The Tribe Awakens
Whenever I take a week of vacation, I always post a little note on Twitter so followers don’t think I disappeared off the face of the Earth. Using one of my weeks right after the Winter Meetings is good, because it gives you some time to readjust to the world outside of the Opryland Hotel. Of course, there’s also the risk that news happens in the immediate wake of baseball’s annual gathering.
Welp, @ClevelandPhil hit the nail on the head. While I was away (and I don’t think the Indians orchestrated all of this because I was away. Then again, the timing was fishy. Hmm…) Cleveland made a handful of moves. While none of the additions stole national headlines, they were the kind of complementary adds the Indians had been looking to make, especially in the wake of some trade talks going nowhere.
I’ll run through some here with my thoughts:
OF Rajai Davis
This signing makes perfect sense, especially on a one-year contract. With left fielder Michael Brantley out at least a month, Cleveland needed someone capable of filling in as an everyday player, but willing to maybe slide into a backup role upon Brantley’s return. Enter Davis. He can handle left field out of the gates and then can be worked in as a backup for left and part-timer in center when Brantley comes back.
Last year, Davis slashed .258/.306/.440 with 35 extra-base hits, 30 RBIs, 18 steals and 55 runs in 112 games for Detroit. He actually hit better against righties (.267/.312/.426) than lefties (.245/.298/.460), but that is not the norm for his career (.255/.298/.356 against righties and .296/.351/.448 against lefties). I’d lean more toward the career track record in terms of expectation.
Davis, who bats righty, could be a good complement for Abraham Almonte when Brantley returns. Before Brantley is back, Collin Cowgill can also help off-set some of the versus-LHP issues for Almonte, or even right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall. Almonte hit an even .250 against LHP and RHP last year, but his OBP/SLG were much different vs. LHP (.319/.459) than RHP (.281/.267).
Defensively, Davis has been best in center and left field, though his year to year results at those positions has varied. He actually performed better in left and center in 2015 than over the course of his career as a whole. Now, sample sizes for defense are best when expanded beyond a single year. That being the case, it’s fair to say Davis has been better in center (1.3 UZR/150 in his career) than left (minus 9.4) on the whole, but he can certainly handle himself in the corner (1 DRS and 9.0 UZR/150 in 2015).
1B Mike Napoli
Now, this one isn’t official yet, but it was reported last week that the Indians inked Napoli to a one-year pact. Napoli underwent a physical on Friday and sounds like everything went OK. Injuries and health issues have been a consistent issue for Napoli, who dealt with a hip problem in the past, had surgery to help with sleep apea before last year and had a finger issue in ’15.
Some of that might explain why Napoli slashed .236/.348/.415 in 2014-15 after posting an .842 OPS in 2013. Napoli hit .224 (.734 OPS) last year with the Red Sox and Rangers, but posted a strong showing (.278 with a .954 OPS) against left-handed pitching. He hit just .191 (.603) against right-handers. For his career, Napoli has a .917 OPS against LHP and an .804 OPS vs. RHP. So, at the very least, Cleveland has a strong versus-lefties bat. Right now, it looks like Napoli would be a regular in the lineup.
Over the course of his career, Napoli has logged 20 DRS and a 5.6 UZR/150 at first base. Last year, he had 3 DRS and a 5.5 UZR/150 at first. Bringing him into the fold essentially pushes Carlos Santana into regular DH duty. Santana has below-average marks at first base, but his bat is valuable enough to play as an everyday DH, no matter what the anti-Santana crowd is shouting.
LHP Tom Gorzelanny & LHP Joe Thatcher
OK, so these additions didn’t technically happen last week. The Indians announced Monday that both lefties were signed to Minor League deals with spring invites. I would’ve thought at least one of these pitchers could’ve signed a Major League deal, so consider these signings a pair of wins for the Tribe. Lefty relief was on the to-do list and both Gorzelanny and Thatcher offer veteran options.
Thatcher has held lefties to a .232 (.645 OPS) showing in his career and held them to a .245 (.686) showing last year with Houston. Gorzelanny has limited left-handed batters to a .230 (.662) mark in his career and .222 (.664) last year, when he had a bloated 5.95 ERA with Detroit. This is where it must be noted that the Tigers exposed him to righties a lot and Gorzelanny gave up a .354 average and 1.063 OPS in that unfortunate sample. As lefty specialists, both pitchers are good possibilities.
Both Gorzelanny and Thatcher are Article XX-B free agents. What that means is they signed Minor League deals as six-year free agents who ended last season on Major League deals. If they do not figure into the Opening Day roster plans, both pitchers will be eligible for a $100,000 retention bonus and a June 1 opt-out clause, if they go to the Minors. Cleveland also added outs for the end of Spring Training.
These additions take a little bit of pressure off young lefties Kyle Crockett and Giovanni Soto. Crockett took a slight step backward in 2015 and Soto has all of 3 1/3 innings under his Major League belt. If the Indians aren’t comfortable with them in the big league ‘pen out of the gates, Gorzelanny and Thatcher make it easier to start them off in the Minors. Also, Cleveland can keep lefties like Ryan Merritt and Shawn Morimando in the Minor Leagues as starting pitchers, rather than mulling having them make a career switch to relieving this spring.
