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Tribe Happenings: Winter Meetings provide clarity to closer role

Tribe Happenings: Winter Meetings provide clarity to closer role
December 16, 2013
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Winter Meetings thoughts

The Winter Meetings came and went last week and the Indians left Orlando without making any moves other than signing first baseman David Cooper. So the meetings were much ado about nothing, right?

Not exactly.

As noted last week, the Indians were not expected to complete any deals at the Winter Meetings and they would instead serve as a launching off point to the rest of the offseason and help show the direction the Indians plan to go in this offseason. A lot of it was about gathering information on their players to see potential trade fits and to also talk to several free agents to set things up for later this offseason. They will make some moves, but like last year, they will come later this month and deeper into the offseason.

As to what moves the Indians ultimately make, I would still not expect the level of activity that we saw last year when the Indians doled out over $100 million in contracts to Nick SwisherMichael BournMark Reynolds and Brett Myers. Going into this offseason I warned that the Indians would be less busy than last year. Some of this is because their needs are more clearly defined and they don’t have as many needs going into this season as they had last year, but some of it is because they have a much more limited budget from which to work with.

Remember, last offseason the Indians were jumping payroll about $17 million from $65 in 2012 to $82 million in 2013. Last offseason they also had a lot of money coming off the books with Travis Hafner becoming a free agent and Shin-Soo Choo being traded, and most importantly they did not have very many internal raises to inflate the payroll. So they had close to $30-35 million to spend last offseason to get to that $82 million figure.

This offseason they are not going to bump payroll by $17 million again, and the payroll is only going up a few million to maybe $85 million, give or two a few million.  It is true that the losses of Chris PerezUbaldo Jimenez,Joe Smith, Brett Myers, Mark Reynolds and Scott Kazmir total about $30 million in payroll savings; however, the Indians have contract increases from 2013 to 2014 for Bourn ($6.5 million), Michael Brantley ($3.2 million),Asdrubal Cabrera ($3.5 million), Justin Masterson ($4 million), Vinnie Pestano ($800K), Ryan Raburn ($1.25 million), Carlos Santana ($3 million), Swisher ($4 million) and Josh Tomlin ($600K) which total about $27 million.

So while the Indians have payroll coming off the books, the internal raises from a team getting older and more expensive has eaten up just about any available money made by the departure of players on the payroll last season. In fact, once you throw in the signing of David Murphy for $5.5 million this season, you can see why the payroll is already a few dollars over last season’s payroll even though the Indians have not done much of anything this offseason.

While the Indians are receiving more money this year with the new national TV money (about $19 million per team after all the taxes and various funds are paid out) and they sold SportsTime Ohio to Fox last year, a lot of that money was spent last offseason. They also saw an attendance decline last year even after making the playoffs and spending a lot more freely last offseason. With a league bottom attendance it is hard to inflate payroll much higher than the $80-90 million budget they have, and they unfortunately are already very close to it.

There is no doubt the limited funds has cooled the Indians search for needs this offseason, but again, it is important to remember the Indians did not heat up the hot stove last year until after the Winter Meetings. They did not make their first significant signing until December 18th (Mark Reynolds).

This offseason they have been very open about their desire for a late inning reliever with closing experience and it appears they will get one. They have been tied to Grant BalfourJohn Axford and Joaquin Benoit, and at the moment appear to have a deal in place with Axford (more on that in a minute).

Beyond signing a closer, the Indians may have very little left to spend.  A lot of fans will be mad about that and probably won’t understand how they can’t sign anyone, but that is the unfortunate reality of the game in that the financial aspect the last 10 years has become such a significant piece to determining the success and viability of Major League franchises.

There is still a lot of time left in the offseason for the Indians to make moves, so stay tuned to see what they do. They may still have a surprise up their sleeve.

Axford set to be Indians new closer

The Indians and free agent closer John Axford have agreed to terms on a deal to become the new Indians closer next season. Terms of the deal are still unknown, and the deal is subject to him passing a physical.

