The average competitive window for a smaller market team is, what, three or four seasons – perhaps, five, at most? Working within that confine, the margin for error, obviously, is fairly small. One bad free agent signing and, oops, that could wreck an entire year, if not longer. And don’t forget that the player turnover – not to mention the personnel department, which, undoubtedly, will be siphoned by other organizations for its up-and-coming talent – is incredibly high.
Everything has to click for a small market to continually contend. Players have to mature and develop as a group; the farm system has to continue to develop replacement talent, which, in some cases, needs to be elite talent; the organization needs to ensure the proper complementary pieces are in place (i.e. veteran talent); and, on a much larger scale, the local economy must be stable.
The Oakland A’s, the team of Moneyball fame, were able to prolong the inevitable, at least for eight seasons, a truly remarkable feat, until the talent leak finally became to much to bear. From the 1999 to 2006,Oakland averaged 94 wins and their payroll never topped the league average. Since then, however, the club has averaged just north of 76 wins a season in a weak AL West division as they continue to try and rebuild. Yes, they were able to avoid the obvious pitfalls that come with being a small-market team for awhile, but it eventually caught up with them.
And more recently, the Tampa Bay Rays have won games – an average of 92 per season since 2008 – by drafting well (of course, it doesn’t hurt with the collection of high picks the organization received for about a decade), astute signings (see: Pena, Carlos), and making judicious trades (see: Zobrist, Ben; Garza, Matt; Balfour, Grant and Sean Rodriguez, among others). But even baseball’s model franchise will eventually succumb to losing; it’s only a matter of time before the hour glass must be flipped over on this organization too.
And, now, theClevelandIndians.
The Indians, despite winning only 80 games in 2011, are in the middle of their competitive window. It appears that Grady Sizemore is likely to sign elsewhere. Shin-Soo Choo, the team’s best player, is under control for two more seasons before his inevitable departure. And the same can be said for newly acquired ace Ubaldo Jimenez, who most likely will void his 2014 option, and Silver Slugger recipient Asdrubal Cabrera. Up-and-down starter Fausto Carmona has team options through 2014, but become increasingly more expensive ($7M for 2012, $9M for 2013, and $12M for 2014). And given his, umm, less-than-consistent production, the value during his last two seasons seems hopeful at best. Chris Perez, the team’s long-haired closer, made $2.25 million in 2011, his first go round in arbitration. Eventually, the small-market organization is going to have to part ways with him and his escalating price out of prudence. Exactly, how much should a small-market team spend on its closer? Oh, not to mention that developing ace and groundball specialist Justin Masterson is eligible for arbitration this offseason for the first time, so his price will begin to rise too and lefty reliever Rafael Perez will be eligible the third time as well.
Only complicating matters is the fact that there are few upper level, impact prospects remaining in the system. After the promotions of Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, the only remaining offensive prospect in Triple-A of note is Cord Phelps, whom the Indians are trying to groom as a super-utility player. And Columbus’ rotation has two potential backend big league starters, Jeanmar Gomez and Zach McAllister, and one mid-rotation-type starter, Scott Barnes, who will have to overcome some command issues to achieve his ceiling. Double-A Akron also had a lack of quality offensive prospects too; the best being Chun-Hsiu Chen, an offensive minded catcher with average bat speed and Nick Weglarz, a power-hitting, high-OBP outfielder whose past is plagued with injuries. Akron does have some intriguing starting arms, including Matt Packer, a finesse lefty, Austin Adams, a short right-hander with a big time fastball, and T.J. McFarland, another lefty that won’t miss a lot of bats.
The point: the franchise is beginning to turn the corner just as a core of their young players begins to become expensive, and the next wave of young talent may not be very strong.
Meaning:Cleveland’s competitive window is already shrinking, endlessly ticking away.
The solution: Deal away the majority of the bullpen – almost 50% of their MAJOR LEAGUE bullpen – including closer Chris Perez, left-handed setup man Rafael Perez, and submariner Joe Smith.