RHP Dan Otero
Hey, sure. The Indians grabbed Otero from the Phillies in exchange for cash and the bullpen depth chart got a little deeper. Otera is under control for four seasons, so it’s a nice add in terms of long-term depth, too. Otero had an off year in 2015, posting a 6.75 ERA with an .887 OPS allowed to righties and an .884 OPS allowed to lefties. Not good. That said, the right-hander had a 2.01 ERA in 125 2/3 innings from 2013-14. He is a strike-throwing machine. Last year, he just happened to also be a hit-allowing machine. We’ll see if pitching coach Mickey Callaway and bullpen coach Jason Bere can work some magic on him this spring. Otero is out of Minor League options, so a strong spring showing would likely net a spot in the Opening Day roster.
Right now, the only pitchers who look like locks for the bullpen are Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Zach McAllister and Jeff Manship. Then, there’s lefties like Crockett, Soto, Gorzelanny and Thatcher. Righties in the mix would be Austin Adams, Shawn Armstrong, Kirby Yates and also Otero. Plus, Joba Chamberlain is in the fold as a non-roster invitee, too.
RHP Jarrett Grube
Added on a Minor League deal with a non-roster invite. Why not? What a great story here. I’m a sucker for cup-of-coffee players and Grube is a classic tale. On May 31, 2014, the righty was called out of the Angels bullpen to face Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes and Derrek Norris. Grube got two out of three. That ain’t bad. In between the outs, though, Cespedes drilled a three-run home run. The pitcher, taken in the 10th round of the 2004 Draft, returned to the Minors with a 13.50 ERA and was pitching for Quintana Roo in the Mexican League a year later. Cleveland signed him and Grube went 9-0 with a 2.26 ERA in 15 games for Triple-A Columbus. You know he’s itching to get another shot on the Major League stage.
1B/DH Chris Johnson
Johnson was designated for assignment to clear room for Davis. This one was a bit stunning simply due to the financial implications. Cleveland had to take on Johnson and his contract in order to part with Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn last August. Now, Johnson is off the roster and still owed $17.5 million ($7.5 million in ’15 and $9 million in ’16, plus a $1 million buyout for ’17). The addition of Napoli made Johnson a bit redundant, especially since Johnson is not a good alternative for third base. With Santana and Napoli in the mix, the Indians had little use for another first baseman-slash-DH who hits lefties as his speciality. This move showed that the Tribe cares most about roster flexibility at the moment.
1B/OF Jerry Sands
Sands was DFA’d when Otero was acquired from the Phillies. Like Johnson, Sands became a bit redundant in light of Cleveland’s other moves this winter. The outfield additions (Cowgill, Davis and Joey Butler) plus the emergence of Chisenhall in right field, combined with Napoli entering the fold for first base, left little room for Sands. In Sands, Cleveland had a versus-lefty bat with some pop, capable of playing right field or first base. He hit lefties well (.297 with an .838 OPS) last year, but slumped hard as the season wore on. Sands hit .375 with a 1.028 OPS in his first 10 games and fans loved chanting, “JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!” And then hit hit .202 in his next 40 games.
INF Mike Aviles
Aviles was a free agent and has agreed to a one-year deal with the rival Tigers. This led to some angered Indians fans in the social-media realms. First things first, I’ll miss having Aviles in the clubhouse, and I’m sure teammates will, too. He was a leader for the Tribe and a source of levity in tough times. Aviles knows how to keep things loose. On top of that, I can’t imagine going through what he did last year. With his daughter battling leukemia, Aviles played on, balancing the everyday life of a Major Leaguer with a very hard situation at home with his family. Seeing the Indians and their fans rally around Aviles this year was something I won’t soon forget. All of this said, it made sense for Cleveland to part ways with him this winter. The team has a younger bench option in Jose Ramirez, who can offer a similar super utility skill-set. Aviles also has a .281 on-base percentage over the past five years combined and his production slipped in each of the past three years (.663 OPS In ’12, .650 OPS in ’13, .616 OPS in ’14 and .599 OPS in ’15). Tough to see Aviles go? Yes. Did the move make sense? Absolutely.
SWING AND A MISS
3B Todd Frazier
Frazier would’ve looked great at third base and in the middle of the Tribe’s order — even with his history of second-half fades. That said, it wouldn’t have looked as good had Cleveland parted with what the Reds sought from the Indians. Cleveland.com reported last week that the Reds first tried for Danny Salazar or Cody Allen. Then, Cincinnati asked for outfield prospects Clint Frazier or Brad Zimmer. The Reds weren’t done, either. They also wanted two players from a grouping of Bobby Bradley, Mike Clevinger, Juan Hillman and Justus Sheffield. That’s a huge ask and I’m glad Cleveland held its ground.
Remember when Brandon Moss was acquired for infield prospect Joey Wendle in a one-for-one last winter? Moss was arbitration eligible for two seasons at the time. It was, at best, a two-year commitment to Moss. At worst, it was a one-year deal, or less if he was traded (which he was), in the event that things went south. Frazier is signed for one year and arb-eligible for 2017. Similar to the Moss situation, if Frazier excelled, this had the potential to be a two-year deal. If he fizzled, then suddenly he looks like a non-tender candidate or trade bait before ’17 even arrives. You don’t sell the farm for that kind of contract situation. Frazier wound up with the White Sox as part of a three-team deal including the Reds and Dodgers.