Axford, 30, appeared in 75 games between the Brewers and Cardinals last season and did not record a save and compiled a 4.02 ERA. He has closer’s experience as he has 106 in his career and had a sensational year in 2011 when he racked up a 1.95 ERA and 46 saves.  In his five year career he has appeared in 281 games and has a 3.29 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 4.0 BB/9 and 10.8 K/9.

The Indians have long targeted a closer this offseason since they parted ways with former closer Chris Perez on the first day of the offseason. While there has been talk of using Bryan Shaw or Cody Allen in the role, they always targeted an external closer option because of how flush the market is with closers and they preferred to use a pitcher in the role that at least has some experience in it.

If anyone has been reading my tweets on Twitter, you will know I am not a huge fan of Axford, but depending on the terms of the contract I am fine with it. That may sound like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth, but for me I am fine with him on a small one-year deal for a few million and taking a chance on him as a rebound candidate. But at the same time, I don’t have a lot of trust in him at the moment to consistently lock down save situations.

Axford is a great guy and is a solid reliever, but my problem with him lies with his penchant for allowing a lot of baserunners as a late inning guy and also his recent performance. I dislike relievers who pitch in the late innings who allow a good amount of walks and also give up hits at a pretty good rate, and that’s exactly what he does as he had a 1.52 WHIP last season. There are also some alarming metrics, some which I am sure IBI metrics kinds Jim Piascik and Michael Hattery will get into more deeply this week.

Axford has some good stuff and can get swing and miss, which are two qualities I like in a closer. But when you have command issues and get hit at a decent clip, it leads to a lot of tightrope acts in the ninth inning, and in a lot of cases, several blown saves. His inconsistency the last two years and losing the closer’s job with the Brewers gives me pause (16 blown saves the last two years), so the hope here is the Indians saw something in him late last season where they believe he turned a corner.

One intriguing aspect of an Axford signing is that no matter what kind of deal he is signed to, the Indians would control him for the next three years. Even if he were to sign a one year deal, he would only be an arbitration-two player next offseason and would not be a free agent unless the Indians non-tender him. But don’t get too caught up in the control aspect. Assuming he signs a one year deal, if he has a bad or average season he will likely be non-tendered and if he has a big year he might be non-tendered as well since he might command $7-9 million in arbitration.

In a lot of ways, Axford reminds me of Perez.  Not from a stuff perspective, but from a results perspective and the reach for the Rolaids feeling we are likely to have with him when he takes the mounds in the ninth inning next year. That said, while the financial terms of Axford’s deal are unknown, he probably will cost roughly half of what Perez would have cost the Indians had he been kept. And ultimately, I am fine with paying a closer $3-5 million as it puts the Indians best relief options Shaw and Allen into the more important innings (more on that later).

I’m just not big on Axford as he does not exactly answer very many questions with the backend of the bullpen. He certainly brings experience and there is the potential for a rebound, but the questions and concerns abound which is not really what you want for a key bullpen piece. But, for a relatively low cost, he might be a gamble worth taking.

Using Allen, Shaw properly

One thing I do like about the John Axford signing is it solidifies Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen into a setup role. Both can now be used as needed and matched up in the seventh and eighth innings and not be limited to a ninth inning role that really limits their usefulness. It also lessens the need of Vinnie Pestano returning to form, though obviously it would be a huge boost to the backend of the bullpen if he does.

Over the years, the closer’s role has gained a lot of attention simply because a pitcher is getting the final outs of a close game or blowing the game. It is a love-hate role, and one where those who have proven they can close end up getting paid a lot of money. It is an over-rated role because teams often turn to relief in the sixth through eighth innings when games are just as much in the balance, and it happens much more frequently. The most opportunities for your best reliever(s) to impact a game occur in the sixth through ninth innings, so you should be free to use your best relievers accordingly rather than have them pigeon-holed into pitching only the ninth inning and possibly never get an opportunity to come in and impact the game.

Limiting Shaw and Allen to seventh and eighth inning duties not only frees up manager Terry Francona to use them as much as he wants and as he chooses, but it also keeps their cost down.

