Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cleveland May Skip Weak Free Agent Market

With the annual GM Winter Meetings starting on Monday in Indianapolis, there will be a flurry of activity surrounding the free agent market. Obviously, the rebuilding Indians aren’t going to be spending much money on free agents this off-season, but that didn’t stop new manager Manny Acta from dropping a few hints about what he wants for Christmas.

According to an interview on Castrovince’s blog, Acta was open to the possibility of bringing in a veteran starting pitcher (because “you can never go into Spring Training short on pitching”), a right-handed utility infielder to cover first base (in case LaPorta is still ailing in April), and possibly a veteran starting catcher (in case the rookie backstops are overwhelmed in managing the pitching staff). I’m not sure I agree with Acta’s assessment, but to be fair this was meant as an “ideal” scenario as far as what holes he would fill to bolster his young team in the short-term.

Representing the front office’s point of view heading to Indy, Shapiro gave the impression that he won’t even be shopping for his usual bargain bin signings this year:

"We don't have a defined need. We want to get better and improve and offset the volatility that goes with young players, but we don't have the pressure of having to complete a trade or sign a free agent."

That “volatility” associated with the team’s young players is basically another way of saying “we’re not totally sold on these guys to carry the team next season.” The level of confidence the front office has in players like Andy Marte, Jordan Brown, and Carlos Carrasco will be a key point in dictating how aggressive Cleveland is on the free agent market (the pitching staff seems to be garnering the most buzz in this regard). Jake Westbrook’s performance with Ponce of the Puerto Rican winter league may also influence how inclined the team is to pursue a veteran starting pitcher to help stabilize a comparatively inexperienced rotation.

It may seem odd to hear Acta casually mention adding a veteran starter when the team already has a healthy Westbrook on track for Spring Training. I’m pretty confident that Cleveland will be shopping Westbrook this season though, which would leave a significant void in the rotation. Westbrook is owed $11 million in 2010, so there will probably be some pressure from ownership to move his contract. Right now, it’s a matter of timing.

Cleveland may know Westbrook is healthy, but it would be wise to showcase him against major league competition to further boost his trade value. Barring any setbacks, I’d place Westbrook’s return value maybe a notch or two above Pavano (which yielded pitcher Yohan Pino from the Twins). The fact that Pavano was due only about $1.5 million and Westbrook will be guaranteed significantly more than that could make him less appealing as a stop-gap acquisition for a contender. Then again, Westbrook is a better pitcher than Pavano to begin with and has been known to go on ridiculous hot streaks, so concerns over his price tag may be dampened heading into the mid-season trade deadline.

Either way, it’s doubtful Westbrook is moved this winter due to his recent health issues and lack of major league innings. Interest in Jake will probably start to gain steam as the season matures and contenders start to contemplate holes in their rotations.

Even if Cleveland decides to pursue a pitcher, are there even any veteran hurlers on the market worth signing? Guys like Jarrod Washburn, Rich Harden, Vicente Padilla, Justin Duchscherer, and Jon Garland are beyond the Tribe’s price range. John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez are interesting options, but it would be to their advantage to stay in the National League and their endurance makes them a poor fit for a team that would be looking for innings to lessen the workload of their developing arms. Plus, Pedro may command a decent raise with his performance in the playoffs for Philly last year.

As intriguing as it would be to have a veteran like Smoltz or Martinez mentoring the pitchers, isn’t that what the coaching staff is for? If they sign a free agent who is only available to pitch half the time (or less) because of durability issues, they’d essentially be paying $2-5 million for a part-time player and an extra coach. This doesn’t seem like an especially wise use of a roster spot or what limited funds are available to improve the team.

Granted, there is a different dynamic involved when comparing a player-coach and player-player relationship. There could certainly be some aspects to the latter teaching arrangement that I am undervaluing or are non-occurring between a player and a formal coach. Still, now doesn’t seem like an appropriate time to bring in that type of player given the team’s financial struggles and abundance of available arms.

Also, it’s not as if the rotation would consist of a bunch of fresh-faced rookies right out of the gate. Laffey (264.2 IP) and Masterson (217.2 IP) have been up long enough to understand the game and what’s expected of them at this level, even making an appearance in the postseason. Huff spent much of 2009 in Cleveland and appears to be ML ready. With 395 and 498 innings logged in the Majors over four seasons, Sowers and Carmona are well-seasoned, despite their individual struggles (I’m carrying over my prediction from last year: if Carmona doesn’t get it together the pitching staff is in big trouble regardless). Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon are another story, but again, their development track ultimately falls to the coaching staff.

The team will have some juggling to do in managing their starters. Carmona is a lock for the rotation, although Sowers’ role is less certain; both are out of minor league options. Masterson offers some flexibility in that he can move back to the bullpen, but I think the organization has a strong desire to test him as a starter for now. If that’s the case, Sowers may be used as a long-reliever. This could yield more work than you’d think, especially if Carmona or others have trouble going deep into games or the team wants to manage the workload of certain pitchers.