Why? Well, because the enormous bullpen depth the organization has in the minor leagues, especially in the upper levels, Double-A and Triple-A. And given the current market (see: Jonathan Papelbon for four years, $50M and Ryan Madson rumors involving four years, $44M) the trades could help extend the team’s competitive window by fetching B-type prospects or better by dealing cheaper options to teams in need. It’s supply and demand at its best. The Indians have marketable relievers (read: recognizable names) that are relatively cheap for a lot of teams.
TheClevelandbullpen, by most metrics, was a solid – not spectacular – bullpen in 2011. Their 3.71 ERA tied for fourteenth; their 3.90 FIP (fielding independent pitching) ranked lower, nineteenth, and their WAR (wins above replacement) tied for twelfth. Depending which metric is usedClevelandrelievers hovered just above, or below, the league average.
Solid, not spectacular.
But make no mistake about it; this is a flawed collection of relievers.
Chris Perez is what failed free agent Kerry Wood was supposed to be: a hard-throwing, intimidating closer. (Remember how a bad free agent signing could limit a small-market team? Wood signed a two-year, $20 million deal; he tossed 75 innings with a 4.80 ERA, and saved only 28 games while blowing nine). Except, well, Chris Perez was lucky – exceptionally lucky. Sure, his counting stats – the traditional ones – look great. In 59.2 innings, he posted a spiffy 3.32 ERA and saved 36 games in 40 tries. But delving deeper, his numbers were among the worst of all qualifying relievers. Of 134 relievers, Perez’s FIP, 4.27, ranked 104; his 5.01 xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) ranked 132; his SIERA (skill independent ERA), 4.65, one of the most advanced ERA metrics, also ranked 132 and, perhaps, the most telling, his K/BB was 1.50, ahead of only 14 other relievers. And, according to fangraphs.com, his average fastball velocity has decreased for three consecutive seasons while his walk rates have remained largely the same (3.92 to 4.26 BB/9). Basically, even though his velocity is decreasing – which happens all the time – Perez is not progressing as a pitcher; he’s still a thrower, and, yes, there’s a large difference. Remember, he’s now eligible for arbitration for the second time.
Left-handed setup man Rafael Perez is another concern, not because of any underlying red flags – yes, his strikeouts are declining, but so are his walk rates. He’s simply becoming too expensive for a rather vanilla, middle-of-the-pack reliever, at least for small market teams. Perez made, according to baseballprospectus.com, $1.3 million last season, and should be expected to get a nice raise this offseason, his final time through arbitration, maybe as much as $1 million. And a semi-expensive, 29-year-old reliever who’s racked up a decent amount of innings throughout his career, 321.1, and hasn’t been nearly as dominant since his 1.5 WAR 2008 season, isn’t long for a small-market contender – especially since he’s a free agent following 2012.
Joe Smith’s the exception of the trio, sort of. He had the best season of his career: 67.0 IP, 2.01 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 3.57 xFIP, 3.20 SIERA, and 1.2 WAR. But similarly to Perez, he was quite lucky too. His HR/FB ratio, 2.2%, was the sixth lowest among all relievers and the lowest, by far, of his career. During the four previous seasons, his HR/FB rate was between 11.1% and 14.8%. Obviously, last year’s mark has a chance to regress quite a bit next season.
The main reason for dealing C. Perez, R. Perez, and Smith is simple: the market for relief pitchers – not just this offseason, but the past few seasons – has been incredibly volatile. Brandon Lyon signs with the Astros for three years and $15 million (2010). Joaquin Benoit inked a deal last offseason with the Tigers for three years and $16.5 million. Francisco Rodriguez got $36 million over three years with the Mets in the winter of 2008. The list could go on for quite some time: Brian Fuentes, two years for $17.5 million; Danys Baez, three years, $19 million; and both Octavio Dotel and Fernando Rodney each received two-year contracts for $11 million. Again, this is just a small sampling, but the idea is remains the same, Cleveland needs to capitalize on this volatility by dealing from an area of strength.
