Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Browns and Cavs Kickin' It Up a Notch

I'll take a look at LeBron James' blazing start later this week (school permitting), along with my thoughts on those lovable Browns. For now, just take a moment to soak in the performance of Cleveland's teams right now:


7-4 overall
Won 5 of their last 6
1 game out of first
Winslow and Edwards are awesome


9-6 overall
4 game win streak
Tied for first
LeBron is ridiculous

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Uno Masa

The signing of free agent pitcher Masahide Kobayashi was announced by the Tribe on Tuesday. Kobayashi is a 33 year old, right handed reliever who has pitched for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan the past nine seasons. In typical Shapiro fashion, negotitations were kept under wraps until the last minute and came as a surprise to Cleveland fans. Kobayashi received a 2-year, $6 million guaranteed contract with a $3.25 million club option or $250,000 buyout for 2010.

Kobayashi owns a 2.79 career ERA and is one of Japan's all-time best closers. Masa has saved 227 games in his career and has at least 20 saves for seven straight seasons and has over 30 saves in four of them. Only Kazuhiro Sasaki and Shingo Takatsu have saved more than 200 games in the Pro Yakyu league. Kobayashi posted a K/BB ratio of 4.0, giving up just .095 HR/IP the past three seasons. His ERA jumped from 2.68 to 3.61 between 2006 and 2007, but the Tribe are confident Kobayashi will revert to the mean (see career ERA above).

Kobayashi is a step up from the Tribe's recent bullpen depth signings. He has a proven track record as a closer, making him a solid backup for incumbent closer Borowski. Masa's role has not been clearly defined yet, but look for him to bolster Raffy Betancourt in the setup slot. In addition to providing insurance for JoeBo, the Tribe finally has a veteran reliever to backup Betancourt and allow him to rest. Betancourt threw a career 79.3 regular season innings in 2007 and could use the extra help.

Depending on his effectiveness, Kobayashi, Rafael Perez, and Jensen Lewis may end up in a game of musical chairs for the 6th and 7th innings. No matter what the order, Cleveland projects to have an effective late inning relief corps, once again.

This is all contingent on Kobayashi making a successful transition to the Majors. There are a few question marks surrounding Kobayashi, but his track record and scouting report indicate a solid addition to the pen. The article on the team's website provided a brief scouting report:

Nate Minchey, an international scout for the Tribe, saw Kobayashi pitch six or seven times this past season, and club scouting director John Mirabelli saw him live twice, as well. What they saw was a confident strike-thrower with a three-pitch mix that includes a fastball that maxes out in the mid-90s, a two-seam fastball that cuts in on right-handers and a mid-80s slider with a hard, downward break. Kobayashi also has a deceptive delivery.
Mirabelli described Masa's slider as his "out pitch" and noted his durability. Here is a highlight video of Masa from MLB.com.

The Tribe did not have to deal with a posting fee and drafted a reasonable contract with low risk and a high reward. The primary risk is how well Kobayashi's pitches will translate to the majors. Given the track record of top-shelf Japanese releivers like Sasaki, Saito, and Okajima, this could end up as a steal compared to pricey free agents like Francisco Cordero and Scott Linebrink. Signing Kobayashi helps to further distribute the load on the bullpen and the Tribe should be better as a result.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Name That Injured Cavalier!

I'm starting to feel like a broken record talking about the Cavaliers, but yet another player has succumbed to injury. Larry Hughes will be sidelined four to six weeks with a deep bone bruise in his left knee, according to the Plain Dealer. Hughes sustained the injury from a collision with Phoenix's Leandro Barbosa on November 4.

Hughes was averaging 27.3 minutes, 6.8 points, and 2.3 assists per game with a miserable .293 FG% on the season. I'm torn in my opinion on Larry Hughes right now. On one hand, he's been a major disappointment; on the other, he's almost been set up to fail expectations with that ridiculous contract he was given. Everybody knew Hughes' body was fragile before he signed a 5 year, $60 million contract with Cleveland in 2005. Ferry had to have realized this guy had some serious health risks involved, but he overpaid for him anyway. After Hughes missed 46 games in '05-'06, 12 games (including Games 3 and 4 of the Finals) in '06-'07, and now up to 13 games to kick off this season, I'm beginning to sense a pattern. I didn't include Hughes' time away for family reasons, as those events were beyond anyone's control and don't belong in this argument.

