What happened to spring? You know, that time when hope bounds and there's nothing but positivity surrounding every team. Well, okay, surrounding most teams, but you get the idea; spring is gone. With fifty games in the books, it's time to start addressing reality (in case you haven't done so already). The whole "it's still early" thing went out the window a couple of weeks ago and now we're left deciphering what's transpired to date.
Perhaps no one sold me more hope before the season than the Cleveland Indians. With a developing core of players and a few additions over the last couple of seasons, they seemed primed to actually challenge the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central title. And by "challenge," I mean at least make things interesting since the Tigers have been the heavy favorite all along. Still, what's taken place thus far has been anything but overwhelming. Rather than "make it interesting," the Indians are in last place in the central with a .480 winning percentage (through 5/24). They're projected to finish right around .500 and, according to FanGraphs, have a 26.9% chance of making the playoffs (one should note that their projected playoff odds are relatively strong, but that there is a pack of teams, including the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees, Orioles, Mariners and Royals all in the same neighborhood, meaning the wild card race should be (appropriately) wild).
So what happened? The answer, of course, is a lot of things. Pitching, notably that by the rotation, has been lackluster. The staff as a whole has allowed 4.80 runs per game, fourth-worst in baseball. Despite the breakout of Corey Kluber, the Tribe's starting staff has allowed the second-most runs in the American League, trailing only the White Sox. A rotation ERA of 4.76 doesn't make things look any more rosy, but there are reasons why we don't use ERA to evaluate pitchers and, well, the Indians are a pretty good example of that.
With the second-best K/9 rate in the AL (8.66), excellent ground ball numbers (46.5%), a non-disastrous home run rate (0.98 HR/9) and a crazy-high BABIP (.331), we can see some encouraging signs for the rotation. It all adds up to a 3.76 FIP, tied for fourth-best in the AL with the Oakland A's. The recent swap of a struggling Danny Salazar for a flame throwing and finally effective Trevor Bauer should make a significant impact when coupled with the expected regression.
The bullpen shouldn't get a free pass, although they've issued plenty of them. As a group, they've been pretty average, surviving the struggles of John Axford, thanks in large part to the stability provided by Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen and a few others. They could certainly use some help and either they may look to acquire it or they could use Salazar in some sort of Lincecum-eque reliever capacity. Either way, this group has merely been average and at least they're not the Pirates.
Where the team gets interesting, however, is on the position player side of the equation. During the 2012 offseason, Cleveland made two big splashes in signing free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. This clearly showed the belief by the Cleveland organization that they thought they were on the cusp of contending. They made a statement in inking these two outfielders; they were ready to enter the fray.
Swisher's deal was considered a good one (4-years, $56 million plus 2017 vesting option). He compared well to the recently-departed Shin-Soo Choo and came with a price tag that reasonably matched his production. It wasn't necessarily a bargain, but the Indians surely didn't overpay for a consistent veteran. Michael Bourn, on the other hand, fell into Cleveland's lap in a way. While I'm sure they were interested in the veteran center fielder, he was still around late into the free agent cycle and came to the Tribe on another solid deal (4-years, $48 million plus 2017 vesting option). Like Swisher's contract, Bourn's was very reasonable given the player he had been over the past four years.
As you're likely aware, the Indians went on to make a playoff run last year after signing Swisher and Bourn. They lost 94 games the year before, making 2013 run to the postseason even sweeter. For their part, Swisher and Bourn combined for 4.5 WAR, not quite meeting expectations. Swisher rated poorly on defense and was above average offensively while Bourn was the exact opposite. Together, they were a productive pair of players but hardly the engine that drove Cleveland to the playoffs.
That engine, of course, was made up of Cleveland's young core of players, many of whom the Indian's spent the 2013 offseason signing to extensions. This process started with then-catching star Carlos Santana in the offseason of 2011. With exquisite power and an ability to play behind the plate (or so at least they thought), Santana looked like the kind of player a team would want to sign to an extension, which they did. The true value of the move may have been questionable considering it only secured one free agent year, but it could have also potentially saved the team a sizeable amount of money if Santana were to develop into a true offensive force.
This trend continued into the 2013 offseason with the contract extension of outfielder Michael Brantley in February (4 years, $25 million plus 2018 team option). His four-year deal was reasonable, especially considering he had posted above average offensive numbers for two seasons while playing decent defense in left field and has an ability to slide over to center when needed. The team followed up this shrewd move with another, signing emerging catcher Yan Gomes to another team-friendly extension (6 years, $23 million). Gomes, while possessing a short resume, was a superior defender behind the plate to the previously-extended Santana and posted 3.7 fWAR in only 88 games in 2013. Catchers who can hit and defend are hard to come by and it wasn't exactly a surprise when he supplanted Santana behind the dish (and Santana "filled" a void at third base).
