really not the biggest issue of the team this past season. What truly cost them was a defense which was one of the worst in the league, a starting staff which was largely inconsistent in the first half of the season and a bullpen which blew too many late game leads. Of course, the offense surely contributed to the problems of the team as the up and down nature in performance for so many players hurt. That said, it can be argued that adding another late inning pen arm or a top flight defensive third baseman would improve the team just as much as a big bat would.

This is why the Indians may not be looking for as many big changes to the lineup as many hope.  In the end, it may just end up where they make a few key role player pickups that they believe balance the lineup better to face left-handed pitching, gives them options to improve the defense, and just provides them more flexibility overall.

Just some food for thought as the Hot Stove season gets set to start in a few weeks.

Looming payroll concerns

The Indians have approximately $70-72 million committed in payroll the players under contract for next season. That approximate figure includes the projected arbitration and pre-arbitration figures for the players on the roster for next year.

That doesn’t leave much room for the Indians to spend as even if they bump up to a $90 million payroll it leaves them a little under $20 million to spend. That money does not go very far when you consider it would probably have to be broken up into two or three pieces, maybe even more depending on what they do this offseason.

But even if the Indians do have $20 million to spend this offseason, they really can’t afford very many – if any – multi-year deals. They may be more in line with offering one year deals simply because their payroll situation in 2016 does not look very good considering no one is set to come off the books after next season except for club options that could be declined for David Murphy ($7 million) and Ryan Raburn ($3 million).

But going into 2016 the Indians have $52.25 million tied up into six players. Michael Bourn ($14M) and Nick Swisher ($15M) will be in the last year of their deals, while Michael Brantley ($6.5M), Yan Gomes ($2.5M), Jason Kipnis ($6M), and Carlos Santana ($8.25M) all will see moderate bumps in pay.  In addition to that Corey KluberCody Allen and Zach McAllister will hit arbitration for the first time, and they will also have several second and third year arbitration eligible players with Carlos CarrascoBryan ShawMarc RzepczynskiLonnie Chisenhall and potentially others.

That is a roster that going into 2016 could have as much as $75-$85 million or more tied up into just 13 players. Even if the Indians were to fill out the last 12 spots on the roster with league minimum players ($6M total), that’s roughly $80-90 million in committed payroll for 2016 if all of those players are with the team at the start of the 2016 season.

This is why it makes it very unlikely the Indians sign a player to a big multi-year contract this offseason, or that they even trade for a player who is signed to contract beyond the 2015 season. There just does not appear to be any room to add much more payroll since it is already tapped out. Fans can complain about that all they want, but league bottom revenues from attendance, TV, and other revenue streams ultimately are what limits ownership’s ability to spend. Outside of the pizza guy in Detroit, owners spend what their team takes in with revenues - not from their own pockets.

I hate to put a damper on the prospects of this offseason, but I always try to be a straight shooter and be realistic with what the expectations of this team should be on and off the field. As far as this offseason goes, the Indians are really going to have to be creative in order to maintain any kind of payroll flexibility going forward. I do think they have a trick or two up their sleeve and potentially a surprise big trade could surface, but I would not expect any significant deal in free agency other than a one year deal for a player looking to re-establish their market value so they can cash in after the 2015 season.

Playoff envy

Watching the MLB playoffs has certainly left me with a ton of envy for the fanbases that still have teams playing. There is nothing quite like the MLB postseason with the way it can twist a stomach into a pretzel. Not just for a few moments, but for over three hours from the first pitch of the game to the final out. There are so many crucial moments that as a fan of a team playing in a postseason game it leaves you on the edge of your seat the entire game.

Indians fans really have not had a chance to experience the excitement and exhaustion that comes from a playoff series in some time. The last time was in 2007, which was a lot of fun, but before that you have to go back to the late 90s when the Indians were going deep into the playoffs in 1995, 1997 and 1998 reaching the ALCS or World Series and playing in several nail biters along the way (I swear 1997 alone took five years off my life).

What we also see if the Indians are probably not that far away from winning a World Series. The biggest obstacle they have at the moment is just getting to the postseason. The grind of a 162-game season is tough for any team to survive and ultimately tests the depth and health of a team to its limits. I have always said you just have to get to the postseason and then let the chips fall as they may.

That is what is happening with the Royals, Orioles, Giants and Cardinals. When you compare these teams to the Indians, do you really see that significant of a difference in the makeup of the teams? The Indians are actually quite comparable, and it makes you wonder had they gotten into the playoffs this year what they could have done with the pitching they have. Or, had they won their wildcard game against Tampa last season what they might have done the rest of the playoffs.