I know it's a little hypocritical of me, since I took a soft stance on Ferry's lack of off-season acquisitions this year, but what are the Cavs going to do now? Well, not much except tough it out and hope for the best. There's no Plan C; even if Hughes was healthy, he was a non-factor so far this season. Cleveland needs help in multiple areas right now, some of which could have been fixed only in hindsight, but Ferry's fragile investment at point guard took a bad time to make its presence known again.

Terry Pluto suggested the Cavs talk to guard Earl Boykins about a one year deal (before Hughes went down). Boykins played 33 Min/G for Milwaukee last season, averaging 14 points with a .427 FG%. Pluto said Boykins did not fit well into Coach Brown's defensive big-man scheme, so Cleveland passed on him before. A player that may not be a good fit for the team shouldn't be forced on the head coach, but I hope Cleveland is at least exploring their options.

Sasha Pavlovic will be the one to pick up Hughes' minutes, starting alongside Daniel Gibson in the backcourt. Gibson has been one of Cleveland's best players so far, averaging 32.3 Min/G and posting a .567 FG%, .585 3P%, and a .833 FT%. I don't think anyone's worrying about Gibson (except for opposing teams).

Pavlovic on the other hand, has struggled since returning to the team after his holdout. Since signing his new contract, Sasha has sunk only 28% of his field goals and made minimal contributions off the bench. He's actually averaging more turnovers (1.50) per game than assists (1.3). It seems unlikely that Sasha is still trying to get back into playing form after jumping into the season sans-training camp (could he really be that out of shape?). The culprit for his poor play is, at least in part, an injured back. Pavlovic has been having back spasms and had to sit out the November 12 game against Denver. If he's playing with a cold shot and a bad back, don't expect any major contributions from Sasha on offense until he's healthy again.

Despite the team's injury woes, it's still fairly early in the season. If the team had been playing better than it had before Hughes went down and Pavlovic's back started acting up, I wouldn't be nearly as concerned about the current situation. There is still a lot of basketball to be played, but the Cavs are going to need to step up as a team to make it through such a rough start.

It's curious that the Cavs have endured all this negative press and analysis, but have yet to field a team at full strength. They're currently own a 5-5 record and sit 1.5 games below Detroit and hold the seventh best record in the East above 4-5 Washington. If all the injured players return and the team is still playing poorly, then there's obviously a bigger problem, but that time hasn't come yet. How can this team not improve once the injuries heal (the injury to Varejao's brain not withstanding)? The trick is holding on long enough until they do.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Scouting Fukudome

A recent article reminded me that outfielder Kosuke Fukudome was eligible for free agency this year. Fukudome is one of Japan's biggest stars right now and currently plays for the Chunichi Dragons of the Pro Yakyu League.

Coincidentally, Chunichi was in the same boat as Cleveland until they ended their 53-year championship drought this season. I used to go see Chunichi play spring training games during my time in Japan and still try to keep up with the team.

At any rate, I'm familiar with Fukudome in name only; most fans have only seen his few at-bats in the World Baseball Classic. Scouting reports and comprehensive stats on Pro Yakyu players are hard to come by, but I was able to find some good info via JapaneseBaseball.com (if you're interested in learning more about the league and its culture, that's a great place to start).

By the Numbers

Fukudome has followed in the footsteps of Ichiro and Matsui as one of the premier super-stars in Japan and his performance on the field backs up this assertion. Fukudome’s breakout season was in 2002 when he posted a .343 Avg, .537 Slg, and .406 OBP at age 25. 2002 was also the same year Chunichi moved him from the infield to center field (his infield defense was a liability once he reached the Majors, hence the move).

