Friday, January 23, 2009

Southpaw Saviors?

In my last post, I highlighted the Carl Pavano signing and expressed concern about the state of the Tribe's starting rotation for 2009. While I'm still worried about a pitching staff sans-Sabathia, I think I did a poor job of backing up my opinion. I summed up my thoughts as such:

"No one behind Lee and Carmona can truly be counted on to a.) pitch effectively for most of the season b.) stay healthy or c.) not pitch like a rookie who is in way over his head."

This is a pretty broad statement without much evidence behind it. Amazingly, no one called me on it, but I think these issues warrant further investigation.

What should we expect from Aaron Laffey?

Laffey started the 2008 season in Buffalo as an emergency sixth starter for the Major League club, but was soon called to action after Jake Westbrook suffered a rib injury in mid-April. With Westbrook's subsequent elbow injury (and season-ending surgery) it seemed like Laffey wouldn't be making that long drive to Buffalo anytime soon. Laffey provided the Tribe with an exceptional backup to Westbrook and initially improved on his 2007 debut.

Year Age Level IP (GS) ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 GB/FB LD% Strike%
2007 22 AAA 96.1 (15) 3.08 1.16 7.01 2.15 N/A N/A N/A

MLB 49.1 (9) 4.56 1.34 4.56 2.19 3.32 18.8 62.2
2008 23 AAA 61.2 (11) 4.38 1.46 6.86 2.63 N/A N/A N/A

MLB 93.2 (16) 4.23 1.43 4.13 2.98 1.69 18.7 60.8

With the exception of two forgettable starts against New York (5.2 IP, 4 ER) and at Texas (5 IP, 8 ER), Laffey was very effective in his first 11 starts. The young southpaw averaged 6.23 innings per start with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 1.57 K/BB, and 1.60 GB/FB ratio over that span. At some point during his final six starts, Laffey started to experience difficulties with his throwing elbow. He got hit harder, surrendered more walks, and lasted fewer innings resulting in a 1.40 point jump in his ERA. After lasting just 3.2 innings in Seattle and getting torched for 8 ER in 4 IP in L.A., Cleveland sent Laffey back to Buffalo to smooth out some wrinkles in his mechanics. It's unclear to what degree, if any, Laffey's elbow was impeding his delivery at this point, but he did not fare much better in Buffalo, posting a 4.38 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 61.2 total innings in AAA that year. Those last two starts basically trashed Laffey's overall numbers. In his 14 starts before the All Star Break, Laffey had a 3.45 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 1.48 K/BB.

Despite struggling with his delivery and/or a strained elbow (again, I can't say for sure), several of Laffey's key peripherals from 2008 were still comparable to 2007. Even with a rough stretch in his final six starts, Laffey's line drive percentage and number of pitches thrown for strikes saw little change from last season. This is important because it shows Laffey's pitches were still fairly effective and batters were not driving his pitches any more than usual.

It's interesting that Laffey threw only 1.4% fewer strikes in 2008, yet his BB/9 rate jumped 0.79 points. The best explanation I can think of for that is that Laffey did not challenge batters to expand the strike zone as often as before. In 2007, a batter may have been more likely to offer at a breaking ball on its way out of the zone resulting in a ground or foul ball (both tallied as strikes), rather than a called ball. This theory is encouraged by a 6.4% drop in O-Swing%, or the amount of time a batter swung at a pitch outside the strike zone.

With all the reports of Laffey's delivery needing some work last season, it seems pretty likely that his pitches were not experiencing the same movement as before. If Laffey was unable to drive his breaking ball through the desired trajectory on a consistent basis, this could explain why his walk rate went up and his pitches failed to fool as many batters. Flatter or more erratic pitches could also lead to fewer fooled batters flailing into groundball outs, at least partly explaining the steep drop in GB/FB ratio. I'm fairly confident that any issues Laffey had with his pitches were directly related to his strained elbow. One good sign amidst Laffey's control issues was that his pitch velocity saw only negligible changes between the two seasons.