Now, all that remains is identifying the replacements and the team’s possible trade candidates.
The 2012 Bullpen: Replacements, Expectations and Minor League Depth
The seven main relievers in 2011 were:
- Closer: Chris Perez, RHP
- Setup: Rafael Perez, LHP
- Setup: Vinnie Pestano, RHP
- Middle: Tony Sipp, LHP
- Middle: Joe Smith, RHP
- Middle: Frank Herrmann, RHP
- Middle:ChadDurbin, RHP
With C. Perez, R. Perez, and Smith dealt, and Durbin not expected back; there are four spots that need to be filled, plus, the additional juggling of some roles.
The 2012 bullpen (assuming seven relievers):
- Closer: Vinnie Pestano
- Setup: Nick Hagadone
- Setup: Chen Lee
- Middle: Tony Sipp
- Middle: Zach Putnam
- Middle: Frank Herrmann
- Middle: Josh Judy
Pestano lacks what one would call an overpowering fastball. Actually, his sits in the general area of Chris Perez’s, but Pestano gets tremendous movement (due to his low three-quarter arm slot) and controls the strike zone more efficiently too. His LOB% was a touch high (85.3%), so some regression should be expected. And his overall numbers against lefties, .280/.350/.462, aren’t impressive; in fact, they’re quite worrisome. In 103 plate appearances against left-handers, he gave 26 hits, 4 doubles, 2 triples, and 3 homeruns, except most of the damage was done in one month. Pestano had 18 appearances against lefties in July and gave up eight hits (two doubles and two homeruns). Otherwise, he was quite effective during the other five months of the season against southpaws (.240 BA).
Now, the setup men: Nick Hagadone and Chen Lee.
Like Masterson, Hagadone was acquired from Bostonin the Victor Martinez deal. He’s a big (6-foot-5, 230 lb.) lefty with an even bigger fastball, one that can easily touch the upper 90s. Hagadone throws from a fairly high, three-quarter release point and generates what one would call “easy velocity.” He complements that above-average pitch with a power slider that sits in the mid-to-upper 80s. Essentially, he’s exactly as he appeared in his brief 11-inning stint this season: a strikeout-an-inning reliever with a walk rate that tends to be a little high, at least, historically. This season, however, a few years removed from Tommy John surgery, he posted the best walk rates of his career (2.79 BB/9 in Double-A and 2.78 in Triple-A). And even if he can’t maintain those rates next season in the big leagues, a slight regression to the league average could be a likely scenario. Plus, even if it rises to 4.0 BB/9, his high strikeout rate should more than compensate for it. Hagadone, simply, should be able to replace Rafael Perez’s 0.8 WAR season.
Chen Lee, a smallish right-hander, has had a remarkably consistent minor league career. In 2009, Lee sported a 3.35 ERA in 83.1 innings, averaged 10.5 SO/9 and walked 3.0 in High-A. At Double-A Akron the next season, he tossed 72.2 innings with a 3.22 ERA, averaged 10.2 SO/9, and walked 2.7. This season, between Double-A and Triple-A: 71.1 innings, 2.40 ERA, 12.5 SO/9, and 2.9 BB/9. He throws a mid 90s fastball with good life, an above-average slider, and a changeup. What else does he have to prove in the minors? Nothing. Lee, like Hagadone, is another backend, power-arm option.
Tony Sipp would remain in the same role: the second left-hander. Sipp, armed with a sneaky quick fastball, averages a shade below one-strikeout-per-inning, and his below-average command took a giant step forward this season (though it’s merely average now).
Zach Putnam’s minor league ERAs have never quite lived up to his peripheral stats. He has a solid-average or better fastball; it will sit in the low 90s, a heavy splitter, and a slider. He’s also maintained solid strikeout and walk rates as he climbed the minor league chain too (a career 3.3 SO/BB ratio). At the very worst, Putnam should become a solid middle relief option.
