Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Sonny Days Or Gray Clouds Ahead?

Sonny Gray is a quality pitcher. At the time of writing, everyone wants a piece of Sonny Gray. He's the hottest girl in school, and guys are lining up to ask him to prom.

He had a rough go of it in 2016, thanks to injuries and inconsistency, but so far this season he looks close to the Sonny Gray of old, the All Star pitcher from 2015. The 27 year-old is probably the most fawned over player on the trade block this month and the Oakland A's have a bevy of suitors willing to part with some golden nuggets in exchange for his services. Contending clubs left and right are putting together prospect packages for Gray, and the Indians are rumored to be one of those clubs. Whoever snags him will have to pay a heavy price however, as demand for starting pitchers this summer is high. A lot of clubs are in the market to upgrade their rotation, and the A's ace represents a significant upgrade for many.

Today I thought I'd run through some potential trade ideas the Tribe could fashion together to entice Oakland to part with their ace pitcher. It's no secret that Cleveland's rotation has been out of sorts this season, with only Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco performing well (although Mike Clevinger is developing nicely). The addition of an arm like Gray's would certainly boost the Indian's chances of success in the postseason.

On paper he looks to be a good match for the Tribe; he's under club control until 2020 and is having a strong season: a 3.72 ERA in 84.2 innings of work, with 79 strikeouts, all for a 113 ERA+ and a 5-4 record. He's been improving as the season has progressed, and his last 3 weeks have been superb, including a 6 inning, 2 hit shutout victory against the Indians on July 14th.

I'll rank the following potential deals with different grades, ranging from "In A Heartbeat" to "Over My Dead Body." Simple enough? Let's begin:

Trade Scenario 1

Oakland trade RHP Sonny Gray
Cleveland trade C Francisco Mejia

How about a straight up trade of Oakland's best pitcher for Cleveland's best prospect? I really like Sonny Gray, and have for a few years now, but I am firmly against giving up Mejia for him. I consider Gray a top of the rotation kind of guy but he's not elite enough to surrender a prospect who could become a marquee catcher for the next decade. With Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez struggling to prove themselves as long-term solutions (their sublime defense aside), Mejia's value is currently much higher to the Indians than it would be for the A's. In the very near future, catcher is looking like a position of real need for the Tribe so it doesn't make sense to jettison the one man already under control who could solve the problem. Catchers that can hit like Mejia don't come around very often; at Double-A Akron, the young backstop is slashing .336/.385/.552 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 10 home runs, 35 RBI and 5 stolen bases. Scouts and experts absolutely rave about the kid's hitting skills, and grade him high defensively too.

Mejia is the sole trade chip the Indians can dangle in front of Oakland that could persuade the A's to ignore the treasures offered by other interested clubs, but if I were Indians Team President Chris Antonetti, I would not be willing to risk losing a future star like Mejia. Even for an admittedly great pitcher like Gray.

Trade rating: Over My Dead Body

Trade Scenario 2

Oakland trade RHP Sonny Gray
Cleveland trade CF Tyler Naquin and RHP Triston McKenzie

This is more like it. Naquin narrowly missed out on winning the AL Rookie of the Year award last season and McKenzie is widely ranked as the Indians' number 2 prospect overall, and their top pitching prospect. The real jewel in this deal would be McKenzie but Naquin is a nice bonus. He's not had the best 2017 campaign so far, spending most of his time at Triple-A Columbus, but he's still young enough to retain some of his former value.  The potential is still there. Would the A's go for someone like Naquin? Given their history of taking guys seemingly off the scrapheap and getting production from them, I think they'd be more open to the idea than perhaps you might think.

Many fans consider McKenzie a 'hands-off' prospect in the same category as Mejia but I have other feelings. My thinking is this: McKenzie could be a superstar, but trading him for a pitcher already established as above-average when the rest of your team is so agonizingly close to competing for a championship, it's a no-brainer. Yes, there's some risk involved with Gray's injury history, so the Indians need to be absolutely sure he's back to full health. If the A's were willing, the Indians could trade McKenzie for Gray in a straight swap, but considering the young pitcher hasn't even reached Double-A yet, Oakland would almost certainly need a sweetener. Naquin could be that guy.

Trade rating: In A Heartbeat

Trade Scenario 3

Oakland trade RHP Sonny Gray
Cleveland trade CF Greg Allen, LHP Brady Aiken and SS Erik Gonzalez

Despite Brady Aiken being ranked above Greg Allen on most prospect boards, I actually think the loss of Allen is more significant in this trade. I absolutely love Allen. If Zimmer wasn't blocking his direct path to the majors, he'd be on track to contribute for the Indians within the next two years. As it currently stands, he still could, but Zimmer has started his career in the majors so well that it looks like Allen will have great difficulty forcing his way onto the big club roster. As a result, the young outfielder has become a pretty good trade chip, one that could come in very handy to acquire a player of Gray's caliber.