2002 608 85 186 42 19 56 4 96 .406 .537 .943
2003 617 107 165 30 34 78 10 118 .401 .604 1.005
2004* 404 97 97 19 23 48 8 93 .367 .569 .936
2005 612 102 169 39 28 93 13 128 .430 .590 1.020
2006 578 117 174 47 31 76 11 94 .438 .653 1.091
2007 348 64 79 22 13 69 5 66 .443 .520 .963

*Represented Japan in the 2004 Sydney Olympics

Fukudome continued to improve offensively, hitting 34 HR the following season. He reached the 30 HR mark in 2006 and just missed it in 2005 with 28. Fukudome has a tendency to draw walks and a reputation as a doubles machine (he set a league doubles record with 47 in 2006). His usual approach seems to sacrifice power for more control. There seems to be a rough correlation between his K rate and HR totals, but this pattern can be found in many players. Fukudome has good pop in his lefty bat and should still pose a solid power threat in the Majors.

Even if Fukudome’s power totals were to slip after he crosses the Pacific, he still has a superb OBP to fall back on. Fukudome has posted at least a .400 OBP five of the past six seasons, with 2005-2007 resulting in career highs in OBP. He has decent speed on the base paths, legging out all those doubles, but is not a major base stealing threat. Fukudome’s plate discipline, doubles production, and power potential would make him a good fit at either the top or heart of the lineup.

Scouting Report

Mike Plugh of Baseball Prospectus provides a scouting report on Fukudome’s game:

Most important among his skills is his batting approach, which relies on patience and a level left-handed swing. At roughly 6'0" and 190 pounds, Fukudome isn't a classic slugger. There is power in his bat, but it's of the line-drive variety. His hands are quick and he handles the inside pitch very well.

As I've watched Kosuke over the years, the few weaknesses I've noticed come against soft throwers, who like to go away, or down and away, against Fukudome. He'll chase high and inside on occasion, but looks worst when flailing at an offspeed pitch tailing low and outside.

On defense, Fukudome is a very good right fielder. His right arm is a gun, and has helped him to earn four Gold Gloves in Japan. Japanese baserunners, even of the speediest variety, have learned to run conservatively against the Dragons.

Where his lack of lateral quickness hurt him as an infielder, Kosuke's good athletic ability and fast legs are assets to him in tracking down balls. Generally, he gets good reads off the bat and reacts quickly to get into solid, fundamental position to make a catch and throw.

Below is a video of a Fukudome at-bat. You can see a slow motion of his swing and follow through at the 55 second mark.

Is There a Need?

What would Fukudome be replacing if he came to Cleveland? The Tribe’s left field platoon was among the worst in the majors as far as overall offensive production. Below are the splits for an average American League left fielder and Cleveland’s total production in left for 2007:

Left Field Production PA R H HR BB BA OBP SLG OPS
AL Avg. 2007* 650 N/A 147 15 49 .275 .335 .426 .760
CLE 2007 (Platoon) 673 N/A 156 15 51 .259 .315 .404 .719

*Adjusted per 162 games or 650 PA

One could argue that upgrading a slot in Cleveland’s lineup is a luxury, not a need, but that doesn’t mean the Tribe shouldn’t shop around. Cleveland’s left field was significantly below league average in OBP and Slg last season, so I think the need for an upgrade exists. The defense was also a bit shaky with Dellucci and Lofton manning the corner, so a strong arm with some range in left would make an already solid defense even better. Lofton may already be gone and Dellucci and Michaels can be moved via trade. If Cleveland were to acquire a potential All Star like Fukudome, it would be easy enough to accommodate him on the roster.

What’s the Contract Situation?

Fukudome has been relatively healthy over his career, but suffered from pain in his right elbow in July of 2007. He played in just 81 games this season because of the injury and underwent arthroscopic surgery in August. I have not heard any reports regarding the surgery aftermath or his recovery timetable. The elbow is more of a question mark than a risk, given his healthy track record. Fukudome will be 30 when he signs his next contract, but his recent numbers show no signs of decline.

Judging by the strong interest he has already received from other teams, his health is not a major concern and should be set for 2008. The Cubs and Red Sox are rumored to be the front runners for Fukudome’s services, which is already bad news for smaller market teams. The Red Sox do not have as strong a need for an outfielder as Chicago, although Coco Crisp could be on the move. Chicago recently dumped outfielders Jacque Jones and Craig Monroe, making a free agent signing seem even more likely for them. With Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones leading the pack, many teams may turn to Fukudome as a cheaper alternative. Fukudome has yet to make his team preferences known.