Consider former closer Chris Perez who has been a slightly above average closer during his Indians career, yet in his first year of arbitration (Super 2) in 2011 he made $2.2 million, then jumped to $4.5 million in 2012 and then to $7.3 million in 2013. He was up for his final year of arbitration this offseason and set to make about $10 million, which is why the Indians let him go. The accelerated rate of his cost, even as a slightly above average closer, shortened his length of control for the Indians by a year because he got so expensive. One make an argument that you can go a step further and say it shortened his length of control by two years as he probably should not have been kept last year as well.

In contrast, look at former middle reliever Joe Smith who was used in the less glorified seventh and eighth inning role for most of the last four years, but because he was not a closer his cost did not outgrow the Indians budget like Perez did. In Smith’s first year of arbitration in 2011 he made $870K, he made $1.75 million in 2012 and in his final year of arbitration in 2013 he made $3.15 million. Smith has been a better performer than Perez the last three years, and just as if not more important than Perez, yet in his final year of arbitration was much more affordable at a little over $3 million versus Perez who was projected to make $10 million.

Again, that’s the closer role over-inflating the cost for a reliever, and why it makes financial sense to use Allen and Shaw the next several years in a role similar to the one Smith filled. Now, if Axford gets hurt or performs poorly and Allen or Shaw naturally find their way into a ninth inning role, so be it, but count me as someone on board with the Indians thinking here with limiting two to setup roles.

I applaud the thinking. It is a smart way to keep the cost of Allen and Shaw down, something they won’t admit to but I am very sure was part of their thinking this offseason with filling the backend of the bullpen. This is also why spending a few million on a closer this offseason is not truly a misallocation of money as it could save them big time down the road on both Allen and Shaw.

Figuring out Masterson

There was a lot of talk last week about Justin Masterson and how the Indians were listening to other teams calling and asking about his availability. I went into more detail about it in my day two and day three recap, so I won’t rehash all of that here.

But while I don’t consider it a big deal that the Indians are listening to offers on Masterson, I do think the Indians need to have a plan with regard to what they are going to do about him. He is entering his free agent year, and while he may not be a top starter, he is still a very good, durable starter so the Indians need to decide whether to make a strong effort to keep him and sign him to an extension or they need to consider trading him.

The Indians have reportedly not yet discussed a long term extension with Masterson. His agent wants to see how the market plays out this offseason, and the Indians probably do too. In January, extension talks will likely occur as the Indians and his agent work on a one year deal to avoid arbitration, and by then both parties will know a lot more about whether or not they want to consider more aggressively pushing forward with a long term deal.

What Masterson, his agent and the Indians need to see is what happens with free agents Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. Both pitchers have qualifying offers attached to them which represses their market and will limit the amount of money they will ultimately get. Without draft pick compensation both Santana and Jimenez would probably get more sizable deals, but the fact of the matter is the draft pick attached to them really limits their market as there are so many teams that simply will not sign a player that results in the forfeiture of such an important draft pick and signing bonus money.

Finding out what Santana and Jimenez ultimately get has a direct impact on Masterson because if the Indians keep him all season they definitely will extend him the qualifying offer next offseason. It woukd surely drag down his market, one that teams and agents are still trying to determine as this is only the second offseason under the new CBA rules with the qualifying offers.

So keep tabs on Jimenez and Santana because the outcome of their offseason can have a big impact on Masterson’s future with the Indians. Masterson is a better pitcher as far as a long term contract goes because he has been a pretty good pitcher for the past several years and most importantly has proven to be very durable. But if Santana and Jimenez see their offseason’s dragged out into late January or February, and they end up with deals much less than anticipated, then this could favor the Indians pursuit of a Masterson extension.

Masterson is very important to the Indians future success as you need a good, dependable and durable rock at the top of the rotation, and if they can extend him for several years beyond this season they have to try and do it so long as it makes sense financially. He is not the same kind of pitcher that Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia were when they were nearing free agency, and with that it makes him easier to resign. But until this offseason plays out, we really don’t know how realistic it is for him to be resigned to a deal that prevents him from entering free agency and is fair for both parties.

So with that in mind extension talks are on hold and the Indians are right to explore trade possibilities for later in the year should they believe they can’t resign Masterson.