The key to Laffey's success is his ability to induce groundball outs. The only variables that changed since 2007 were the health of Laffey's elbow, his command, and his groundball production. Laffey's pitch selection, velocity, and strategy basically stayed the same. The fact that a specific, integral variable (the elbow) can be traced back to the other two troublesome variables is encouraging.

It's easy to forget just how few consecutive innings Laffey has logged in the Majors when it feels like (at least to me) he's been such a steady contributor to the team since their playoff run in 2007. Even though his experience and talent give him an edge over his contemporaries, Laffey has still not been guaranteed a spot in the rotation heading into Spring Training (Shapiro has hinted that Laffey is the frontrunner for the job, so this may just be to further competition amongst the lesser candidates). There is still some question as to how Laffey will perform over the course of an entire Major League season. This is certainly a valid point, since no amount of projections or speculation can truly predict how a 23-year old pitcher coming off an injury will perform over 170+ innings. That said, I still feel there's a strong chance Laffey will continue to improve on his two partial seasons.

The issues outlined above are unlikely to follow Laffey into 2009, especially since his delivery issues were caught and corrected early. Cleveland was wise to shut-down Laffey as soon as the elbow strain was diagnosed and has carefully monitored his performance since then. If Laffey's control reverts back to its 2007 form, his walk and groundball rates should go back to normal which will make him much more effective than he has been lately. I don't see any reason why this won't happen next season if Laffey is 100% healthy. I'm not sure if this will be Laffey's breakout season, but I do think he will establish himself as a full-time starter in the Majors. If I were to choose which fourth or fifth starter will go on to log the most innings this season, I would take Laffey over Pavano, Huff, Sowers, and Lewis.

Does Huff have the tools to succeed out of the gate?

Former first-round draft pick, David Huff, is expected to be a strong contender for the final rotation spot out of Spring Training. Huff pitched collegiate ball for two years at UCLA before signing with the Indians in 2006. The California native encountered little resistance in the lower minors and found himself in Buffalo in a little over two seasons. Huff's 2007 season with Kinston was shortened because of a strained ligament in his throwing elbow, but he suffered no ill effects from the elbow in 2008. Below are Huff's stats from the past two seasons:

2007 22 A+ 59.2 (11) 2.72 1.21 6.94 2.26 3.07 .302 3.33
2008 23 AA 65.2 (10) 1.92 0.88 8.50 1.92 4.43 .240 2.99

AAA 80.2 (16) 3.01 1.03 9.04 1.67 5.40 .291 3.15

I really can't find anything to complain about here. Huff must have had great coaches and preparation at UCLA because he hit the ground running in his first full minor league season and never looked back. His strikeout and walk rates improved significantly at each development level, despite having to make the transition from AA to AAA mid-season. In 213.2 career minor league innings, Huff compiled an outstanding 2.70 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. Huff's numbers hold up well on their own, too. When team defense is removed from the equation with FIP, Huff would still have averaged a 3.15 ERA.

Even when Huff appeared to be at risk of stumbling in his first season back from the elbow injury, his talent proved otherwise. A .240 BABIP, like Huff had in 65 innings at AA, would normally indicate a pitcher is playing over his head. Instead, Huff improved across the board after his promotion to AAA, raising his BABIP to a more sustainable .291 in the process. Obviously, that last hurdle between AAA and the Majors is the biggest, but Huff seems as prepared as anyone to make a successful transition.

Despite having just over 200 innings of professional experience, Huff's maturity as a pitcher shines through in his performance. Tony Lastoria describes Huff's abilities:

"Huff is a strike-thrower who has excellent command of his pitches. His fastball consistently clocks in at 88-91 MPH, and his changeup is a plus pitch and ranked one of the best in the country coming into the draft. While he does not overpower hitters, he has unbelievable confidence in his fastball, and commands it well working it to both sides of the plate and to the corners on all four quadrants. He has the best fastball command in the entire system, and is a very polished pitcher. He is aggressive and attacks hitters, and he has a great, athletic delivery which deceives hitters and he repeats it well.

The key to Huff's future will be the development of an effective breaking ball as a third pitch to use against left-handers. He does throw a curveball, but it still needs a lot of work, and his slider is just average."