Fukudome is said to be looking for a three year deal with an anti-arbitration clause allowing him to hit free agency at 33. For comparison, Hideki Matsui received a 3 year, $21 million contract from the Yankees, with an escalating payroll scale. Cleveland paid $5.75 million for Michaels and Delluci in 2007, so $7-9 million per year may be viewed by some as a reasonable contract for Fukudome. It depends on how much you want to gamble on Fukudome making a good transition to the majors. If big-payroll teams like Chicago and Boston become aggressive though, you can bet Shapiro won’t hang around long in a bidding war over Fukudome.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Shapiro Named Exec of the Year

General Manager Mark Shapiro was named the 2007 Baseball Executive of the Year by the Sporting News. Shapiro was awarded the honor during the GM winter meetings in Orlando on Monday. Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd (another Cleveland protégé) trailed Shapiro in votes, 13 to 11. The award is Shapiro’s second in three years. What makes Shapiro’s win all the more impressive is the fact it was voted on by his peers. Forty seven baseball executives were eligible to vote this year.

How awesome is the Tribe’s front office and coaching staff? In addition to fielding one of the best major league clubs, Cleveland boasts an outstanding farm system and some of the best minds in MLB right now. The organization’s success and numerous job offers flying at Tribe employees are evidence enough. John Farrell, former Director of Player Development, was hired as Boston’s pitching coach last season. Joel Skinner was apparently in the running for Pittsburgh’s next managing gig, while Neal Huntington moved up from special assistant to Shapiro to Pittsburgh’s GM.

Assistant GM Chris Antonetti fielded not one, but two GM job offers from other teams this season, but turned down both so he could stay in Cleveland. Now, one of those offers was from Pittsburgh, but the other was from the St. Louis Pujols’. That’s a serious statement about the respect Cleveland commands. According to a persistent rumor, owner Paul Dolan was willing to guarantee Antonetti the GM job down the road, making him the heir to Shapiro. Shapiro would become the Club President, but the time table for all this is still unknown. Like I said, it was just a rumor. Either way, it looks like Cleveland’s Dynamic Duo isn’t going anywhere, which is great news.

Plus, we have Louis Issac, who might as well be the team’s mascot at this point. Analyze that, Billy Beane.

Maintaining an elite front office team like Shapiro and Antonetti is as significant as keeping the one-two punch of Vic and Pronk together, or extending Wedge’s contract. All three provide a stable foundation for the team to continue to build on, rather than having to take a big step back every time key personnel leave. Keeping the front office intact from the top-down ensures the outstanding pattern of player development and acquisition Jon Hart created will go unbroken for years to come. Hart, Shapiro, Antonetti: all have played key roles in the franchise’s success from the 90’s to the present, with Shapiro working as Hart’s Assistant GM.

Hopefully I can get a handle on the Tribe's Hot Stove ventures this week. I hear Jason Bay is available....

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Cavs Stumble in Utah

Cleveland lost on the final shot of the game, 103-101, in Utah on Wednesday. Cleveland could have won the game, but 18 (!) turnovers, excessive fouls, and missed free throws kept them from surpassing an equally sloppy Utah squad. The Cavs were 37-85 (43.5%) from the field and made just 65.5% of their free throws (19-29). They edged Utah on the boards with 47 rebounds and 7 blocks. Utah shot slightly better (45.9 FG%), but crushed the Cavs from the free throw line. The Jazz collected 1/3 of their total points from free throws, going 34-40 (85%) from the line.

It's always frustrating when the difference in the game comes down to free throws and this game was no exception. Utah was crashing the boards all night and seemed to collect many of their penalties in the second half. Cleveland looked lost trying to slow down the league's highest scoring offense, racking up quick fouls. Cleveland's inability to stop Utah in the paint was an issue all night. The Cavs would have brief spurts where it looked like they executed their defense properly, but struggled to keep up at other times.

Utah's aggressive approach really derailed the Cavs' comeback attempts, since they struggled to make clean defensive stops for long stretches. All five Cleveland starters finished with at least four fouls, with Gibson fouling out late. It may not have affected Coach Brown's game plan much, but his best sniper was on the bench with Cleveland down by three in the last few plays of the game.

I could go on all night about the little mistakes and apparent confusion the Cavs had on both ends of the floor, but I'll just chalk it up to an ugly game.