Going with Carrasco

Going into the offseason the Indians made it known they wanted both a starting pitcher and a late inning reliever. That message has changed of late – probably due to the ridiculous cost of starting pitching in free agency – as the Indians are now putting on the full court press making it known that they have faith in Carlos Carrasco and that he is their guy for the fifth starter spot.

We have also conveniently seen some talk about Trevor Bauer, and I am sure we will see some stories surface on Josh Tomlin as well. This should be no surprise as the Indians want to publicly show their support for Carrasco and the other fifth starter candidates as a show of faith. To get the best out of any of them, they need to believe they have a chance and that the organization believes in them, and maybe also get some of the fans on board. As a result, the PR machine is in overdrive.

They especially have to do this with Carrasco who is known to have a fragile psyche, so the Indians have to build him up as best as they can going into a season which has the Indians and him at a crossroads. He is out of options and has to be on the 25-man roster or be subject to waivers, so the Indians are wise to take one last look at him as a starter this spring, and if he fails then try him out in the bullpen and see where things go from there.

But while the Indians are putting on a front that they believe it is Carrasco’s time and that they are confident in him, a lot of this is just talk because there is no one in their right mind who should feel comfortable with him in the rotation to start the season. He no doubt has the ability and talent to be a good middle of the rotation starter for a long time – and could still possibly be even more - but he’s often not lived up to those expectations at the major league level and struggled last season at the major league level.

However, with the high cost of starting pitching and Carrasco’s low cost the next several years, they need to exhaust all possibilities of him filling a starting role with them.  If he can adequately fill a rotation spot it would certainly save the Indians a lot of money now and in the future.  There is value there worth pursuing.

That said, even though it appears they are set to go with Carrasco as the fifth starter, I would expect the Indians to continue to explore free agents they can bring in on minor league deals and see what happens a la Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka last year. They will also continue to look at trade possibilities to bring in rotation arms as prospects, and there is still a long shot possibility that Ubaldo Jimenez could return.

Parting shots

First baseman Jesus Aguilar is having a stellar showing in winter ball hitting .321 with 17 HR, 47 RBI and 1.012 OPS in 48 games in the Dominican Winter League. The IBI’s Steve Orbanek opines on him and also shares some interesting news on a developing story between the Indians and his Leones team in the Dominican that is started to get heated. … On Friday the Indians announced the signing of infielder David Adams to a major league deal. He will be brought in as competition at third base with incumbent Lonnie Chisenhall, though Chisenhall is the clear frontrunner to be the Indians opening day third baseman. Adams has an option remaining and barring injury to him or Chisenhall looks likely to open the season at Triple-A Columbus as a depth option for the Indians at third base and utility. … On Friday the Indians also signed outfielder Matt Carson, right-handed pitcher Tyler Cloyd and right-handed pitcher Travis Banwart to minor league deals with invites to major league spring training. All three are depth options expected to be at Columbus this season. … Former Indians infield prospect Jared Goedert has signed a minor league deal with the Blue Jays with an invite to major league spring training.

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

December 17, 2013 - 2:43 AM EST
2013 was Carrasco's first full year back from TJ and he struggled early in the season. The multiple suspensions situation also clearly weighed on his mind. After his demotion, he posted a 3.14 ERA in Columbus and a 3.00 ERA in Cleveland.

This guy is so darned talented that they have to try him in the rotation.
December 16, 2013 - 10:39 PM EST
Even though attendance was down, I believe the team said they made more in '13 as they eliminated discounting and used tiered pricing whereby tickets for better dates and teams cost more.
December 16, 2013 - 10:18 PM EST
benoit is 7 million at year like 20 million for 3 yrs he got 16,5 for 3 from detroit he isnt likely to sign for less than 7 or 8 million multi year contract and is 37 in 2014 THAT would probably preclude anymore FA signees no thanks ill take our chances with AX Vinnie Cody and shaw and scrabble for the 6th 7th and 8th innings. Plus no one know whether the 2013 singning (the UVa lefty) and hagadone could also come. so ill take my chances on that bullpen.
December 16, 2013 - 8:56 PM EST
Mad Thinker,