Huff's lack of a go-to breaking pitch may prove to be a challenge once he starts to face Major League hitting, but those pitches should have improved considerably by the time Spring Training starts (the scouting report I quoted is over a year old at this point). One trait that should serve Huff well in his rookie season is his ability to aggressively attack hitters in all parts of the strike zone.

At first, Huff reminded me of another left-hander who relies heavily on control. Jeremy Sowers' career mirrors Huff's in several ways. Both pitched in college, cruised through the minors, and were primed for their MLB debut by age 23 (assuming Huff joins the team this year). Sowers' career minor league stats are also similar (414 IP, 2.50 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 8.4 H9, 2.2 BB9, 6.7 K9), except Sowers was never the strikeout pitcher that Huff is. Leading up to his MLB debut, Sowers saw his strikeout rate decline at least a full point at each development level, settling in at 5.0 K/9 over 97.1 IP in 2006. Sowers was able to raise his K rate in two Buffalo stints in 2007 and 2008 to 5.7 and 6.4 respectively, but never duplicated that success in the Majors. Huff followed the opposite path, elevating his K rate by 2.10 points between A+ and AAA.

Also, if Huff's fastball range of 88-91 MPH sounds like something typically associated with "crafty" lefties, it's worth noting that Cliff Lee averaged just 90.5 MPH with his fastball last season. An 89 MPH average doesn't seem so bad for a pitcher who actually has the ability and the guts to challenge hitters on all parts of the plate.

If Huff's strikeout rate distinguishes him from Sowers, how does he compare to past pitching prospects? Below are the career minor league stats for two other left-handed pitchers who eventually stuck in the Majors:

Player IP ERA WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 K9
C. Lee 427.1 3.37 1.27 7.2 0.8 4.2 10.2
C.C. Sabathia 246.2 3.44 1.30 7.3 0.5 4.4 10.4
D. Huff 213.2 2.70 1.07 7.5 0.7 2.2 8.3

It's interesting to note how Lee and Sabathia made up for a lack of control with high K rates, while Huff had significantly better control with a lower, yet still strong, K rate. This may not mean anything at all, but it's fun to look at.

As far as I'm concerned, Huff doesn't have much left to prove in the minors. It's possible that Sowers will get one last shot at the Majors before the team makes a final decision on him, but it looks like the next wave of prospects has finally caught up to Sowers. Considering Cleveland's fourth starter is Carl "anecdotal adjective" Pavano, they'll need all the pitching depth they can get. However, unless Pavano crashes his Ferrari into the foul pole at Goodyear or something, Huff is a long-shot for the final rotation spot (I'll be surprised if Laffey doesn't get it). The good news is that as soon as Pavano inevitably implodes, the team can simply eat his meager salary and plug in Huff. Until then, Huff will probably be this season's emergency starter in Columbus.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pavano Adds Cheap Depth to Tribe Rotation

I had a hunch Cleveland was going to make at least one more signing with whatever meager funds the front office could scrape together. Fortunately, the final signing was prefaced by the general manager stating “the lion's share of our resources have been committed,” so I knew not to get my hopes up. Still, Shapiro is one of the best around at identifying low risk, high reward players, stretching every available dollar, so something had to be up. Who will Shap’s rehab project be in 2009?

Cleveland fans, meet your new left fielder…..Sammy Sosa!

No, just kidding (sorry to anyone who just did a spit-take onto their monitor). Seriously though, Carl Pavano? I know the front office is basically broke at this point, but if we had a significant hole to fill couldn’t we have traded for someone? Please? Oh well, I guess Scott Boras doesn’t accept coupons.