Carrasco will likely start the season in Columbus as an emergency starter or whenever Westbrook’s rotation spot opens up via trade. Due to a lack of experience in the upper minors and service time considerations, I’d be surprised if Rondon was called up before the second half of the season.

And in case you were wondering, Anthony Reyes will likely miss the entire 2010 season as he recovers from ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, so he’s a non-factor. Scott Lewis (remember him?) spent most of 2009 trying to get healthy in the minors, but could contribute at some point in 2010 (no idea when or in what capacity though).

Below is how I see the Indians’ rotation shaking out to start the season:

1.) Westbrook

2.) Carmona

3.) Laffey*

4.) Masterson

5.) Huff*

6.) Sowers* (bullpen/emergency starter)

7.) Carrasco (Triple-A)

* Left-hander

There are always a few surprises when it comes to distributing starts over a season, which means players in Columbus like Chuck Lofgren, Yohan Pino, or Zach Jackson could enter the fray at some point. For an example of this unpredictability, see Tomo Ohka’s six starts with the Tribe in 2009.

Returning to the question of a free agent signing, does Cleveland have enough starting pitching depth to make it through the season without over-exposing their prospects? This is literally the (multi) million dollar question for Cleveland. It’s not an easy question to answer, especially if you factor in the possible departure of Westbrook. On the one hand, there just aren’t many quality, affordable starters on the market. On the other, the team will only need that additional starter in the event of an unlikely string of injuries or a drastic failure in performance by multiple pitchers, paired with a trade that may or may not occur (plus there always seems to be a journeyman available on waivers to eat innings).

Assuming Cleveland has around $5 million to work with (based on what I’ve heard, this could be a generous guess), wants a veteran presence, and doesn’t want to commit to more than a one year deal, who’s available this off-season?

Bartolo Colon

Colon fell off the radar following his 2005 CY-winning season with Anaheim. He suffered a torn rotator cuff in the 2005 postseason and was limited by shoulder soreness and trips to the DL for much of the ’06 and ’07 seasons. Colon found some success in 2008 on a minor league deal with Boston, averaging 5.57 innings over 7 starts with a 118 ERA+, 1.38 WHIP, and 2.70 K/BB ratio. He signed a $1 million contract with the White Sox in 2009, making 12 starts over 62.1 IP (5.17 IP/GS) with a 111 ERA+, 1.44 WHIP, and 1.81 K/BB. It’s unclear how much injury hindered his 2009 season, but Colon’s decision to withhold an inflamed elbow from the team contributed to his release in September.

Assuming he hasn’t held a grudge about being traded to Montreal and still has a strong desire to pitch, a return to Cleveland could do wonders for his focus. Cleveland’s training staff is also among the best in the league and may keep him healthier than he’s been in the past. His endurance is questionable, but when healthy the 36-year-old has been able to provide quality innings and appears to have enough left in the tank to be a serviceable fifth starter. Colon could be worth taking a flyer on as there would be minimal risk involved in a minor league deal. I’d consider him more of a depth signing than a true starter though.

Livan Hernandez

You want an innings eater, this is the guy (just don’t expect anything special). Livan Hernandez has been adding to his journeyman status the last four seasons, bouncing between Washington, Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado, the Mets, and back to Washington. During that time, the 34-year-old righty has averaged nearly 200 innings per season, which is sort of remarkable considering what he’s tossing out there on a given night.

Considering the Mets and Nationals ranked near the bottom of the league on defense last year, Hernandez really wasn’t that bad. Over 31 starts he posted a 4.44 FIP, 1.56 WHIP, 1.52 K/BB, and 1.10 GB/FB over 183.2 IP. Ok, so he does allow a ton of baserunners and the 22.3% line drive rate is a bit steep, but hey: that’s 180 fewer innings you don’t have to worry about distributing amongst the youthful rotation or an assuredly busy bullpen (quantity over quality in this case).

Unless the Indians can come away with some sort of coup elsewhere, Hernandez is probably my favorite candidate to play the role of veteran starter/innings eater/insurance policy for the rotation. The Mets picked him up on a minor league deal last February with a base salary of $1 million, plus some modest performance incentives. It seems reasonable for Hernandez to look for a similar deal this year, although he may not be thrilled at the prospect of another minor league stint.

I think Cleveland holds an advantage over most teams in this case, since they could essentially guarantee Hernandez the type of playing time others can’t (although other non-contenders could also provide ample innings, so this may not be that strong of a bargaining chip). If the organization feels this is the best safety net for the rotation in 2010, it would be realistic for them to flip Westbrook’s salary at some point while bringing in Hernandez on a one-year, $1-2.5 million deal.