Frank Herrmann’s a big, solidly built pitcher whose fastball can touch 96 mph or so, but lacks a quality secondary pitch. In other words, he’s a league average pitcher, and has performed that way for two consecutive seasons.
Josh Judy, who would take the last bullpen spot, has an average sinker/slider combo, but is a little susceptible to lefties because of his low arm slot. He generates a solid amount of groundballs and should be able to fill the role of “right-handed specialist.”
Overall, there’s no reason to believe that the 2012 group couldn’t perform as well as, if not better, than the 2011 bullpen.
Pestano should remain a solid 1.5 WAR pitcher. Rafael Perez was worth 0.8 WAR this season, which is a realistic expectation for Hagadone. Tony Sipp and Frank Hermann performed within reason last season. And the combined WAR for Joe Smith and Chad Durbin was less than one win above replacement level, which, again, seems realistic for Lee and Judy.
So, what about the minor league depth?
Well, the four relievers – Hagadone, Lee, Putnam, and Judy – could be replaced by Cory Burns, a semi-interesting relief prospect, Bryce Stowell, another power arm who should be ready for Triple-A, and two minor league free agents.
First, another small discussion: Why would teams show interest and/or part with good prospects for Smith or either Perez, especially considering their flaws? Well, again, it comes down to market volatility. Is Chris Perez – all flaws included – a downgrade from, say, Jonathan Papelbon or some other upper tier closer? Yes, but in the case of Papelbon, the difference in cost $10 million. And is the difference between those closers that, let’s be honest, pitch one inning an outing, really worth $10 million? No, not at all.
The final step, at least for this discussion, would be identifying possible trade candidates.
Right off the bat, Cincinnatishould be targeted as a destination for Chris Perez. The Reds could be losing Francisco Cordero through free agency and have Yonder Alonso, an above-average bat without a position (thanks to Joey Votto). Plus, Perez would be under team control for a few more seasons at a reasonable cost and Alonso would represent a serious upgrade over Matt LaPorta at first base. Also, the difference between Cordero and Perez, almost $10 million, could be used in extending Votto’s contract. Other possible destinations include: the Blue Jays, the Red Sox and, possibly, the Dodgers, who may not be sold in time to court some of the elite free agent closers.
Left relievers – even below-average ones – will always be in demand. Case in point: 17 teams posted a 3.70 FIP against left-handers; 19 teams posted a walk rate above
the league average, 3.11 BB/9, against them as well. There will be a market for Rafael Perez. There were 49 left-handed relievers that pitched 40 or more games in 2011. Perez ranked eighteenth in ERA and sixteenth in allowed on-base percentage. Among those teams that may be interested in Perez are the Rangers (both Darren Oliver and Mike Gonzalez are free agents; Oliver is old and Gonzalez is injury prone), the Cardinals (Arthur Rhodes, 42, is a free agent and Mark Rzepczynski remains the only left-handed reliever on the 40-man roster) and the given Pedro Feliciano’s shoulder woes, possibly the Yankees as well.
Joe Smith could be sought by more than a dozen teams. Tampais a rather ideal fit. Smith’s cheap, controlled through the end of 2013; they have plenty of prospect depth, and, let’s face it ,Tampa’s ‘pen was cobbled together by a committee of veteran castoffs. Again, the Cardinals and Reds could use upgrades, as well as the Angels and Phillies.
Is trading three solid, serviceable relievers ideal? No, no it’s not. Instead, the goal is to help extendCleveland’s competitive window by dealing interchangeable pieces – or what should be interchangeable – for upgrades at other positions. It, obviously, does come with some level of risk, but given the potential/development of Nick Hagadone and Chen Lee’s impressive track record, the risk should be mitigated, at least to a fairly sizeable degree. Basically, it’s taking a measured, calculated risk to help extendCleveland’s competitive window.