Cleveland had a few hot-streaks though, trailing by just 4 to end the first half and tying the game late in the third quarter. The Cavs sped up the pace of play on both ends of the floor in the third, allowing them to climb back in the game. Cleveland ran the ball more on offense and devastated Utah on the boards during their run. The defense swarmed the paint, preventing the Jazz from finishing plays or collecting many second chance shots. The game was tied at 101 with 6 seconds left in the fourth, but the Cavs earlier mistakes caught up to them as it came down to the last possession for Utah.

LeBron James was outstanding, finishing with 32 Pts, 15 Reb, and 13 Ast for his 11th career triple-double. Gooden had a bad night (2-11), while the bench contributed just 4 points. I don't think Coach Brown has much confidence in his bench right now. Ilgauskas (18 Pts, 14 Reb, 4 Blk) and Gibson (3-4 3PM, 4 Stl) were bright spots. Pavlovic still looks rusty, exhibiting a few mental lapses with bad turnovers (not entirely fair; the whole team turned it over tonight). He doesn't seem to have his shooting touch back either, despite his 17 points tonight. It's hard to say the team had a bad night judging from the box score, but the 101 points smooth over flaws in the team's overall play. Also, I don't like picking on LeBron, but he really needs to get his free throws straight. The King went a very mediocre 7-15 from the line on a night where fouls played a crucial role in the final score.

Utah never dominated the game; it was more like Cleveland just kept shooting itself in the foot with stupid mistakes. The Cavs certainly showed signs of life, but I got the sense this team is unable to operate as smoothly as it used to. The absence of two key bench players in Marshall and Varejao is hurting the Cavs depth off the bench and making consistent, quality play more difficult to maintain. The absence of Snow and Hughes to help run the floor puts most of the burden on LeBron to set up plays. I've discussed the Cavs' many injuries before, but after watching them live, I think injuries are the primary contributor to the team's poor play right now.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Varejao Still on Vacation; Shannon Out in '08

What exactly is going on with the Cavs right now? First, they make no significant free agent signings and no trades. To be honest, I was busy watching the Tribe’s playoff run to monitor the NBA free agent market too closely, but I don’t think the Cavs necessarily failed in the acquisition department. Granted, I have no idea how close they came to getting Garnett (rumor alert), but who did people expect Ferry to go out and get? Mike Bibby? Wow, another aging, over the hill, guard. No, thanks. My beef is how the team’s two restricted free agents were handled.

Again, it’s tough to tell who’s been more unreasonable: Ferry or the players (or the agents). Fortunately Pavlovic is coming back, but not before missing two games. Pavlovic is said to have received a 3 year deal around $4 million per year.

Varejao still seems to think he’s worth a heck of a lot more than he really is. I’m not sure who’s done the bulk of the negotiating on behalf of Varejao to this point, but they should be fired. Varejao is pretty good at what he does, but there are very few teams where he would be starting. Whether Varejao is asking for too much or the Cavs are offering too little is difficult to decipher. Cleveland certainly wants to bring Varejao back, so it’s probably safe to say they’re offering him fair market value. The issue seems to be Varejao’s unrealistic expectation of what his market value really is.

Pavlovic played twice as many minutes per game than Varejao last season and seems to have a higher developmental ceiling. Varejao is valuable to the team from a depth perspective, given his versatility and rebounding ability, but he is not a critical piece of the puzzle for the long-term. Since Gooden and Ilgauskas are still with the team, it doesn’t seem like Varejao will see a significant increase in minutes either. So why is a role player rumored to be demanding a king’s ransom? Hopefully, details of these negotiations will be released soon after a deal is reached. The Plain Dealer reports that little progress has been made in negotiations.

The Cavs are looking pretty ragged already and the season’s just started. The roster has not been at full strength because of injuries and holdouts. Eric Snow has a left knee tear dating back to early October; he won’t be back for at least another week. Donyell Marshall will miss several games with a wrist injury. Forward Cedric Simmons has been battling an ankle injury, but may be called on to play now that Marshall is out. Varejao has apparently lost his mind. I suppose the good news is, the team can only get better from here on out.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Cavs locker room is a little tense right now. My concern is a combination of discontent and injuries will put the Cavs in a funk, followed by a drop in the standings. Cleveland lost to Phoenix on Sunday and faces Golden State, Utah, the Clippers, Sacramento, and Denver on their six game road trip. You would hope the Cavs could handle the likes of Sacramento and LA, but there’s something about those West Coast swings that always seem give Cleveland trouble.