The Indians surely have their warts, but so do each of the remaining teams in the playoffs. All of them have their issues offensively, though the Orioles were pretty strong in that department this season. What separates these teams is the defense, an area the Indians obviously lacked this season and might be the gap they look to bridge this offseason to bring them on par with these teams. Run prevention has become just as important as scoring runs.

You wonder what might happen next season if the Indians are able to get consistency from their promising starting rotation, they get a bounce back year or two from Jason Kipnis, Michael Bourn or Nick Swisher, they find another arm to plug into the backend of their pen and most of all find a lynch pin to bring the defense together.

The Indians really are not that far off. They will need a little luck and health along the way, as does every team, but they will also need to make some shrewd moves this offseason to improve the team on a limited budget. They mapped out their offseason last week during their organizational meetings in Arizona, now we will see what rabbit they are able to pull out of their hat to make next season a magical one for them.

And in the process make everyone else envious of the Indians and their postseason push toward hopefully winning a World Series.

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

October 15, 2014 - 9:08 PM EDT
IMO among the young threesome of Bauer, Salazar and Carrasco, I would be open to trading Salazar more than the other two. I feel that he still has a longer way to go to reach that potential he has with his fastball. I proposed elsewhere that if the Dodgers required Salazar in a trade for Van Slyke, I would do it and just push for a low-minors lottery ticket so that the Salazar fans won't revolt.
October 14, 2014 - 10:05 PM EDT
A couple of the comments interest me. Tony has suggested that he would be OK with trading Salazar for a bat. I would agree that Salazar would probably be best choice among the starting pitchers but question the risk taken when the team really only has seven starting pitchers, three of which had recent arm surgeries. There is no minor league depth to step in and these seven are not veteran pitchers. If the Indians are to be competitive in 2015/6, I believe they will need all of the pitching they have so i would not be in favor of trading any of the seven.

GSon has said that he believes Kipnis is going to improve because of experience and the difficulties of playing 2B. I am a non-believer in defensive metrics. Too many variables for my liking. However, I believe this was Kipnis' worst year defensively in the majors. Although his speed was decent, he looked a step slow to me with resulting range issues. He also seemed to have problems with batted balls which he had to field on lower planes/bounces. He should have been better at both at this point in his career IMO. I do agree that Chisenhall needs improvement in his throwing and that reports of Santana's progress at 1B are overly optimistic. I also did not think Ramirez had the arm to play SS ass well as he did and admit I was wrong. If pushe comes to shove, I could see him at 3B if Kipnis returns to offensive and defensive form of 2013.

Just my thoughts for both of your posts.
Dr. Silverman
October 14, 2014 - 6:46 PM EDT

Giving up Salazar would hurt and I'm unsure of Donaldson's current contract status, but if he's locked in for at least 3 more years, then I think we'd absolutely have to pull the trigger on that.
October 14, 2014 - 4:42 PM EDT
Tony would you trade Salazar, Frazier and Gonzalez for Donaldson.
October 14, 2014 - 4:10 PM EDT
I think Van Slyke would be an intriguing add. As would Springer, or Taylor.

I'm more willing to move Salazar in a trade than Bauer or Carrasco. I don't trust his ability to stay healthy.
C L Who
October 14, 2014 - 12:20 PM EDT
Tony, your discussion may be too sane for a fan board.

Markn95 is right on about managing playing time to dump some salary.

How about trading Allen and making Salazar the closer?

Are Tyler Cloyd or Kyle Davies ready for promotion? and how is Shaun Marcum's rehab coming along? If Salazar is traded, then who is the #5 starter? Please say it's not Tomlin!

A name I've mentioned many times for RF is Scott van Slyke. Cheap...right handed....good power....good average......OK defense. Murphy is tradeable so let's do it. But, Ramsey was acquired for a reason.....will he be in the OF in 2015?

As for third, Urshela. Chis is not actually providing much offense. Every run saved by Urshela at third is 2 the Tribe need not score.
October 14, 2014 - 10:51 AM EDT
Tony, agreed. I think they were well aware of the coming cash crunch and have planned accordingly, by building in depth. Consider this... when Walters was added he is/ was considered a middle of the diamond guy, then, they acq. James Ramsay another OF. My interpretation of the moves...added depth to deal from. Build surplus, and make deals from it. Adding Ramsay, a former 1st rd pk, near big league ready, a potential Murphy type player and to top that, a guy that does not have to be added to the 40 man roster for Justin Masterson was an absolute great move.
October 14, 2014 - 9:04 AM EDT
I may be in the minority, but I am open to trading Danny Salazar. I love his talent and who he is, but he's a guy that worries me long term in the rotation and whether he will hold up there. For me to deal him it would only be in the right deal where the Indians get a significant bat in return.

