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Who are the "Core Players" for the Indians going forward?

Who are the "Core Players" for the Indians going forward?
October 28, 2012
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This past week there was a great interview with Pat McManamon with Mark Shapiro where the current Indians’ president discusses the idea of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and the general value of players. I could go on and on about the interview, but it will be much clearer if you just read the interview yourself.

 The mentioning of WAR made me realize just how much advanced stats are a part of this front office and made me curious who might be the core players on the Tribe with regards to WAR and what free agents out there might be guys with whom the Tribe would be the most interested in. The first part will be all about the Indians core players, and who they are going to want to keep going forward. As a sidenote, there are different equations of WAR, and I prefer baseball-reference to fangraphs.

As we dive into the hitters, it needs to be pointed out the Shapiro also talked about how certain positions are more valuable and he said that catcher is one of those positions. This to me means that, not unsurprisingly, the central bat for this team is Tribe catcher, Carlos Santana. He was tied for the team lead in WAR with a value of 3.7 wins, keeping in mind that this was a guy who most people believe had a down year. I know people want to move him off catcher, but I don't see this in the future any time soon. He brings too much value to the position, and this is why the front office went out of their way to lock him up.

If we are to look at the next most important core hitter for the Indians, first we have to understand this team’s draft strategy. The Indians front office has a very distinct draft approach.  They don't spend any early picks on a player who is not an up-the-middle player. The logic is players can move out of the middle of the field but never back into the area. They also know that it is the hardest place to find hitters who can put up numbers. This means they value up the middle guys beyond all other positions.

The player who was tied for first on the team in WAR was Jason Kipnis.  In terms of WAR he is the most valuable player the Indians have drafted and signed since Kevin Kouzmanoff in 2003, and the best who they drafted, developed and played for the Indians since CC Sabathia in 1998. Now that is something to think about, the best WAR of any player who was drafted and played for the Indians since CC, which is a 12-year gap. This is for a guy who played a season and a half and who had a very up and down year. Kipnis has been very good, and has the ability to be great. He had a very rough second half of the season in 2012, and this will be the year where the Indians will really see what they have.  Still thanks to youth, position, and what he has shown, there is little doubt he is the second most important part of this core.

The player who was third on this team in terms of WAR was Shin-Soo Choo. I keep going back and forth if the Indians will keep him. The reason they would keep him is because he has always been a WAR darling. It is the stat that makes him look like a superstar. He is one of the top outfielders in baseball according to the WAR stat.

On the other side of the discussion, he is a corner outfielder which is not a value position by this front office. They might view him as a great value but movable because of where he plays. Also they have his replacements coming up in the system and there are two guys I think could be playing by September next year in Naquin and Ronny Rodriguez who might be set to take over (R-Rod I think ends up in the OF just because it will allow him to play sooner).

If they hold onto Choo, they could just settle for draft picks, as I have little doubt he would be a guy who a still nets draft pick compensation.  It is important to note he might grab less in a trade, because no team trading for him would land picks themselves, thanks to the new rules.  If I had to make a call, I think they play the year out with Choo unless they get a massive deal. They aren't ready for a full rebuild with the new big name manager. Then get the comp picks for him, and get one of the young kids ready to replace him for 2014.

The player who was fourth on this team in WAR was Asdrubal Cabrera.  The Indians showed they valued his production and his position when he got an extension last year which will take him until 2014. The last two years, he has fallen apart in the second half, and his conditioning has been an issue his whole career. As good as he has been, I think conditioning issues are a major concern, especially when you play up the middle.  If you were to remember Carlos Baerga, whose career as a starter was done before 30 in large part due to lack of conditioning.

Asdrubal will soon to be 27, and will be a FA at 29. He is a good starter, but I think the Indians already have plans to move on without him as soon as the guys behind him are ready. I don't think there is a lot of faith in Asdrubal's ability to stay good as he gets older, so he is a core guy for now, but only for 2 more years.

The guy who had the 5th best WAR was Michael Brantley, who strikes me as absolutely a part of the core.  In the same interview, Shapiro talks about how he is fine with the CC trade because Brantley has turned into a starter, and if the Indians had held onto CC they would not have gotten more than a supplemental pick for him. I agree they got a genuine starting OF for Sabathia, a guy who among hitters had the 40th best WAR in the American League.  This would be an excellent return for a late first rounder let alone a supplemental pick. Brantley really seemed to turn it on, and showed good doubles pop last year. He is really not a lead-off type, and will never swipe a ton of bases. He does strike me as a guy who could get 40 doubles a year, while getting on base.