On Shannon Brown

I wasn’t too thrilled about this move. Cleveland has never had a real chance to evaluate Brown in the NBA, since a serious leg injury derailed his rookie season for 2006-2007. Now, with a grand total of 6 minutes playing time in his sophomore season, Cleveland has announced they won’t be exercising his third year option. The Cavs must have seen something good in Brown to draft him, so why the sudden turn around?

Brian Windhorst provided a scouting report of Brown on his blog:

Brown did not play well in summer league in my opinion, even though his scoring stats looked good. He scored a bunch of points in the preseason but did not handle the ball well, shoot the ball well or make good decisions.

Isn’t that like judging a baseball player on his Spring Training performance?

In addition to his poor showing in the preseason, Cleveland had until midnight, October 31 to make a decision on Brown’s third year option. I understand the timing of it, but I’m curious if the decision was discussed with Brown beforehand. I doubt carrying that kind of uncertainty into the season is going to do Brown’s game any favors. Cleveland may look to use Brown as trade bait, but wouldn’t he have been more attractive if he didn’t become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end?

This move would make some sense if Cleveland had a replacement lined up, but I haven’t heard any rumors on player movement. I suppose Cedric Simmons would qualify, but he hasn’t proven anything either and could easily be a non-factor. Not only did Cleveland waste a valuable draft pick, but they never gave him the proper time to mature. Brown may not be a perfect fit on the roster right now, but what makes Ferry so positive he won’t improve? Drafting a player is a long term investment, not a movie rental; you don’t get your money back if you make a poor choice. Plus, it’s not like the Cavs are in a position to be releasing players this season; not after failing to acquire any outside talent.

Even if Brown makes positive strides this season, he’ll likely feel snubbed by Ferry and walk. If Brown does leave, the Cavaliers will have made two draft picks in two years and retained only one in Daniel Gibson.

Don’t Look Now…

…but here come the Browns. No really, stop laughing. Your Cleveland Browns are 5-3 after beating Seattle 33-30 in overtime on Sunday. How about that? If Baltimore beats Pittsburgh on Monday, all three teams will sit with 5 wins going into Week 10. Even I’m a little excited about that, and I’m not even a big football fan. Actually, I’m more of a cautious (i.e. fair-weather) Browns’ fan, as it took a long time for me to come back to the team even after the despised Butch Davis skipped town.

The way the team has been drafting and acquiring players the last couple years piqued my interest though and I’m very pleased to see the team doing well again. The Browns are 2-1 in their division and 2-2 against teams with a winning record. Are the Browns truly contenders this season? I think so, but their next game against Pitt will go a long way in measuring their progress. Cleveland has built a three game win streak and a fourth may propel them into the playoff hunt. You never know…

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Super-Delayed Shapiro Conference Impressions

The press conference may be over a week old, but whenever Shapiro addresses the media it’s worth discussing. Here’s what I got out of his State of the Tribe conference:

Trot and Kenny are Gone

The language Shapiro used while discussing Trot Nixon and Kenny Lofton made it sound like neither player would be returning for 2008. Shapiro cited Nixon’s leadership role as his greatest contribution to the Tribe. Fans have been hearing about Nixon’s mentoring all season, not to mention the rally pies. Obviously Nixon struggled in the field this season, but I think his off-the-field contributions made a bigger impact than fans truly realize.

Listening to Shapiro and Wedge discuss Nixon’s role so prominently only reinforces my assumption. Referring to Nixon, Shapiro said "whether he's here or not, [he’s] going to make a lasting impact on this team." In other words, Shapiro knew (roughly) what he was getting as far as Nixon’s potential contributions and it sounds like he was satisfied with the team’s “investment.” Shapiro also compared Nixon’s influence to that of Kevin Millwood on a young pitching staff in 2005.