Obviously, I’m not thrilled with this signing, partly because it’s such a crap shoot as to whether Pavano will be effective enough to justify even using him in the rotation. The last time King Carl (apparently this is the moniker Yankee fans bestowed upon him, very distinguished) made at least ten starts in the Major Leagues was when he managed to toss 100 innings over 17 starts with a 4.77 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 2005. That was by far the most productive season New York wrung out of Pavano during his four year, $38 million contract (your turn, Burnett). Here is Pavano’s body of work over four seasons with New York, not including his minor league rehab starts:

2005 17 100.0 4.77 1.47 3.11 1.53 1.59
2007 2 11.1 4.76 1.24 2.00 0.79 1.29
2008 7 34.1 5.77 1.49 1.50 1.31 0.96

I’m not sure why I bothered to add any extra peripherals to the table, since the sample size is either too small or nonexistent for the past three seasons. I’d say the lack of substantial innings from 2006 to 2008 sums up Pavano’s performance as well as anything. Despite enduring a stretch that would have ended the career of most pitchers, Pavano managed to get healthy enough to net a new contract. It seems like Pavano’s mini-comeback over seven starts from August 23 to September 25 played heavily into Shapiro’s decision to choose him over the likes of Mark Mulder, Bartolo Colon, and Freddy Garcia.

Mulder is still trying to get healthy (1.7 IP in 2008) and has struggled with his health just as much as Pavano lately. Colon gave Boston some solid emergency starts, but was back in the minors rehabbing by mid-June. I watched Garcia’s September start against Chicago and his pitches did not look Major League ready, even after rehab. In terms of cheap starting pitchers returning from injuries, Pavano really was the best bet.

Shapiro provided his take on Pavano’s recent activity in an interview on the team’s website:

"This is not a guy you're guessing is going to come back. He made seven starts [in August and September] last year, with no problems. He's in great shape right now. He's strong, fit and highly motivated."

I can understand the potential Shapiro saw based on those seven starts. Again, small sample size, but let’s take a closer look at those starts for lack of better information:

Team IP ER H BB HR K Strike % GB/FB
at BAL 5.0 3 7 1 0 5 59.3 2.25
TOR 6.0 1 3 1 0 1 58.3 0.3
at TBR 4.0 3 1 2 1 1 59.4 0.62
at LAA 5.1 5 6 1 2 2 62.1 0.87
TBR 5.1 3 5 2 1 3 61.0 1.42
BAL 5.0 2 6 1 0 2 64.3 1.28
at TOR 3.2 5 8 2 1 1 59.4 1.66

Pavano’s best and only quality start came against Toronto when he posted 1 ER, 3 H, 1 BB, and 1 K over 6 innings. He did manage to provide at least five innings of work in five of the seven starts, but with mixed results. Pavano’s numbers indicate a pretty bland performance, averaging 10.7 hits and 2.6 walks per nine innings with an ERA of 5.77. His other peripherals are much more interesting though.

Even though he averaged over a hit per inning, Pavano improved the percent of pitches he threw for strikes over his first six starts (59.3% to 64.3%). The fact that Pavano was not afraid to attack the zone and stuck to his game plan suggests he at least has some confidence back. Second, according to FanGraphs, Pavano’s O-Swing % of 27.0% (percent of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) and F-Strike % of 55.8% (percent of first pitches thrown for a strike) are stronger than they were in his 2005 season with New York.

Again, the F-Strike % suggests Pavano is willing to be aggressive and attack hitters; good news for a pitcher who tends to rely on location and control to get outs. Unfortunately there isn’t any Pitch f/x data available for Pavano (too few pitches), but if he’s causing batters to swing at his pitches outside the zone at a fair clip I think it’s safe to assume his pitches have some decent life. If Pavano has re-worked his stuff to the point that he can fool batters consistently again, his lack of velocity becomes less of a concern (for comparison, Pavano’s average fastball velocity of 87.9 MPH is over 2 mph faster than Paul Byrd’s).

The renewed life on Pavano’s pitches and his aggressive nature are probably what Shapiro was referring to when he cited those seven starts. Shapiro also has a point in citing Pavano’s motivation to succeed in 2009. If this guy has any pride at all (athletes at this level usually do), he’ll be working his butt off to prove everyone (especially New York) wrong. The tools to achieve modest success are there, but Pavano’s health is going to have the final say no matter what.