The last guy who strikes me as a core player is third baseman, Lonnie Chisenhall. I, like everyone else, was shocked when the Indians picked him. They rushed him to the majors two years ago only to have his season cut short this season, thanks to injuries. He still has the 10th best WAR of anyone taken in the first round of the 2008 draft, which was a total of 46 picks. His defense is still average at best, and his walk rate and numbers vs. lefties leave a LOT to be desired. He is the last of the guys who played for this team who might be considered core types. His swing still gets people excited, and I for one still fully believe he can put up Travis Fryman-type numbers at third base.

The question then becomes, “Who are the guys who are going to be the core pitchers with this team the next few years?” Based on last year, the answer is Vinnie Pestano, and that's it that's the list. I mentioned how Kipnis is the best WAR valued player since CC. The best pitcher since then is Pestano, who in spite of being a reliever which makes hard to get a high value, is less than a win behind Kipnis.  Just to give an idea of how good Pestano has been, back in 2000 the Indians drafted Brian Wilson with a pick in round 30. Wilson is considered one of the best closers in the game and his WAR over 7 seasons is 5.4. Pestano over basically two seasons, has a WAR of 4.2. He has been beyond good; he is a top five reliever in all of baseball the past two years. 

I know many are thinking, “What about the team's all star closer, Chris Perez, who is as famous for his comments as his fastball?” According to WAR, he was the 4th best pen arm after Pestano, Emil Rodgers, and Joe Smith. I think he will be traded for sure this offseason. The play of Cody Allen has opened this team up to moving a back end arm. If they can land an outfielder or a starter who can help, I think Perez is gone that very minute.  On that same note, I would not be shocked to see Smith moved either. This team can't afford to pay several relievers, no matter how good, and there are still a ton of guys ready to step right up and perform. The point is, you trade from a strength and try and fill other needs. 

There is a market for relievers out there. For instance, look at last year. Houston got a good shortstop for a pen arm and Oakland landed an all star type outfielder.  I think the Indians will be aggressive in trying to move pen arms to help the team.

As for the starters, not a single one was able to have a positive WAR last year. Masterson is in a “prove it” year, and I would not be shocked to see him back in the pen if he has another year like he had in 2012.  The team will pick up Jimenez's option, because they are, to steal a term, “pot committed” to him.  I expect the pitcher formerly known as Fausto might be back on a nonguaranteed type of deal. 

This is why the Indians fell apart. While they have interesting bats, the pitching is the worst I can really ever remember. For a team that uses WAR as much as they do, I think they will have to look at who is out there and what players can help them.  They had a rotation of 6-7 pitchers last year, and they were guys who were below replacement level. It was a staff that was built on players like Tomlin, Masterson, and Ubaldo, whose values were really based on years of over achievement rather than true value. This is why I see only one true core guy on the pitching staff. The rest have not performed or have not had enough time yet to really prove anything.

Next week I will have a list of the best free agents out there using the WAR model, and trying to find guys whose value might be under estimated that might allow the Indians to try and pursue them.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at

User Comments

October 29, 2012 - 8:56 PM EDT
Holy crap, after commenting on what a horrible defender Choo was, I just saw that Choo's a finalist for the gold glove. Am I crazy, or is there any award that's more of a joke? Two years ago, Choo was a good defensive player. He wasn't great at route-running, but he was okay, and his arm was deadly, he prevented a lot of guys from taking extra bases. Last year he still had the deadly arm, but he started doing a Trevor Crowe impersonation, which involves running in the wrong direction on a large % of fly balls, except he's slower than Crowe. Then this year, at least in the first half when I watched their games, he kept with the Crowe impersonation while adding more wild throws to his game. UZR is far from perfect, but he had the second lower UZR in all of baseball, and every metric has him near the bottom. It's like the gold glove selections are completely random, or whoever makes them hasn't watched a baseball game in 2-3 years
October 29, 2012 - 1:56 PM EDT
Rich, Choo is not the same level of player as those other guys and would get nothing like the return they got for CC, Lee and Victor. Makes no sense to me to trade him. If someone wants to give them a major-league ready outfield prospect for Choo, go for it, but if a team has a major league ready prospect, they would likely rather try that guy rather than Choo. They could probably get one lower-level prospect with some upside, like the Phillies got for Pence.