Also, the Indians have some outfield depth from which they can trade. Naquin, Ramsey and Moncrief are all Major League ready or near ready options and should be at Triple-A next season. Any of them could help the Indians at some point in 2015, but I also think they could help as part of a trade or even in a 1 for 1 deal for a ML role player or good pen arm.
October 14, 2014 - 8:39 AM EDT
enjoyed the article.. btw.. there were ZERO teams that scored 800 runs this year.. none.. maybe the new 850 will become 800 next?

While the Indians defense was pretty bad.. how bad was it really?.. Poor defense truly manifests itself in the form of unearned runs. The league average for unearned runs was 55.2 for the entire season. The Indians contributed the highest number of unearned runs with 72 or just over 0.1 per game above the average major league club. These are the "numbers" that can be taken from the counting stats.. what can't be taken are the intangible numbers that add up against a team that would otherwise be getting off the field having not committed an error. Things like pitch count going up when a double play ball results in only one out.. No error.. no unearned run.. but four to eight more pitches being thrown is the penalty.. There are other circumstances similar to this..

Defensive metrics don't measure what I refer as the full weight of a less than a professional defensive play. This is an area of baseball statistics that has been an ongoing MESS for years. When looking at UZR and UZR150 numbers.. the starting point for a fielder.. isn't taken into account.. Nor is a shift by the defense to account for a hitters tendencies.. A lot of these "less than a professional defensive play" are on the coaching staff and their ability to analyze what is actually happening on the field given the situation present and making the right adjustment. Players with depth and experience, make these adjustments without so much as a thought.. It's one of the most underrated reasons for the greatness of some of the games most iconic players.. Derek Jeter is a perfect example of understanding this nuance..

On the other hand.. pure fundamentals would make a helluva difference.. It would really help if Lonnie could throw the ball to Carlos' chest.. and if Carlos would keep his foot on the bag or come off the bag when he can't catch the ball AND keep his foot on the bag.. These are skills that players not playing their natural position don't do very well.. While I'm all for versatility, it costs runs that would otherwise not be scored. Players who move from, let's say, the outfield to second base.. have a bit of learning curve that isn't measured by normal stats.. Jason Kipnis..who's defense has been panned is in the throws of learning the subtle nuance of a very difficult position.. He's going to make some errors.. If he were to be moved again, which would be his third change, that would define the craziness of the suggestion: doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results..

If the Indians want to improve their defense.. then they have to make a commitment to the guys on the field to play the positions they're in.. and leave them there.. The best teams in MLB do it.. that's why the Cardinals and the Giants and the Orioles are some of the best teams as it relates to unearned runs..and the nuance of players playing the same spots..

John M
October 14, 2014 - 8:29 AM EDT
Great article Tony. I agree that if they could land Headley it would be a great sign, but it sounds like they don't have the cash to do that. People describing the KC outfield as fast and furious need only look to last off-season to see how the Tribe botched it by shipping off Drew Stubbs for Josh Outman, who they cut mid-season. I realize that teams that are the market size of CLE need to make moves like that, but with Bourn's injury tendencies, Stubbs was a commodity they could ill afford to lose. And when they had Brantley, Bourn and Stubbs out there the gaps looked pretty small, as they essentially had three CF roaming the OF.

At least with Ramirez at SS and the impending arrival of Lindor, the Tribe is again moving in the right direction.
October 14, 2014 - 7:30 AM EDT
We've needed a RH-hitting right fielder for years, and the answer is not going to come from within. Still, trading Salazar should not be an option.
October 14, 2014 - 12:21 AM EDT
I will second all comments about this being a great article. It should be required reading for all IBI columnists so they get some understanding of the Indians. As Tony wrote earlier, this is a team in transition. I have no idea how Tony will rank our prospects but I would be willing to guess that four of the top prospects are CF, all of which have speed and defense. Three top IF prospects are excellent defenders as is Ramirez. As KC has shown, there is more than one way to win and the Indians may be just a season or two away from a team that can pitch, defend and run. Why would we want to trade these guys away? Live with the Swishers, Bourns and Kipnises one more season to see how they fit. Only Swisher is without speed or defense and that is less important for a DH and part time sub at 1B and corner OF. Stick with what we have and make the best with fill-in talent. In two years or less, the big money costs could all be gone and the only RH sluggers will be ones from the farm system.
October 13, 2014 - 9:30 PM EDT
Yes, this is a very good article Tony. Thanks!

I agree that the offense is not terrible, but it does fail consistently against LH pitching. The defense and back end of the bullpen need to improve for us to make the playoffs.

Hah, I too live in SF and continue to marvel at how the Giants put together their team and deal with challenges year after year.