Aiken and Gonzalez aren't exactly throw-ins either. Aiken, despite his struggles this year (a 4.10 ERA and 14.1% strikeout percentage at A-ball Lake County), is still considered a top prospect and the former first round draft pick has time on his side to redeem himself.

Gonzalez has featured in 25 major league games this season and has performed well, and is likely to see an increase in playing time until Jason Kipnis returns from the disabled list. This is his opportunity to put himself in the shop window, as the Tribe's infield is already crowded with talent. Similar to Allen, it will be difficult to break into an established group of All Stars, so Gonzalez's future as a major league infielder could lie elsewhere.

The major difficulty with this trade is it's attractiveness. You just know that clubs like the Yankees and Astros have more frills to woo Oakland with, so I don't expect a deal like this would be tempting enough. However it's a win-win for the Indians if they could pull it off and persuade the A's to embrace it more than the other offers out there.

Trade rating: In A Heartbeat


As I've mentioned, the competition for Gray's services is steep. The Yankees in particular are desperate to give their fans October baseball and they need starting pitching, and have a deep collection of prospects they could throw at the A's. The Astros rightfully think this could be their year and have a top 5 farm system to seduce Oakland with, including monstrous prospect Derek Fisher. Even the upstart Brewers are reportedly going all-in to acquire Gray, and could pull off a July trade deal similar to the CC Sabathia acquisition back in 2008.

I always enjoy the hot stove season and the race for Sonny Gray will keep things extra interesting this year. Do I expect the Indians to land him? I honestly think that the other interested teams have flashier prospects, and could be more willing to chuck everything at Oakland to make a deal. Cleveland has some tempting players on offer but I just don't see them risking all of that future talent on one 27 year-old pitcher, still recovering from a bad 2016 campaign. I would love to add Gray to the rotation, don't get me wrong, but there's definitely a limit, and it looks like a 5'10, 180lb switch-hitting 21 year-old Dominican catcher who absolutely rakes.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Sartorial Tribe: 1948 Indians Home

As the years tick by it feels like every new season sees MLB introduce another batch of special uniforms to each team's wardrobe. We've got Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, retro throwbacks and a bunch more. And this got me thinking; the entire aesthetic side to sports has always been hugely appealing to me. I love the uniforms, the logos, the entire design of sporting attire. Baseball in particular has an extremely rich history and has always been a huge factor in my love for the game.

On that note, I thought I would sprinkle in the odd post here and there about the Indians' uniforms, past and present. Uniforms I like, that I love, and some that I hate. I'll try and feature a good variety too, from every era of Tribe baseball. Without further ado, let's look at our entry edition:

What better way to start than with Cleveland's cream of the crop, the best Indians team in the club's history, the 1948 championship side. Their home uniform that season was something to behold, and not only because it was the uniform worn when the Tribe last took home the World Series.

Here's a photo of player-manager and hall of fame shortstop Lou Boudreau congratulating pitcher Gene Bearden after the left-hander had shut down the Boston Braves in Game 3 of the World Series. You'll have already noticed that the Indians script across the chest is very reminiscent of today's uniforms, a certain throwback to the glory days.

An iconic shot of the legendary Satchel Paige from the 1948 season, his first in the majors following a dominant career in the Negro Leagues. The socks stand out immediately and would look good on today's players (and they do, with Francisco Lindor regularly rocking the look). You'll have also noticed the cap with the wishbone C logo, now a staple logo for the Cincinnati Reds, but was used by the Tribe for nearly four decades between the 30's and 70's.

The only blemish on these classic threads is the rather ghastly Chief Wahoo logo on the player's left sleeves. The Native American image that would come to define the Indians was still a couple of years away from becoming the team's primary logo and wouldn't feature prominently on the club's caps until the mid-80's. The 1948 version is, shall we say, less refined than his modern counterpart.

Overall though, it's a vintage uniform from a glorious era of baseball. Many would argue that baseball has never looked better aesthetically than the late 40's (I would argue this, actually). It was a time when the Indians were so stacked with talent, with legends like Bob Feller, Larry Doby, and Bob Lemon representing the Tribe, leading them to their second and most recent championship. And they looked damn good too. Maybe our current group can join their 1948 counterparts and help elevate the 2017 uniform to legendary status? Time will tell on that one.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Exceptional Encarnacion, Back On Track

When the Indians signed slugger Edwin Encarnacion in the off-season, fans got pretty excited. Winter nights were spent dreaming of the Dominican veteran launching 400 ft home runs over the fence at Progressive Field, this time wearing the red, white and navy of Cleveland and not the blue hue of Toronto.