Yovanni Gallardo, is a guy they were tied to last yr. IF he pitches to potential he might be a hot commodity for the Brew Crew come summer.
MT88 in WI
December 16, 2013 - 6:12 PM EST
Now that former Brewers Axe and Marcum have been signed by the Tribe, is there anyone else I need to scout on the Brew Crew (or get the pulse of the fans about)?? Braun perhaps???
CA is Gei...?
December 16, 2013 - 5:58 PM EST
The Indians should get Shaun Marcum on the Kazmir HGH Cocktail training regimen. Send Marcum down to the DR to train, hook him up with Kazmir's "doctor" and then Marcum can get a $20MM guaranteed contract next year from someone so that he'll be set for life.

God Bless the USA.
December 16, 2013 - 5:46 PM EST

I'm very happy, as I wanted to see them sign Marcum, Axford and Capuano. Two down.

Marcum can turn into a Kazmir, if not better, IF he remains healthy for most of the season.

Axford is underrated. He's a better CP for half the money and more years of control. Younger and less risk (years/money) than Benoit or Balfour.

Now go get Capuano
December 16, 2013 - 5:45 PM EST
Good signing. Marcum, Tomlin, Carrasco, Bauer will be battling for that 5th spot. Still need another reliable SP.
Marcum can opt out if he does not make 25 man roster.
December 16, 2013 - 5:13 PM EST
Word is the Indians have signed Shaun Marcum to a minor league deal. No risk involved there, good depth move. Now, go after a few more arms. They need at least 2 more SP, IMHO.
December 16, 2013 - 5:07 PM EST
I think Axford is slight upgrade to Perez. Axford velocity is better than Perez, but his problem is command and throwing straight fastball that becomes very hittable.

I understand that people have concerns about the experience of the bullpen going into 14. However, last year everyone thought the bullpen was the strength of the team until Pestano and Perez went from studs to duds. I think the current bullpen will be looking for a new identity in 14. I believe we might be in for pleasant surprise regarding the performance of the bullpen.
December 16, 2013 - 3:09 PM EST
Robert, the Indians said as such last week, on Thursday, about their desire to have Allen/Shaw in middle relief and finding a closer in free agency:

"I think [Allen] could handle it with very little hiccups," Francona said about the closer’s role. "Saying that, I'm not sure that that puts our ballclub in the best position to win. At an early age, we used him in so many high-leverage situations. From the sixth inning on, bases loaded, snuff out a rally, we basically went to Cody. Right- or left-handed didn't matter. He was so good at it, and I would think he'll only continue to get better. It's hard to lose that guy. … That one guy can make your whole bullpen so much better. So many times you get a save situation, it could be a three-run game with nobody on and the game's already been lost in the seventh or eighth. Same thing [with Shaw]. He could do it in the ninth, no doubt. But, what he does earlier is valuable."

Axford is not being brought in to be the setup man....he's bring brought in purely to be the closer. As I illustrated above, this keeps the cost of Allen/Shaw down as they near arbitration and it frees up Francona to use his best two relievers whenever he wants.
December 16, 2013 - 3:00 PM EST
Curious what they signed him for. The guy has been completely worthless for the past 2 years, giving up home runs and line drives at some really high rates, so even paying him 4-5 million would seem crazy. And when he was good, he still had the high walk rate. I'd like it as a no-risk signing for 1-2 million, like Matt Albers level, but have a feeling they offered him a lot more than that.

Baseball needs to re-work the arbitration rules that give too much credit for saves. Setup guys are getting screwed out of paychecks, and pitchers who aren't as good as those setup guys are getting huge paychecks because their team happens to use them in the 9th. When Chris Perez gets as much in arbitration as Justin Masterson, something is wrong.
December 16, 2013 - 2:11 PM EST
Is there a statement from the Indian's FO to corroborate the statement that they signed Axford to "become the new Indians closer next season"? I haven't seen one. I only ask because I don't think its a certainty that he will be in that role, given his struggles the past couple of years. It's possible, but not a guarantee imo. I would still like to see them sign Benoit, if possible.
CA Is Gei...
December 16, 2013 - 1:43 PM EST
Indians should sign Scott Baker.

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