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Picking Through the Core

I believe it was indiansfan who coined the term "LWB," a way to refer to any one player among Lee, Westbrook and Byrd.  Or maybe a better way to put it was, to any one of our starters except Sabathia and Sowers.  As in, "I'd be willing to trade LWB."  That theme has come up again and again over the hot stove, with Byrd a favorite current whipping boy among fans, Westbrook entering a walk year, and Lee looking very much like this year's Coco Crisp:  A guy we're willing to pay millions of dollars to, but not with enormous enthusiasm.

The most recent flare-up of LWB trade talk came in reference to Toronto RF Alex Rios, rumored to be on the block in the wake of the Vernon Wells contract extension.  A former top-ten prospect league-wide, Rios finally broke out last season at age 25, though a staph infection muddied the record a bit.  He missed almost all of July and came back with horrible numbers in August.  But in three other months -- April, May and September -- he appreared in over 20 games and put up more than a 1000 OPS.  He finished at 865, good for a 118 OPS+.  The way I see it, take away the staph infection and this kid played like an MVP candidate, and even if this was an early career year at age 25, the rest of his prime should look pretty damned good.

Rios is, by the way, eligible for arbitration as a Super Two player, so he will get some siginificant money for all four years, probably in the range of $22 million.  (Talk about your sloppy roster management:  Did the 2004 Blue Jays really need an extra week with this kid en route to a 67-94 record?  Yeesh!)  Yet we're still talking about basically the kind of money we've been paying Blake/Boone/Belliard the last couple years, and unlike those guys, Rios is absolutely entering his prime.  And yet, with more money available than pitching resources, maybe Toronto is looking at Rios  as their version of Coco Crisp.  "Nice chip, but maybe we can flip it for something nicer."

Meanwhile, back at the Jake, LWB is looking more expendable than ever, particularly to those with an eye on the Indians farm system.  By the end of 2006, a bunch of young pitchers had pushed themselves into the Indians' long-term plans.  Carmona has one foot in the majors already, and Slocum and Miller are poised to contribute as early as this year; all three are serious candidates for the 2008 rotation.  Martin, Lofgren and the Lewis Brothers are right behind those guys.

That's seven pretty serious prospects getting ready to land -- I've left out fringier guys like Dittler and Ness -- and despite the high attrition rates for pitching prospects, a couple of these guys are likely to pan out.  This does little for our 2007 situation, but it does suggest that the team can't afford to consider long-term starter depth a serious area of need, compared with other areas.  That in turn suggests that Lee may be on the table, not just Westbrook and Byrd.

But the nice three-year view doesn't change the fact that, as presently constructed, the 2007 club is merely stocked with starters, not overstocked.  That is, it suggests that we'd need to sign someone credible in order to feel good about sending LWB on his way.  That may be part of the motivation in talks with Mulder; indeed, it's a little hard to imagine we'd try to shoehorn Mulder into our current roster.  I feel that with Carmona already having made a promising debut as a major league starter, we can afford to exchange LWB for a riskier option.  It is an appropriate response to the fact that our 6-7 starters are relatively strong.

I don't think it can be overstated what acquiring a player like Rios, or like Barfield, does for the team.  A pre-rolled core player.  I have rebutted most calls for "the big bat" acquisition on the grounds that it's just not needed.  But moves that fill a key position long term for minimal payroll ... moves like that are hard to look away from.

At the end of 2005, we were looking at an embarassing breakout of core players -- literally four guys in the lineup, in their primes, had emerged as star players, and they were under control for another 3, 5, 6 and 7 seasons, respectively.  The rest of the lineup looked a little more ragtag.  Last season provided some interesting shifts, as Sizemore and Hafner surged further forward while Peralta and Martinez raised doubts about their long-term value.  Midseason new players started to arrive.  Could we get a core player out of Choo and Gutierrez?  How about Luna and AstroCab?  Garko and Marte and Kouzmanoff?  It wasn't clear.  By the end of the season, we had a notable lack of things to be confident about at second base and left field, but a pretty good feeling about third base.

In the offseason, the long-term lineup picture has continued to evolve.  In a near-miraculous development that many fans will not fully appreciate, Barfield fell out of the sky to become, essentially, our fifth core player, with the expectation that Marte will not be far behind.  We now seem to be hoping to find one core player out of Choo and Garko and Crowe, with Crowe considered the long-term favorite but Choo possibly getting the first real shot.  Finally, in signing Dellucci, the front office essentially punted short-term efforts to develop a core LF, despite a gigantic cast of "maybes" sucking down option years in the high minors.

For those keeping track, that gives us solid core players at 4-5 positions and solid candidates at another 2-3, with veteran hole-fillers in the last two. All are four or more years from free agency, except for Hafner, who is only two years away.  So what does Rios do for us?  Exactly what Barfield did for us.  He gives us one more.  One more guy to be in the dead of his prime, performing solidly above average, at reasonable dollars.  One less question tough question, one more good answer.  Players like Rios -- assets like Rios -- simultaneously make keeping Hafner more feasible, yet losing him less scary.

And that is the essence of all this "core player" talk anyway.  I don't know how Shapiro defines that term exactly; it can get lost in his trademark melange of Bob-and-Bob-speak.  But the core player concept is something any fan can appreciate:  A player in his prime, with average-plus to superstar ability, under team control for several years for reasonable money.  That's it.  And acquiring players like that are, simply, the number-one bread and butter for any team trying to contend, but especially for small market clubs.  And knowing this, I find myself reacting to Alex Rios the way some fans react to Alfonso Soriano.  We could get Rios, and he's exactly what teams need to get to win, short term and long term.

I'm thinking about a lineup with as many as seven true core players, already very formidable, ripening and peaking as a group.  Already daunting in 2007, completely terrifying by 2009 and 2010.  And I'm not sure what it is or isn't worth giving up.  But it looks pretty good to me.