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.

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