I agree w Shy that a young, up and coming RH hitting outfielder who can run and hit w some power is the target IMO. We don't have anything like that coming up through the system. Murphy can be traded or become a fine 4th OF. I would be ok w trading away Salazar, esp if Callaway thinks McAllister can right his ship, for the right 'building block' kinda guy.
Jeff P
October 13, 2014 - 8:30 PM EDT
The most common sense piece I've read here in a while. Question is, who are some guys who would fit this profile and play either 3B or RF, which are really the only spots we could look to upgrade
October 13, 2014 - 8:25 PM EDT
I believe the Indians need to shore up there bullpen. They did blow have there save/hold situations during the second half of the season. If they save half of those blown saves they could have been in this post season. They need to find a way to solidify the back end of the bullpen similar to what the Royals have.
October 13, 2014 - 7:14 PM EDT
I agree with this column, Tony, and it is what I have been anticipating from the Indians this offseason. Looking at the playoff teams, living in Northern California I get to see a lot of stuff about the Giants. They are kind of interesting in terms of team building because every time they've gotten to the playoffs something always goes wrong but they overcome the problem. In the past it has been stuff like 2nd base or relief pitching, and this season they have lost their starting ace in Matt Cain and have severe disappointment in Tim Lincecum. Likewise, they keep pulling rabbits out of their hat for 2nd base, and have little power from their outfield (except Pence). Even key players like Sandoval have ended up being less than they had hoped a few years ago, yet they keep winning.
October 13, 2014 - 6:34 PM EDT
If they can get Headley for ~3/30, then they should definitely pull that trigger. His elite defense at 3B would be a massive improvement from Chisenhall, a guy who can't be trusted with the bat or his glove. Last year, Headley was a hair above league average offensively but still provided 4.4 fWAR, and with that skill set not being valued appropriately in free agency, they could make a big upgrade to the area that killed them the most without losing much production if you believe that Chisenhall can sustain a wRC+ of 110-120 for a full year, or provide a team an upgrade if you believe that Chisenhall is more likely to repeat his horrid second half. That's not even considering the fact that he switch hits, so you can play him anywhere in the lineup while stacking for pitcher handedness.
October 13, 2014 - 6:06 PM EDT
I do not see much of a difference between the Giants. Cardinals, and even Orioles vs the Indians. Bruce Bochy, Mike Matheny and Buck Showalter are great managers, esp Bochy who seems to be able to turn lead into gold-of course the longer his Cinderella is out there, the greater the likelyhood she will revert to the pumpkin. Kansas City is in a different class, IMO, and that is who the Indians have to compare to if they want to be successful next year. Despite a very moderate small market payroll, that team has talent and that team can play. The outfielders are so athletic and cover so much ground, it's hard for anybody to find a landing spot for a fly ball in their outfield. The infield defense, esp w Hosmer healthy is also excellent. And there are at least 3 guys on that team that get down the line faster than Michael Bourn, not counting the designated runner Gore. A high chopper becomes a single. Next thing you know there's somebody in scoring position and a fly ball or oppo slash hit scores him. And they have just enough power that you have to respect it defensively. And the bullpen is the best in baseball. Even when Holland is not sharp and Yost makes a bonehead switch, they are not easy to beat. The Indians need a Lorenzo Cain type guy in the outfield if they are going to compete next year. And they don't have to go diving into the $$$ free agent pool to do it. They need to trade Danny Salazar while he is a hot commodity for George Springer or Michael Taylor. I would say Bauer but I don't think anybody thinks his projected upside is worth trading a top outfield prospect for
October 13, 2014 - 5:06 PM EDT
That 2015-16 offseason is going to be a tough one, obviously. My only hope is that either Bourn or Swisher has some kind of freakish comeback season in 2015 to make themselves attractive to another team as trade bait. At that point, they'd only have one guaranteed year left on their deals. I know MLB isn't the NBA when it comes to the salary-cap related benefit of "expiring deals," but the shorter the duration of a bad contract, the better. Maybe some desperate big market team would then take them off our hands.

On a somewhat related note, it's going to be really interesting to see the Indians manage the at-bats of Swisher and Bourn during the 2016 season. If they play things right, they could dump $30M in salary just by managing workloads so that the vesting options in both contracts lapse. I'm sure the MLBPA would throw a huge temper tantrum if the Indians sat either guy in the last few weeks of the season simply to nullify their 2017 salaries, but by then, my hope is the Indians have enough decent prospects that Swish and Bourn would be elbowed out of the way for performance reasons alone.

Of course, that last paragraph is a moot point if the injuries Bourn and Swisher suffered this year continue to crop up for the next two years. That's by far the most likely possibility. I hate to wish bad health on anyone but as a fan of a small market team, it is what it is.

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