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Player Development and the 2010 Tribe

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The performances, both good and bad of our young players this season, has obviously sparked a lot of debate about who should play where and with what frequency.  I'm on record regarding what I think should be done with Masterson (AAA), LaPorta (DL) and Marson (stick it out till June), but I wanted to explain my logic a little more fully.

The Indians, like every organization, although perhaps more so given the economic disadvantages they face, have to generate as much internal value in their system as possible.  That means the need to be better at turning talent into major league performance than their competitors.  Part of this means doing their best to get players to perform to their peak value...what I think of as player development.  But part of it is also being efficient in how the organization uses its resources, in this case its players, in the context of giving them playing time and assigning them spots (or not) on the major league and 40-man roster.

Given the situation of the 2010 Indians - not competitive - an emphasis should obviously be placed on player development.  How do we get guys like LaPorta, Santana, Masterson, Rondon et al. to turn into the best players they can be?  But decisions about player development still need to be made in the larger context of organizational assets and roster utilization.

The Indians came into 2010 spring training with about 9 legitimate starting pitching options - guys who have had success at the big league level or with at least a full season of AA exposure.  The Indians currently have, in addition to their five starters, three guys in Columbus who fit this description (Rondon, Carrasco and Gomez) plus two guys who would if they were on the roster (Pino and Lewis).  Not all of these guys are equal in their potential value and performance to date, but they are all there.  In addition, these give guys represent the beginning of the Indians pitching depth, not the end of it.  In 2011, Kelvin De La Cruz (currently on the 40-man) will be one step closer to Cleveland, and Nick Hagadone will almost assuredly be joining him on the roster.  In addition, guys like Connor Graham, Paolo Espino and Santo Frias will be making their respective cases for roster spots.  In 2012 you can add Scott Barnes, Zach Putnam, Alex Perez, Bryan Price and Eric Berger.  In 2013 that list includes Alex White, Joe Gardner, Jason Knapp and TJ House.  A lot can change between now and then, but my point is that the Indians will likely be forced to make decisions based on roster pressure and that the current assemblage of pitchers on the Indians roster has a limited window of time to be evaluated.  The Indians need to prioritize player development but they need to do so in the context of the Indians current structural position.

Moving back to the performance of the Indians youngsters currently on the active roster, I think a series of questions can be asked of each:

1. Is the player healthy?

2. Are the struggles suggestive of any systemic shortcoming?

3. What options exist?

I think it is important to put young players in positions in which they are likely to succeed.   Ultimately, they have no choice but to succeed against competition at the big league level, but there are different ways of getting them to that point.  If the player is not 100% healthy, and the injury is enough to affect performance to a significant degree, why have them play through it?  Playing hurt does not seem like a good route to long-term success for a young player.  I think in this context there is good reason to be suspicious of LaPorta's health and give him a DL trip, with only as long enough of a rehab assignment as necessary to get him ready again.  LaPorta isn't young, he has succeeded at every level except the big leagues, and I don't think he has any systemic shortcomings in his approach.  Get him healthy, then get him back.

I have no reason to think Marson, Masterson, or the recently demoted Michael Brantley are hurt.  There are reasons to be suspicious of real systemic shortcomings in each case.  The question of how best to deal with that depends on details specific to each player and the position they find themselves in.

Clearly the decision has already been made on Brantley.  A guy with a career minor league K% under 10.0 shouldn't be striking out 28% of the time.  Furthermore, from an organizational asset perspective, there is motivation to give Brantley more AAA time.  Done.

Marson's systemic problems are that he has, and likely will have, very little power.  His immediate problem is that he flat out sucks...behind the plate (it seems) and at the plate.  Marson is young enough and has a level of experience that I would not be opposed to giving him the Brantley treatment.  But again, his development has to be considered in a broader organizational context, and that context includes Carlos Santana.  Santana is more important, and keeping him in Columbus till June is more important than whatever happens to Marson.  So Marson sticks around until June, gets the chance to sink or swim, and then gets the Brantley treatment.

Masterson is of course the most complicated one.  He is, in some ways, having a tremendous amount of success.  You don't strike out 11.4/9 IP without being good.  Unfortunately, it is hard to be good while walking more than 5 guys/game and getting raked by lefties.  These problems are not new.  I have argued in the past that Masterson's developmental path with the Red Sox allowed him to reach the majors and have some success without having to learn how to get lefties out.  I stand by that.  Furthermore, his current problems are not simply a matter of poor command.  His command is really only a problem against lefties.  Against righties he keeps his walks to a reasonable level (3/9IP), and more importantly maintains an excellent K/BB ratio (4.75).  Against lefties he walks an unsustainable number of guys (~6/9IP) and records fewer Ks than BBs.  Masterson does not know how to pitch to lefties and is afraid of doing so. 

Yes, you can leave Masterson in Cleveland and give him the chance to figure out how to get out major league lefties since that is ultimately what he needs to do, but is it the best option?  Particularly, is it the best option given the organizational context?  I tend to go with 'no' to both questions.

Clearly I have no special insight into what allows a player to successfully navigate the nexus between AAA and the majors, but I do think that pitching at the AAA level is easier.  AAA hitters are easier and the weight of each performance is minimized (quick - tell me what the Columbus Clippers record is?).  I'll refer back again to Will Carroll's comments on the difference between pitching at the big league and minor league level:

Why are minor league innings any different than major league innings? There are only theories, but the best and most testable center around a selection bias. A pitcher good enough to go over 100 innings in the major leagues is almost by definition a quality pitcher. We know that major league hitters are harder to get out than minor league hitters, not to mention the stress of pitching in front of big crowds. The type of pitcher that can get over 100 innings in the majors is likely to be coasting through the minors on less than his best effort. He’s seldom taxed. He’s seldom forced to bear down or throw long innings. Granted, we don’t know this is the reason why and mathematically and physiologically, it shouldn’t be the case, but until someone can develop a working model for translation, we have to simply ignore those minor league innings. It should be noted that Verducci includes minor league innings in his formula.

Let Masterson get righted against easier competition, let him experiment with pitches and approaches, and then let him go against major league lefties. I don't advocate taking him out of the rotation, and I don't mean to imply that any demotion is the final word on him this season.

Maybe if the Indians only had a bunch of retread Scott Elartons in AAA I would feel different.  But they don't.  As outlined above the Indians have enough of a surplus of pitching that there should be an organizational prerogative in evaluating them...and part of the evaluation will hopefully involve facing big league pitchers.  I believe the most efficient use of the Indians current active and 40-man roster is to allow for a fair amount of flexibility in the last spot or two of the rotation.  Give guys 4-6 starts and see how they fare.  Meanwhile, give guys you have already identified as parts of the future (i.e. Masterson) the chance to develop a more successful path.  I am not arguing to throw someone like Rondon, who is currently struggling, into Cleveland, and even Carrasco is a long-term asset who needs to be handled carefully.  But why not Pino?  Why not Carrasco if he continues to do well?  Why not give SLewis a chance to take Jamey Wright's place?  For some of these guys the chance is now or never.  The Indians have a wall, the Indians have spaghetti, and the Indians aren't really worried about what they are eating right now...so why not (with some careful guidance) throw a lot of it against the wall and give it a chance to stick?