Performance aside, I really can’t argue with the way Pavano’s contract is structured. Pavano’s one year contract guarantees him $1.5 million with another $5.3 million locked up in performance incentives. His incentives package is broken down by starts and innings, as described by Cot’s:

Starts: $0.1M each for 18, 20, 22; $0.2M each for 26, 28; $0.25M for 30; $0.3M for 32; $0.35M each for 33, 34; $0.4M for 35

Innings: $0.1M each for 130, 140, 150; $0.15M each for 160, 170; $0.2M for 180; $0.25M each for 190, 200, 210; $0.3M for 215; $0.4M for 225; $0.5M for 235

An easier way of reading it is if Pavano starts 20 games and averages 6 innings per start, he will earn an extra $0.1 million. If he were to average 6.5 innings over the same 20 starts, he’d earn just $0.2 million. Thirty starts (!) at 5.5 innings per and he’d earn $1.2 million in incentives.

Even if Pavano exceeds all expectations and starts 20 games for Cleveland, they’ll only be paying him about $1.6 million for his services. There’s a remote chance Pavano makes even 10-15 starts this season, but if there’s any chance that Cleveland could get some quality innings out of Pavano then it’s worth betting the $1.5 mil to see what happens. Many fans are comparing Pavano’s deal to the one-year contract Kevin Millwood had in 2005, but I don’t see much similarity beyond the structure of their contracts.

Millwood was guaranteed $3 million with up to $4 million in incentives, most of which focused on his ability to stay healthy (he would have lost money for each day spent on the DL). Millwood more than earned his keep that year by posting a 2.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 2.80 K/BB ratio over 192 IP. In addition to mentoring Sabathia and Lee on the finer points of pitching, Millwood finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting and won the AL ERA title. Plus, Millwood had averaged 34.5 starts, 219.5 IP, and a 114 ERA+ from 2002-2003 before succumbing to injury in 2004 and had a more reliable track record than Pavano ever did.

Cleveland is taking a shot in the dark with Pavano, since no one can draw any kind of reasonable conclusion as to whether he’ll be effective or healthy enough to even hold down a spot in the rotation. Shapiro has gone on record saying if Pavano is healthy, he will be guaranteed a spot in the rotation on Opening Day. What type of pitcher will show up in April is anybody’s guess, but I’m hoping for at least $1 million worth of quality innings until Westbrook is 100% healthy again. I have a feeling the Indians aren’t hoping for much more than that either. I suppose if Pavano can’t make it until July (Westbrook’s projected return), Plan B would be to see if one of the plethora of rookies sticks as a temporary starter.

I still have an uneasy feeling about Cleveland’s rotation, not unlike how I felt when Borowski was designated closer at the beginning of last season. There are just too many “ifs” involved right now. Lee can’t be expected to carry the rotation on his back all season, even after an outstanding Cy Young campaign. If anything, Cleveland should be vigilant about Lee’s workload and pitch action after he threw a career high 223.3 innings (Lee is also aware of this issue, ensuring extra training/recovery time by skipping the WBC).

Meanwhile, the 24-year old Carmona spent most of 2008 trying to get back on track after enduring a hangover from the 215 innings he logged in his sophomore season. I feel that Carmona’s ability to return to form is the key to Cleveland’s rotation this season, even more so than Lee. There’s little reason to think Lee won’t live up to his ace status with another strong season (even with the typical regression), but there is a lot of pressure on Carmona to bounce back and be a legitimate number two starter.

I really like Anthony Reyes’ upside, but he started just six games with Cleveland after a couple of rough seasons in St. Louis. Six starts is not a lot to go on, so it seems Cleveland is banking on his potential to breakout at age 26 in his new surroundings.

Aaron Laffey (93.7 IP, 105 ERA+) and Jeremy Sowers (121 IP, 80 ERA+) both struggled in Cleveland last season, although Sowers did bounce back in Buffalo with a 2.08 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 2.52 K/BB ratio over 60.2 innings (when has he not bounced back in Buffalo though?). Scott Lewis (4 GS, 24 IP) and Zach Jackson (16 GS, 92 IP) have limited experience as ML starters. Twenty three year old David Huff rounds out the group of young southpaws with a strong 2008 season in AAA, but no ML experience. There are no signs of Cleveland deviating from their plan to convert Adam Miller into a full-time bullpen arm, so he won’t be available as a starter in 2009.