Kelvim Escobar

Escobar had to have his right shoulder surgically repaired prior to the 2008 season and he’s been trying to get healthy ever since. Escobar’s comeback trail has been littered with various aches and pains, forcing him into a prolonged rehab period that stretched into the entire 2009 season. After sitting out all of 2008, he made his only major league appearance of 2009 in a June 6th start, but simply didn’t have enough strength in his shoulder to continue pitching. As he approaches the two year mark since his surgery, Escobar plans on showcasing his arm in the Venezuelan Winter League this winter and may work out for individual teams in January (according to Jerry Crasnick at ESPN).

The fact that Escobar is advertising his participation in winter ball indicates that he is fairly confident in his health this time around. However, it is unclear if he can still be an effective starting pitcher, as his velocity and endurance have likely taken a significant hit due to the severity of his injury. It may also take time for him to re-adjust to pitching in the majors and become comfortable working in the strike zone again. This re-adjustment could be difficult if he suddenly finds himself without his 94 mph fastball (I’m not sure if he’s been able to further integrate and improve his off-speed pitches in the meantime).

Escobar may ultimately end up as a reliever to help preserve his fragile shoulder. Angels manager Mike Scioscia entertained the idea of shifting Escobar to the pen before having to shut him down completely in 2009. It would make sense for both parties to have Escobar spend a large portion of 2010 as a reliever. This would reduce the risk involved for whoever signs him, since he would be cheaper and easier to replace if he were to land on the DL. It would also benefit Escobar, since a back-end bullpen gig would provide a low-pressure environment against major league competition in which to test his shoulder and get acclimated.

The Red Sox, Rays, Orioles, Yankees, Mets, Mariners, and Brewers have all been connected to Escobar through the rumor mill, so there would be plenty of competition for his services if Cleveland decided to enter the mix. All of those teams, minus the Rays, could probably offer a more lucrative contract than Cleveland, not to mention a chance to play for a contender (Orioles excluded).

Cleveland could certainly offer an incentivized minor league deal, but the salary ceiling for those incentives would fall short of the field. The Tribe’s lack of disposable funds should keep them on the sidelines, but Escobar isn’t exactly worth pursuing anyway as he does not meet the team’s needs at this stage of his career.

Ben Sheets

I had been casually mulling the idea of Cleveland bringing in Ben Sheets on a Pavano-Plus type of contract: a low base salary of $1.5-3 million, but with a higher salary ceiling and better incentives contingent on innings pitched and time spent on the DL. Even if the only way Sheets would sign is if he had the chance to make $6-8 million after incentives, Cleveland could still ship him to a contender for a prospect or cash at the trade deadline if he stays healthy and pitches like the Ben Sheets of old. It sounded like a good idea, until I heard how much Sheets is looking for in his next contract.

$12 million guaranteed, if the report is to be believed. I understand his agent is trying to get a good deal for his client, but considering Sheets had surgery on a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow last February it’s sort of amusing to see that kind of figure suggested. The only way Sheets is going to come close to that amount is if he signs a heavily incentivized contract and stays healthy enough to meet all his performance goals. No team is going to give him $12 million up front; something had to have gotten lost in translation here.

At any rate, the 31-year-old Louisiana native has not made a major league start since September of 2008 before the elbow injury cost him a chance to make his first career post-season start. Sheets was fairly impressive en route to a 3.38 FIP, 1.15 WHIP, and 3.36 K/BB over 198.1 IP (31 GS). If he can replicate those numbers, he’d certainly be worth $12 million on the market, but given his injury history (past and present) that’s a big “if.” Word on the street is that several teams are interested in his services, with the Rangers appearing to be the front runners (they made an attempt to sign him in 2008 before the seriousness of his injury came out). The Yankees, Mets, and Orioles have also been connected to the right-hander.

Obviously, the anticipated price tag alone (incentives or not) will discourage Cleveland from getting too involved with Sheets, but he presents an intriguing risk/reward value for teams better equipped to absorb the salary hit if he ends up collecting a large chunk of his contract before succumbing to injury and becoming untradeable (assuming he makes it out of the starting gate). If Cleveland had a legitimate chance to contend, I’d advocate pursuing Sheets on a team-friendly contract given his potential upside when healthy. Heck, even if they weren’t going to contend, but still had the cash, I wouldn’t mind seeing them take a chance on turning Sheets into a prime trade chip.

A weak free agent class and Cleveland’s lack of financial muscle makes it seem unlikely that they will be signing any free agents to major league contracts this winter. Fortunately, the organization’s revamped farm system contains enough depth to make free agents a luxury, as they arguably have enough pieces on their current roster to field a decent team in 2010 while they further develop their key prospects. While it is unusual for a team to completely forego the free agent market, the money saved on a weak talent pool could yield a better value in the future.