(Note: this is a collaborative effort between Brad and me. We took opposing sides of the argument and hashed it out over email until we had each come to our conclusion. Here's what we came up with.)
If there's one thing I've learned from watching the Indians these 26 years of my life - other than perhaps that this is Dad's passive-aggressive revenge on us for all the stress we caused him - it's that "next year" is never guaranteed. Since the last gasp of the great teams of the nineties, the success of the Tribe has been more or less predicated on two things: the development of young players, and the bullpen. This year is no different.
The problem with building a team around the bullpen is that it is just about the most volatile element of a baseball team. If a bullpen goes bad, a decent ball club can look horrible through little fault of its own. In high-leverage situations, a relatively small number of runs surrendered can have a huge impact on a team's record. We all saw that happen in 2006, when a bad bullpen went a long way towards making our actual records 11 games worse than our pythagorean record and erasing the promise of the 2005 campaign.the team regrouped in 2007 with Raffies L and R carrying the mail, a stunningly effective season from Aaron Fultz, and the 29.1 innings of Jensen Lewis's life.
When the Raffies regressed in 2008, it's little wonder the team underachieved. When the front office brought in Kerry Wood to right the ship in 2009, all we got out of that was more losses and my debut Fan Post. This whole history lesson has been to say this: the bullpen is both vital a volatile, and it can be almost impossible to normalize its performance from year-to-year with either internal or external candidates.
With the bullpen having contributed so much to this campaign (a WPA north of 4 at this point in the year), the Tribe is uniquely positioned to contend this season. While the organization has been more or less constructed to "arrive" sometime next year, there's no guarantee that Pomeranz, White, Kipnis, and Chisenhall will develop any better than Miller, Davis, Phillips, and Garko. The time for Antonetti and his team to make a move is now, and here are the moves they should make.
A big problem with the Tribe right now is that they can't hit. The main thing about Carlos Beltran is that he can hit and field and looks good in blue. The New York Times is reporting that the Mets "won't get a top-40 prospect for [Beltran] even if they eat all the remaining money on the deal." That may well be the case, and the Mets are starving for middle infielders in the high minors. Cord Phelps is a 24-year-old with MLB experience and some upside, and Luis Valbuena can also fill holes in the MI and around the park. We'll take on half of Beltran's remaining salary in the deal, about $3.5 million. You may have heard that Beltran doesn't want to come to the AL, but word filtering around now suggests that's not true. You also may have heard that Beltran nixed a deal to the Tribe already; I'm getting on the horn to him and explaining that we want him in the field because the rest of our OF is either coming off of an injury or Mike Brantley. His presence in the OF allows us to nurse Grady back into the line up on a rotation basis. Obviously, Brantley and Sizemore are going to lose some playing time with this move, with whoever is swinging worse getting more pine time.
I didn't spend the first four paragraphs of this post talking about the bullpen for nothing. Bullpen arms are hard to predict and notoriously pricey in the trade market, so I'm going to do the next best thing and give our Mafia a little rest. I kicked the tires on Ubaldo Jiminez, but the Rocks were asking a ton. They want someone they can slot into the bigs tomorrow, plus another couple of good prospects. Nobody gets that kind of return with Omar Minaya involved, so I'm shipping Jeanmar Gomez, Drew Pomeranz, and a two PTBNL from the list of Gio Soto, Jason Knapp, Nick Weglarz, and Rob Bryson to Colorado in return for Jiminez. To finish things off, I'll send Clayton Cook to San Diego for Aaron Harang, who we all know isn't as good as his current numbers.
To make room, Durbin is DFA, and Huff and Carrera are heading back to Columbus until September. That makes our rotation Masterson, Jiminez, Tomlin, Harang, and Carrasco, with Carmona going to the pen. You can quibble over the order; the point is those are our five guys. C/1B will be occupied by the rotation of Santana/LaPorta/Marson. Kipnis, Asdrubal, and Chiz round out the IF. Brantley and Beltran will be our regular OF for now, with Kearns and Buck sharing time in right. Pronk will continue to DH. When Grady and Choo return, Choo will slot in right and Grady will be eased back in with time in CF and DH. You can't tell me that team doesn't have a chance in the playoffs. Sure, I've taken on salary and moved a ton of prospects, but you don't make breakfast without breaking some eggs.
So bullpens being volatile means we should mortgage the future on a mediocre team? Not sure I agree with that. The sheer amount of work your dream scenario would take makes it almost impossible, but this is just a mental exercise so that’s harmless. (Besides, it worked in Triple Play 99. Remember the immortal buttcheeks catch? That’s why he’s in the HoF). My main problem with your thesis is that you assume the utter collapse of our bullpen without stopping to consider why that would happen. Who out there looks likely to implode to you? Chris Perez has to lead the line in that category but other than him, I’m not seeing a huge cause for concern. More than that though, I think we have the arms (waves of arms?) to patch any holes in the ship.
Nick Hagadone, Mitch Talbot, Josh Judy, and Justin Germano can all be recalled from as close as Columbus. Bryson and Burns from Akron could, at some point, make their way into the argument as well. Add in the usual assortment of spare arms that is always around Spring Training, and I feel reasonably confident that we can piece together a solid bullpen again. With White, Barnes, and Pomeranz pushing for rotation spots in 2012, we could flip Fausto and Talbot for parts or see how they work out of the pen. Depth never hurts. Couple that with better starting pitching (More White, less Fausto/Talbot) and I don’t think the potential for relief drop-off is as drastic as you make it sound. That’s why my proposal is so much different than yours.
See, I think the thing to do this year is... nothing. Stand pat. Go down with the ship. Weather the storm. Roll with the punches. Whatever cliché you want. We aren’t just one player away from contention. Look at tonight’s lineup, we’ve got Carrera (.590 OPS) leading off, Buck (.634) playing RF, Chisenhall (.707) at 3B, Kipnis at 2B, and LaPorta (.694) playing at all. And that’s the A team. Other options include Hannahan (.644), who remembered he’s pretty useless, and the ever detestable Orland Cabrera (.589). With The Ghost of Grady Sizemore and Choo both gone, this isn’t an offense that just needs Carlos Beltran to get it going; this is a lost cause.
Look at next year though, and there’s some hope. Chisenhall and Kipnis will both hit, Hafner is healthy, Santana is excellent, Choo will be back, and Grady might be. There’s a lot there to be excited about. True, 1B is a massive hole, but that can either be addressed or simply worked around. The other big piece in that trade doesn’t tear the cover off the ball, but he’s a solid everyday player. This could be the lineup, and tell me you don’t like it.
Follow that with:
And we’ve covered the bullpen.
Sitting this year won’t be easy. We clearly aren’t going to contend for much longer, the talent just isn’t there yet. It’s going to be nauseating to get passed by the White Sox and Twins as the Tigers pull away, but it’s better than throwing away prospects to chase a playoff berth. Because that’s what we’re talking about here. Even the team you constructed isn’t winning it all.