The TV revenue will undoubtedly drive up salaries for everyone, but it should also even the playing field somewhat, since everyone except the Dodgers seems to want to stay below the luxury tax threshold. But it would also seem like a good opportunity for a team in the Indians' financial situation to sign guys this year, at the current market value before salaries do increase, to contracts that pay more in years 2 and beyond.

Otherwise, it will be interesting to see what the Indians say about how they're not making money when they're getting like $50 million in national TV money alone. They could have an attendance of zero and still make money at their current salary level, and other than Choo, it's not like they have a bunch of impending free agents.
October 29, 2012 - 11:22 AM EDT
If Choo is traded, it likely happens in July if they are out of the race. Right now he is too valuable to them for 2013. Fans may think they can't win in 2013 - and that is probably right - but they are trying to win in 2013 and trading him leaves another hole in the lineup and the package they get in return is not all that great right now. They will continue to listen to offers on Choo this offseason, but they are probably best to wait and see what happens next season and probably would get as good or better a deal come July if they want to move him then.
October 29, 2012 - 11:13 AM EDT
FWIW, Santana's OPS as a catcher last year was .738 (349 ABs), as a DH it was .719 (95 ABs), and as a first baseman it was 1.131 (61 ABs).

The sample size at 1B was too small to be valid, but the fact that it was nearly 400 points higher than when he was catching is pretty interesting, especially since the Tribe has absolutely nobody on the roster capable of playing first base at a major league level as of right now.

If we could trade a reliever and a prospect for a good defensive catcher with an OPS of around .700, we could move Carlos to first base and fill two holes.

As for keeping Choo until his contract expires, I can't see that at all. They kept Manny and got nothing when he left, so they traded CC, Lee, and Victor before their contracts expired. Why would they keep Choo?
October 29, 2012 - 9:56 AM EDT
Seth, it won't change much because every other team gets the same windfall. Sure, the Indians could maybe bump payroll another 10-20M, but so can every other team. All it does is create a shift in the total payrolls and allows agents to get even bigger deals for their stars. So I don't see it affecting things much on the Indians front with regard to FA; however, I do see it helping them be able to retain players by extending them to deals prior to FA and potentially keeping a star or two on the brink of FA.
October 29, 2012 - 9:42 AM EDT
Tony, is there any consideration to the increase in national tv revenue that kicks in in 2014? From what I understand, it's a massive increase, as the contracts to all networks doubled, and should mean around an additional $25 million per team. So, they may only have $10-15 million in 2013 to spend, but if they and all teams get an additional $25 mil in 2014, doesn't that give them some flexibility to go after some guys on longer contracts that pay more down the line? No reason their team payroll couldn't be $90 in 2014 and still be in the black.
October 29, 2012 - 12:59 AM EDT
Bric, after arbitration increases to guys with the team, they likely will only save about $15-20M on contracts with guys leaving. Also, remember, they only save $10M on Hafner as they have to pay a $2.75M buyout. Also Jimenez, Choo and Raffy Perez are all expected back.
October 29, 2012 - 12:57 AM EDT
Where's the consideration of the $25-35 million saved?
Hafner, Sizemore, Hernandez, Kotchman, Damon, maybe Jiminez, maybe Chris Perez, maybe Choo, Rafael Perez, Hanahan, Duncan, are all gone, going, or maybe gone.
Antonetti & Shapiro may make add some solid players.
October 29, 2012 - 12:01 AM EDT
If the Indians trade Perez, I don't think Smith is dealt. He won't be paid nearly what Perez will be paid (about 1/3 or 1/4 the amound) and he would be the primary 8th inning setup option for Pestano. I don't see many setup options ready to step into the role...Cody Allen maybe....but he needs more time and experience first pitching in the 6th/7th next year. Also not many arms you can get on a 1 year deal under $3M to setup in FA/trade that are better than Smith. But I agree with Jeff, I think Perez is definitely gone this offseason.