After a winter of anticipation finally gave we to spring, we got our first look at Edwin and his delightful parrot trot as he rounded the bases after a home run in the Arizona sunshine. Opening Day came and went, as did the month of April. And Edwin? Well, he was okay. Actually (lets be honest) he wasn't quite what we expected. He struck out a lot, and he wasn't hitting loads of homers, just 4 actually. By the end of the first month he was batting just .200 with an OPS of .696. Something was definitely amiss and there were quiet rumblings that the Indians had signed a bum.

But Edwin didn't listen to the naysayers and kept plugging away, battling at the plate as he always does, and has done. Since the start of May, Encarnacion's approach has finally started to reap the rewards that fans were craving for. In the last month and half, Edwin has slashed .297/.398/.579 with 12 home runs and 27 RBI, raising his season OPS to a much improved .872. He's been especially hot in the last couple of weeks, slashing .370/.483/.804 over 14 games, with 6 home runs in that span.

And it couldn't have come at a better time. The Indians have been scuffling in recent weeks, their inconsistent play holding them back from making any attempt at leading the AL Central. Then along came Edwin and a trip to Minneapolis, home of the first place Twins. This was an opportunity the Tribe could not afford to pass up, to really put a marker down in the race for the division. And Edwin and the boys did not disappoint. Encarnacion, combining with some stellar pitching and some other contributors on offense, took apart the Twins in a four-game sweep to wrestle back the AL Central lead. “It’s not a surprise that he can literally carry a team,” reliever extraordinaire Andrew Miller said, and Edwin has been doing just that.

This was the kind of performance and the kind of series that clubs look to build upon, to create that wave of momentum that will hopefully carry them to October. Encarnacion has been a huge factor in this resurgence and he'll need to continue this level of performance to keep the Indians ahead in the race for postseason baseball. As a core piece in the heart of the Indians' lineup, you could argue that the Tribe's success in 2017 hinges upon Encarnacion's output. If recent activity is to be believed, then I think we'll be just fine.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Lightning In A Bottle Lonnie

Lonnie Chisenhall has had a remarkable start to 2017. After coming off the disabled list to begin his campaign on April 13, Lonnie has been hitting the absolute crap out of the ball. Want to see what I mean?

That's him crushing his 6th home run on Saturday night in Houston. Crushing to dead center! Chisenhall has 6 homers already this year. He had 8 in total in 2016, and 7 in total in 2015. His career-high is 13 back in 2014, when he had 533 plate appearances. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict Lonnie smashes that number, setting a new career-high in the process. He is currently sporting a .283 ISO (Isolated Power) which is almost double what he has produced in previous years. It's only late May so obviously too early to use that number as a predictive measure of his power output for the rest of 2017. But we'll keep a close eye on him to see if he can maintain this extra-base hit rate into the summer and beyond. I'm quietly confident he can keep this up.

At the time of writing he's slashing .261/.333/.543 (AVG/OBP/SLG) over 33 games, for a .877 OPS and a 130 WRC+. And he's done most of this playing in center field, filling in admirably in the absence of Tyler Naquin, Austin Jackson and Abraham Almonte. Since Bradley Zimmer's promotion I thought Chisenhall would go back to his usual spot in right field, but he featured in center again last night against the Reds. Lonnie's versatility is an added bonus that I think many fans don't fully appreciate. Let's be clear though: he's not winning a gold glove any time soon, but the fact he can at least hold his own in that great expanse between the corners is a blessing for the Indians, especially now the injuries have started to pile up.

Lonnie's Achilles' heel has always been his inability to hit left-handed pitchers (career .240 BA), which lead to his platoon player status in recent years, albeit a very effective one, particularly with Brandon Guyer in 2016. However this season has seen him hit lefties very well, when given the opportunity. In 12 games he's batting .308, and even though this is a super small sample size, it's encouraging, especially given Guyer's absence from the lineup recently. Put it this way: he hasn't been a black hole at the plate against lefties, so there is some comfort to be taken from his performance against them thus far.

I think the odds of Chisenhall fulfilling the expectations that came with his first round pick selection back in 2008 are now very slim. The good news is that he doesn't necessarily have to reach those heights in order to contribute to this Indians team. What he's doing right now is working and as long as he's having a positive impact in the lineup, then as far as I'm concerned he's meeting all of my expectations. This recent power surge is just an added bonus, and a very welcome one. Keep it up Lonnie.