The crown jewel of this whole rebuilding process was cemented in April of this year, right before the start of the regular season, when the Indians locked up second baseman Jason Kipnis (6 years, $52.5 million plus 2020 team option). Kipnis, of course, is considered one of the best players in the game despite the fact that he was a bit of a late-bloomer. He didn't become a permanent major league fixture until he was 25 but made his impact felt immediately once inserted, combining for 7.6 fWAR over his first two full seasons. He's expected to rejoin the team any day now after a month-long DL stint due to an oblique strain.
So, while we can see what the Indians have done to secure players, we have to ask whether it's paying off. After all, the goal is to win games, which they're not currently doing enough of, not impress the advanced metrics crowd with some potentially smart contract extensions. As mentioned in the open, I was impressed with the team-friendly deals handed out to young players, both securing the services of above average contributors and making sure the organization wouldn't have to pay free agent prices for the talent they developed. Take a look at these six deals, then let's discuss how it's looking so far.
|Player||2014 Age||Years||Option (club/buyout)||Dollars||AAV||Oliver WAR over Contract|
|Carlos Santana||26||5 (2012-2016)||2017 ($12/$1.2)||$21||$4.20||21.7|
|Nick Swisher||33||4 (2013-2016)||2017 (vesting)||$56||$14||6.4|
|Michael Bourn||31||4 (2013-2016)||2017 (vesting)||$48||$12||10.2|
|Michael Brantley||27||4 (2014-2017)||2018 ($11/$1)||$25||$6.25||7.5|
|Yan Gomes||26||6 (2014-2019)||None||$23||$3.83||24.8|
|Jason Kipnis||27||6 (2014-2019)||2020 ($16.5/$2.5)||$52.5||$8.75||25.5|
Okay, so right off the bat the Swisher and Bourn deals look mediocre-to-poor. This is largely due to the money they're guaranteed, but the production has been underwhelming, too. Swisher is really scuffling in 2014, but Bourn isn't exactly lighting the world on fire either. Kipnis, as was just mentioned, has spent a good chunk of 2014 on the shelf while Santana has struggled to get going at the plate. Gomes and Brantley have largely carried the team so far with a 151 and 124 wRC+, respectively.
The long-term outlook for these players, and the Cleveland Indians, is much larger than the fifty games that have been played, however. Swisher and Bourn may not reach the expected value they were thought to provide. Each needs to amass around 9 wins over the course of their four-year contracts (2.33 wins per season) to reach the accepted free agent win cost of $6 million per win. So far, Swisher has contributed 1.8 fWAR and Bourn has been 2.5 fWAR over 2013 and the first fifty games of 2014. Bourn isn't far off the pace but Swisher is lagging behind and news of a knee injury is surely troublesome.
The four extensions are in a different category. Santana, Brantley and Gomes all signed deals that would almost be hard not to live up to given that they don't completely flame out. It's conceivable that both Gomes and Brantley could contribute enough value this season, provided both stay healthy and continue raking, to cover the cost of their entire contracts. Santana is behind that mark significantly, but has been bitten by bad luck (.177 BABIP) and should be expected to regress at the plate while playing a somewhat poor third base defensively. His true talent level is too high to expect him to toil all year long.
Jason Kipnis signed the richest deal of the four players extended but still provides an opportunity for Cleveland to extract a large amount of surplus value. Taking inflation into account, Kipnis is nearly a lock to produce at a level that vastly exceeds the money he's owed. At just 27, the next six seasons should cover his prime in its entirety and with his track record, Indians fans should rejoice at what they have at second base.
Despite the tough start, I'm still hopeful for the Cleveland Indians. Not only do they have a great chance to enter the wild card fray before the season is over, but they have the pieces in place contend for a long time. The money owed to Nick Swisher, and, to a lesser extent, Michael Bourn seems less palatable when compared to what the team has given Santana, Brantley, Gomes and Kipnis, but that's the price you pay when you shop the open market. And, it would seem that those contracts aren't necessarily keeping the team from acquiring other players, although it surely doesn't help. Perhaps a boost to the pitching staff is in order, and if it happens, Indians fans should thank the front office's savvy contract extensions for making it possible.
*Stats via FanGraphs, contracts details via Baseball Prospectus
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