I realize the five pitchers I just named are mostly under consideration for one rotation spot, although I would consider Pavano’s spot wide open as well. My point is that no one behind Lee and Carmona can truly be counted on to a.) pitch effectively for most of the season b.) stay healthy or c.) not pitch like a rookie who is in way over his head. Maybe I’m just being paranoid about the Tribe’s pitching after having to suffer through the heinous nightmare that was the 2008 bullpen. In my pessimistic opinion though, the starting rotation could be this year’s Achilles heel.

Fun Fact:

After the C.C. Sabathia trade on July 7, Cleveland finished the season with a 44-30 record (.594 WP), including a 10 game winning streak from August 17-27. A .594 WP on the season would have qualified for the AL wild card.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

DeRosa Completes 2009 Infield

The Tribe's 2009 infield appears to be set. Cleveland acquired uber-utilityman Mark DeRosa from the Cubs for Jeff Stevens and two other minor league pitchers on New Years Eve. Unlike Cleveland's three previous trades where a veteran player (Sabathia, Blake, Gutierrez) was dealt to bolster the farm system, the team did not have to give up any established Major Leaguers to fill their infield hole. Word on the street is that Chicago is trying to trim their payroll to bring in a free agent (probably Milton Bradley), although I'm surprised they gave up such a versatile player in DeRosa.

DeRosa is similar to Casey Blake in that he can play solid defense at several positions. He saw most of his starts at second base (80) and the corner outfield positions (53), with a few starts at third (10). He has split the majority of his career between second, third, and short over eleven Major League seasons. DeRosa received limited playing time in his first five seasons, but finally broke through at age 31 with Texas (coincidentally, he was in line for a new contract that year). Rather than level out after securing a new three-year contract, DeRosa developed into a valuable starter for Chicago and posted career highs in homeruns, OBP, and runs scored in 2008.

Mark DeRosa 2006-2008 Seasons

2006 TEX 31 572 13 .357 .456 108 14
2007 CHC 32 574 10 .371 .420 102 17
2008 CHC 33 593 21 .376 .481 118 23

Last season, DeRosa was tied for third among all starting ML second basemen in OBP (only Utley and Brian Roberts had a better mark). Perhaps even more impressive was that his .376 OBP tied for fifth among all starting ML third basemen as well (only Aramis Ramirez, David Wright, ARod, and Chipper Jone were better). He is projected to bat second in the order, a spot that has been a bit of a revolving door under Manager Eric Wedge (hopefully DeRosa can provide some stability here). I'm pretty optimistic that DeRosa will continue to post strong offensive numbers because his ability to reach base relies heavily on walks, rather than just a high batting average or pure speed. DeRosa had 147 hits in 574 PAs with a .371 OBP in 2007. He was able to boost an already outstanding OBP by five points in 2008, even though he had three fewer hits and 19 more PAs. His pitch selection at the plate has also improved for three straight seasons, with a 0.43, 0.62, and 0.65 BB/K ratio, respectively.

DeRosa's power numbers are expected to decline some due to the switch from Wrigley Field (1.163 HR park factor) to the Jake (.824 HR park factor), but 13-15 homers are certainly possible. With the exception of a freakish spike in homers (21 in 2008, career high of 13 at the notorious Rangers Ballpark in 2006), DeRosa's numbers don't show any of the typical warning signs of an imminent decline. His linedrive percentage has remained steady for the past three seasons (22.3% average) and his 2008 BABIP of .325 was actually very close to his career mark of .320, so it's not like DeRosa was performing any miracles last year.

If Choo ends up as the starting right fielder, DeRosa is a perfect fit to platoon there against left handed pitching. Choo has a career .913 OPS against righties, but has just a .703 OPS against lefties. DeRosa owns an .847 career OPS against lefties. Carroll tends to have more success against left handers as well, making him the logical choice to man third with DeRosa in the outfield. DeRosa also finally gives Cleveland a prototypical second-slot batter with an excellent OBP to follow Sizemore in the lineup. DeRosa's matured patience at the plate, above-average baserunning, versatility on defense, and playoff experience provides the Tribe with a significant upgrade over Jamey Carroll, Andy Marte, and Josh Barfield.

