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Trade Cliff Lee! Fire Wedge! Promote LaPorta! Sell! Sell! Sell!

It's a steamy Monday morning, and what better way to spend it than by pondering the panic, debunking the latest fake controversies, and whorishly driving traffic?

Transactions:  Cliff Lee might get traded someday, maybe

Once again, a legitimate news source does some lazy "reporting" about idle speculation, and let the scurrying begin!  This one comes from CBS's Danny Knobler, and boy, it is a pretty dumb story:

  • Talking about trading a front-line starter, two weeks into the season?
  • The whole "Lee looks off" story arrived a week or two late, right after Lee out-dueled C.C. (sort of) to get the "Win" and give the Yankees a home-grand-opener de-pantsing.
  • It doesn't take an inside source to say that the Indians will listen to offers on Lee if the Indians fall out of the race, the same as most front offices would do.  They traded Colon in 2002 and Sabathia last year.  Duh.  This is a story?

  • "I think they'd love to trade him" — so says an "official" "familiar" with the Indians.  I think this guy would love to think that the Indians would love to trade him.  Where's the beef?

  • It doesn't take a genius to see the potential parallel with Colon, who was traded in the last guaranteed year of a multi-year deal, with a very reasonably priced club option for the following season.  Immensely valuable asset.

  • It might, however, take just a smidgeon of observation or insight to note the key difference, which is that the Indians don't need to rebuild next year.  The Indians' upper minors were at their most barren state in a decade back in 2002, but their upper minors in 2009 couldn't be more loaded.
  • Ditto, observing the real parallel, which is between Lee at the end of 2009 and Sabathia at the end of 2007.  Shapiro knew full well that Sabathia would probably walk one year hence, but from all public statements, and even reading between the lines, the Indians never seriously considered trading C.C. prior to his walk year.  The key fact being that this is not Lee's walk year; 2010 is.  Cliff may not be quite the franchise tentpole (or tent model) that C.C. was, but he's close enough as far as this subject goes.

In other words, with a strong core of talent in the majors and upper minors, the Indians' recent history suggests that they will not be particularly inclined to trade Lee if they fall out of the race.  They will listen to offers — sure, of course — and dare teams to make them an offer they can't refuse, a la Eduardo-for-Asdrubal, Casey-for-Carlos, Einar-for-Travis.  But they will also place a lot of value on keeping Cliff in the fold for one more run in 2010 — knowing all the while that they can still trade him next July if they want.

Bottom line, Knobler "reported" only things that were obvious and not news, and he failed to bring any real thought to bear on his flimsy subject.

Analylsis:  Slow starts 'r bad, m'kay?

Naming no names, one popular canard* making the rounds lately is that (a) we have another slow start on our hands, (b) Wedge always does this, [c] we've had three slow starts in four years and only recovered once, (d) FIRE WEDGE!

* I don't really know what the word "canard" means, but this seems right.**

** No, I'm not going to start doing Posterisks all over the place, but I just felt like trying it out one time.

First question I have for the outburstors is ... why is it Eric Wedge who has the slow-start tendency?  Why isn't it the pitching coach, hitting coach or GM?  Maybe intermixed among all the Indians' fancy player evaluation methods lies a hidden correlation with slow-starting players.  ("OMG!  SLOW-STARTING PLAYERS ARE THE NEW MARKET INEFFICIENCY!!!!!")  Maybe the indians' highly professionalized, slow and steady approach works well over 162 but not as well over the first 12 of the 162.  I mean, they dumped notoriously slow-starting Andy Marte and favored famously hot-starting Ben Francisco, what more do you want?

I don't know that these guys weren't well prepared to play by their manager.  I do know that two of our slowest starters went to the WBC (three if you count Weglarz), and a third (Francisco) just isn't all that good.  I also know a few guys who certainly seemed well enough prepared to start the year:  Martinez, Hafner, Sizemore, Choo (hitting anyway), Garko, Asdrubal.

I also think — but don't know — that a pitcher's first appearance of the season means very, very little.  That is, no one appearance means all that much for the rest o the season, but I bet if you studied it, you'd find that the correlation between a pitcher's first appearance of the season and his season-long performance is even weaker than it is for any other one appearance.  Again, i don't know it, haven't ever seen any research on it.  I just think it.  Maybe I'll ask the BtBS guys to look into it.  Bottom line, Cliff and Carl's first starts mean almost nothing to me — I believe that they are, ultimately, less meaningful than our lineup's 22-run outburst against the Yankees, which was not terribly meaningful.

Does another slow start probably mean that we're sunk?  Of course not.

  • Did a slow start in 2008 sink us?  No.  What sunk us was losing four key players who had produced something like 15 runs above replacement the year before.  If we don't lose those guys, then not only is the slow start mitigated a little, but we almost certainly end up in a dogfight with the White Sox and Twins, who after all only beat us by a measly seven games when all was said and done.
  • Did a slow start in 2007 sink us?  No, because we didn't have one.
  • Did a slow start in 2006 sink us?  Yes and no.  The big culprit in 2006 was infield defense.  Was Wedge responsible?  I think it's fair to say "yes" on this one -- the drop-off from the end of 2005 to the start of 2006 was pretty incredible.  Still, was Wedge supposed to anticipate Belliard's D falling off a cliff?  Or Jhonny's eyesight?  And was it his fault all he had was Broussard and Boone on the corners?  Still, when you lose your division by 18 games, your problems were a lot more profound than having a slow April.
  • Did a slow start in 2005 sink us?  Yes.  Journeyman hitters froze up pretty solid for the first two months, and it took awhile for our young talent to start carrying the club.  But our bigger problem was a hot start by the White Sox — by Game 19 in 2005, we were already down 7.0 games.  That is a lot more than 3.5.  The size of the hole is determined by more than just our own digging, and it's the GB number that really counts.  The 2005 club arguably was our best team overall since 1996.