Also I am with Jeff and way the Indians should move Santana out from behind the plate. He is one of the best offensive catchers in the game that can also play sound defense. He still has not shown all he can be defensively, and I think next year he starts to show his complete game more consistently.
Mike H.
October 28, 2012 - 10:23 PM EDT
Seth, glad somebody else commented on Choo's outfielding abilities. Choo has never read the ball well off the bat and when he does his route are often circuitous. On many occasions Choo has to make a diving effort or challenging reflex play because of his inability to read the ball initially. This season Choo's arm, once considered an incredible asset became more of a liability. Too often Choo would attempt to show it off and cause an unnecessary advance. He rarely hits his cuts often intentionally when he tries to make a play that is unsuccessful more often then not.
October 28, 2012 - 6:02 PM EDT
Rick, why do you think Santana calls bad games and doesn't "handle" pitchers? For what it's worth, Indians pitchers had an ERA of 4.70 when Santana caught, and 4.92 when Marson caught. Last year it was 4.21 when Santana caught, 4.33 when Marson caught. If there's great value in how a catcher calls games, handles pitchers and frames pitches, (and if Santana sucks at these things) shouldn't that show up somewhere in the numbers?
October 28, 2012 - 5:44 PM EDT
I disagree on keeping Santana at C. I think the value of a good catcher will increase the value of the pitching staff. Which I don't see in Santana (calling games, handling pitchers, framing pitches)...I know many people rate a catcher's defense based on how they control the running reality guys run more on pitchers than I think Santana will blossom at the plate if he is relieved of that responsibility....unfortunately I don't think the FO agrees.
October 28, 2012 - 4:53 PM EDT
Yes, what Adam said, and Masterson at 2.3 fWAR. I like b-ref's pitcher WAR as more of a statement of what they did that year, but fangraphs could be seen as more predictive of what they are likely to do in subsequent years. So in the context of this article, and evaluating who the core players are, you could make an argument that it's better to use Fangraphs WAR for pitchers.

Also, Choo's WAR the past 2 years likely puts him in the bottom half of MLB outfielders (above average in 2012, but below average in 2011). A lot of that this past year is the defensive metrics have him as awful, which pretty much agrees with what my eyes saw. Which is why I don't think the Indians can get enough by trading him to make it worthwhile. GMs have been known to make dumb trades, but trading a major league ready outfield prospect for 1 year of an average outfielder like Choo doesn't make a lot of sense.
October 28, 2012 - 4:36 PM EDT
For what it's worth, Fangraphs' version of WAR has Perez as #2 in the bullpen behind Pestano and ahead of Smith.
October 28, 2012 - 4:34 PM EDT
The Shapiro interview is very interesting. The part about "adversity to risk" in not signing Willingham pretty much sums it up. A player who averaged 2.3 WAR the previous 3 years, and you were unwilling to go to $21 million over 3 years ... so if he gets you 2.5 wins over the LIFE of the contract, then you got your money's worth, and you don't pull the trigger. Did they really think that wouldn't happen? His 2.9 WAR in 2012 wasn't exactly a huge over-performance, since in 2010 it was 2.6.

The Indians talk the talk when it comes to sabermetrics, but they rarely but their money where their mouth is. They need to stop letting their adversity to risk cause them to sink money into worthless players, and bypass someone like Willingham. $9 million gets you a win ... except you could've had Willingham for $7 and expected 2 wins from him. Kotchman and Cunningham combined for -2 WAR, and that isn't exactly surprising, since Kotchman put up an identical WAR in 2011 and Cunningham's also struggled to acheive replacement-level performance ...So just finding replacement level replacments for those two gets you two wins. So spending $7 million on Willingham in 2012, and getting a replacement level league-minimum player for Kotchman would've meant spending an additional $4 million and expecting something like a 2.5 win improvement and actually getting 5. If you're going to do an interview and spout WAR and win value, why do you make moves that are completely antithetical to that?
October 28, 2012 - 4:26 PM EDT

I agree Smith is in his walk yr, unless they sign him over a cpl yrs w/ a team friendly deal (unlikely) he's probably gone but he could last until the trade deadline.
I definitely think Perez gets moved this offseason and should bring back at least a SP or OF.
Choo should be moved this offseason with the hopes of landing either a SP or at least a major league OF and or 1b.
The more I look at this team, I could see them making several moves over the course of the season as well. Hopefully Jimenez rebounds somewhat and the Tribe can move him for at least 1/2 good prospects.

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