Now, the first thing I thought of when we picked up Mark DeRosa was: didn't we just trade this guy? And what happened to his beard? Personally, I think DeRosa is a better overall player than Blake and I really like this trade. Some fans may be wondering why Cleveland traded away three pitching prospects for a player comparable to Blake though. First, Cleveland got back a ridiculous amount of value for Blake. Twenty-two year old catcher Carlos Santana is an absolute stud in the minors and is the heir apparent to Victor Martinez behind the plate right now (assuming Victor signs beyond 2010 and moves to first base, that would be awesome). As if that wasn't enough for Blake's expiring contract, the Dodgers threw in a young, cheap, future closer candidate in Jon Meloan.

Second, the exclusive negotiating period Cleveland would have had by keeping Blake in a lost season wouldn't have mattered one bit, since the team was never interested in keeping him long-term anyway. I was happy to see Blake get a good contract (he's actually been an above average player for the past five seasons, so he deserved some job security), but he just wasn't a good fit for Cleveland at this point.

Blake ended up with a three year, guaranteed contract worth $17 million (he'll be making $5 mil next year). It's not a stretch to say Cleveland had Blake at his peak and the Dodgers signed the 34 year-old with his most productive seasons behind him. Projected performance aside, there wouldn't have been room for Blake on the roster beyond the 2009 season. Luis Valbuena is a strong candidate to take over second base in a year, which would move Peralta to third. Top third base prospect Wes Hodges is also on track to make an impact by 2010 as well. So if Cleveland had met Blake's demands to fill an urgent need for 2009, they would have basically been stuck with a very expensive bench player once the next wave of young (and more talented) players emerged.

DeRosa is a much better fit for Cleveland because he only has one year left on his contract and is actually half a million cheaper than Blake was in 2008. Cleveland needed to bring in a veteran infielder one way or another so they didn't have to gamble on a rookie infielder or mess with yet another replacement level platoon. Plus, if DeRosa plays well enough to become a Type-A free agent when he walks at the end of the season, Cleveland could quickly recoup the loss of one of the Single-A prospects they traded.

Just for fun, let's compare Cleveland's former third baseman to recent acquisition DeRosa. I added Jamey Carroll to show what the team would have had to settle for if they hadn't of picked up DeRosa, since a platoon of Valbuena and Carroll was really the only viable infield option available in-house (I don't have much faith in Barfield).

Indians Infielders 2008 Stats
Player Age PA HR OBP SLG OPS+ WS 2009 Salary
C. Blake 34 601 21 .345 .463 110 18 $5 mil
M. DeRosa 33 593 21 .376 .481 118 23 $5.5 mil
J. Carroll 34 402 1 .355 .346 85 10 $2.5 mil

DeRosa was significantly better than Blake in every category last season, while Carroll doesn't stand up to either player. In fact, DeRosa's OBP pretty much crushes Blake's over the last two seasons (especially 2008). Blake also trails in OPS+ by eight points and falls just short of DeRosa's average performance the past three seasons (108.3 vs. 109.3 OPS+). Perhaps the best indicator of the type of upgrade Cleveland made at third is the difference in win shares. DeRosa was much more valuable to his team last season, with a five point advantage over Blake in total win shares. I think the team would be more than happy to pay that extra half a million to DeRosa if he can contribute a couple extra wins for 2009.

I don't feel like Cleveland had to give up much to acquire DeRosa from the Cubs. Jeff Stevens is the only player ready to make a contribution at the Major League level, but his role with the club was uncertain in such a crowded bullpen. Meanwhile, the 19 year-old Archer and 23 year-old Gaub seem to have a lot of potential, but are both still developing as players. The way I see it, Cleveland traded away an extra, unproven bullpen arm and two potential relievers who are still multiple years away from contributing (if they ever make it to the Majors) for a low-risk, relatively inexpensive veteran infielder that they absolutely needed.

For more information on the three pitching prospects above, I would highly recommend Tony Lastoria's blog. I seriously wouldn't have had any idea who Archer or Gaub were without Lastoria's scouting reports, so check it out.