Now that the Tribe is battle-tested in the playoffs and more youngsters are scheduled to arrive from Buffalo, Nixon’s imminent release shouldn't come as a surprise. Lofton’s release may have been disheartening to many fans, though. I’m a big Lofton fan, but I think the decision to let him walk is the correct one. Lofton’s endurance and possible decline in performance are legitimate questions, even though Lofton had a successful campaign at age 40. The Tribe has too many young outfielders who either deserve a shot or are at least as good as a healthy Lofton would be. Lofton filed for free agency on Tuesday; he made $6 million last year.

Roster Stability

Cleveland is in a rare and enviable position this off-season. Every player on the roster is potentially under team control for 2008, excluding free agents Nixon, Lofton, and Chris Gomez.

Shapiro made a strong suggestion that Cleveland would pick up Joe Borowski’s $4 million option, but still left the door open for other options. Those other options are a near lock to come from within the organization, as the closer options through a trade or signing are bleak. If Borowski stays on for a role other than closer, Betancourt is the obvious choice to succeed him. Chances are Wedge would be pitching Raffy and Joe in the 8th and 9th no matter what the order, so why make any change at all? Despite each pitcher's ability, disrupting the comfort they have in their respective roles could backfire. Perez and Lewis have an outside shot at closer, but I honestly don’t see Borowski losing the closer job if brought back.

Aaron Fultz will likely be brought back as well, providing extra depth and a veteran alternative to any rookies in the bullpen for 2008.

Shapiro’s stated "free agen[cy] by nature is so inefficient,” dropping yet another hint that he will be ultra-conservative over the winter. My guess is the biggest splash Shapiro makes in free agency is picking up a Fultzian reliever to add another layer of security to the bullpen. The team has certainly learned its lesson in gambling with the bullpen; the more options available, the better.

Interestingly enough, Shapiro cited Lewis and Perez as “on the radar” in 2007. I think it’s safe to say few fans were expecting those guys to make such an impact, but apparently Shapiro had them listed as legit options. With all the pitching depth in the minors, look for a couple other guys to come out of nowhere in the bullpen again next season.

Position Battles

Spring Training 2008 will feature three major position battles; much more exciting than the Inglett-Luna-Rouse free-for-all featured in 2007. Secondbase is the most significant, in my opinion, as it could indirectly determine the future of Marte and Barfield with the Tribe. I see both guys making the roster, but their roles and subsequent evaluations are unclear.

Shapiro explicitly mentioned upstart Asdrubal Cabrera as having a “prominent role” on the team in ’08. He wouldn’t explain what that role was yet, laying the foundation for a whole winter’s worth of fan speculation and analysis....thanks, Mark! I’ll be going into greater detail on the Tribe’s infield in a later article.

Left field and the fifth rotation slot are also a logjam this off-season. Choo was explicitly mentioned during the conference, with Ben Francisco, Jason Michaels, and David Dellucci rounding out left. This is assuming Gutz starts in right full-time, of course. Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, and Adam Miller are the main competitors in the rotation. I purposely left off Lee because I’m convinced he’ll be traded soon (and he stinks).

Sabathia’s Contract

Shapiro’s comments on Sabathia were one of the few concrete answers given. He indicated the goal was to have Sabathia's contract situation settled by the start of spring training. Shapiro made it clear he doesn't like to set specific timetables (see the surprise, mid-season contract extensions this year as proof), leaving the option open for a longer negotiating window. I think it will be difficult for Shapiro to negotiate with Sabathia once the season starts, unless the two sides are close to a deal. Sabathia has stated in the past that he doesn’t like to negotiate during the season.

With a short shopping list and few contracts to wrangle, Sabathia will benefit from the full attention of the front office this winter. If Sabathia truly wants to stay with Cleveland, I think we’ll hear a deal announced before April. The ownership has shown a strong commitment to increasing payroll and extending core players (Hafner and Westbrook), so C.C. should be no exception. Shapiro will likely have the green light and funding from Dolan to be aggressive, but if Sabathia wants too many years or just doesn’t feel the desire to stay, the California native will likely head to the West Coast.

Alex Rodriguez may play a minor role in Sabathia’s plans for ’09. The Dodgers and Angels are both rumored to be front runners for Rodriguez’s services this year. Signing Rodriguez could potentially make a serious dent in either team’s free agent coffer, making an already expensive Sabathia less attractive in a stacked ’09 pitching market.