The 2005 season offers an even more instructive lesson than "don't get off to a slow start and get bulldozed by a club on a huge hot streak."  That lesson is:  "Don't lose a bunch of games to a key divisional rival."  Against common opponents, the 2005 Indians were three games better than the 2005 White Sox.  Head-to-head, however, the Indians dropped 14 out of 19 games.  Now, you could argue, we lost seven games of ground in those first 19 games in April, and we lost the division by six games.  That is true.  But I think it's more significant, or at least more instructive, that we gave away 9 games in the standings playing head-to-head.

So here we are with another slow start, and the question is, will it kill us?  The answer, I think, lies in two key questions:  One, is the team fundamentally strong, or at least as strong as we thought it was?  I think the answer is "yes" -- some parts are underperforming and others overperforming, but basically, the roster is about as good and bad in all its various pieces-parts as I thought it was coming in. It is perhaps disorienting to look at a 7–12 team and say, I think it's a good team, but it's not really out of the ordinary in baseball.  Maple Street Press recently reprinted an article on this very subject.  

Two, has another team jumped out to a huge lead, which truly defines the size of the hole?  Clearly, no — you wouldn't throw in the towel on a 3.5-game deficit in August, so how can it make any sense to do so in April?  Sky Kalkman illustrated this pretty clearly in a recent article simply by updating the CHONE projections, one week into the season.  It represents the reality of what's already happened, win-loss results, and also our current best estimates of what will happen — which are simply not all that different than they were three weeks ago.  (The article is one week old, but the division has not changed much since.)  CHONE still sees the Indians winning the division — but it is an ever increasing dogfight, and even when the season started, our edge was never more than one or two surprising individual performances or injuries away from being fairly capsized.  But we're not sunk yet — honestly — and there really aren't any individual "must wins" -— although I admit that we'd better start winning some series against key rivals.

Analysis:  LaPorta should be called up now, damn the consequences, FTW!  FTW!  ROMNSHFLOLFTW!

I want to tell you that this is right.  I want to tell you that both Francisco's numbers and LaPorta's numbers over three weeks are Incredibly Meaningful, and that no potential expense should be spared to bring the fairly young projected stud to the big leagues.  But that would not be truthful.  Here are some facty things to consider:

  • Dude, it's only three weeks.  I Want To Believe, yes, but it's only three weeks.
  • LaPorta was projected by PECOTA to produce 15.8 runs above replacement at the plate this season, just under an 800 OPS.  (Yes, I'm going to ignore the defensive projection, which lacks credibility.)  Even an optimistic projection has him making perhaps a three-win difference over the course of the season.
  • Incidentally, only 22 outfielders in all of MLB were worth three marginal wins or better in 2008, so if LaPorta is worth that much, he'll not only be hitting his 80° projections per PECOTA and CHONE, he'll also have jumped from Double-A to being the best outfielder on 10-12 big-league teams, and second-best on almost all of them.
  • Three marginal wins over a season is one extra win per 54 games.  (I know, you love it when I bring the Big Math.)
  • There are 38 games between now and June 5, the point after which there are no significant service time issues.***
  • So we're down to roughly two-thirds of a marginal win — if LaPorta's current numbers are "real" and he significantly outperforms projections — and also assuming that Francisco/Dellucci/Crowe can't be deployed to anything better than replacement-level effect.

***Incidentally, I don't buy for a second the idea that the Indians don't really care about service time.  It will never be the number-one, key consideration in a critical situation.  But for our best prospects, and especially for position players, ignoring service time is tantamount to throwing away money, and this organization really does not do that when it can be foreseen.  Look at how many of our players ended up on the "good half" of the service time board, between 43 games and 128 games:  Cliff 100, Victor 114, Grady 56, Jhonny 118, Betancourt 79, Garko 91, Francisco 49, Sowers 128, Choo 119, Lewis 52, Barfield 112.  Are we really supposed to believe that when they let Scott Lewis take the fifth starter job away from Aaron Laffey, they didn't realize that Laffey's arbitration would slide back another year if he spent another 4-5 weeks in the minors?  Really?  Now look at the exceptions — Carmona, Shoppach and Perez chief among them — and if you go back, you can see clearly that in each case, there was a clear need at the big-league level, that calling them up and keeping them up were black-and-white decisions.  When there's a grey area, service time counts — as it should.

Emotionally, we suspect that LaPorta is our best option right now, and we want him here, right now.  But good GM'ing isn't just about evaluating players well, it's about estimating their value effectively.  Good analysis (to return to another recent topic) is about divorcing yourself from the drama of immediate events — the day-to-day narrative — and staying focused on the big picture.  The reality is, LaPorta could struggle over the next month, and Francisco could go on a tear — it's not like he hasn't done it before.  The reality is, we don't even have a spot on the 40-man for LaPorta.  The reality is, as much as we've cringed at Francisco's defense, it's very likely that he's a lot better out there than LaPorta — and despite one crummy series, the reality is that our pitching needs more defensive support than run support.

The reality is that the cost of calling up LaPorta now could be nothing, and it could be north of $15 million.  I think I'd put the over-under at around $6 million.  And the reality is, we should not pay $6 million, on a wish and a small-sample prayer for two-thirds of a marginal win.