Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Open Season

With the baseball free agent season set to open next week, the lack of noise thus far from the Cleveland Indians is deafening. At least it was until earlier today when the Indians traded prospects Kevin Kouzmanoff and Andrew Brown to San Diego for rookie second baseman Josh Barfield.

On the one hand, GM Mark Shapiro can now cross one item off his "to do" list. On the other hand, was this the deal to make?

We've chronicled many times our displeasure with the Indians with respect to free agents. They are underfinanced by cheapskate owners and adhere to a corporate strategy in which the level of success is almost exactly equal to their level of luck.

Last year, GM Mark Shapiro was unlucky. Saddled with an uncompetitive budge and a game plan built oddly around replacing closer Bob Wickman, the Indians mostly whiffed on their off-season acquisitions last year and as a result took a step, maybe two, backward. They went from a team with 93 wins in 2005 and poised for a playoff run to a team that has several major holes to fill before they can even return to competitiveness.

One of those holes most definitely is at second base. There was screaming all season when the Indians traded infielder Brandon Phillips to the Cincinnati Reds. And when Ronnie Belliard was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Tribe was left with utility players like Joe Inglett to fill the void. But for those still bemoaning those losses and trying to put the Barfield trade in context, a recent posting in "The Baseball Analysts" should be of great interest.

In Rich Lederer's November 8 column he lists his most Overrated Offensive Players for this last season. Essentially, this is a list of players who are generally perceived to be decent offensively but who statistically don't really measure up. The criteria is simple. To make the list a player has to have a batting average that is greater than the league norm but an on base percentage and slugging average below the league norm.

Interesting, both Belliard and Phillips garner an honorable mention. Belliard had a decent .272 batting average but his on base percentage was only .322 and his slugging average only .403. Phillips had remarkably similar statistics: .276/.325/.427. And, while he didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify, Joe Inglett was essentially a mirror image: .283/.332/.383 Not to take this too far, but Inglett actually had the higher fielding percentage of the three (.984 to Belliard's .981 to Phillips' .977) Barfield is basically a mirror image as well. He hit .280 last year with .318 on base percentage and a .423 slugging average. His fielding percentage was .987.

The trade for Barfield relegates Inglett and Hector Luna to utility status, where both are probably better suited and does ostensibly fill the hole at second base. But the larger point is that the hole that existed wasn't necessarily created by the trading of Belliard or Phillips. It was created by the fact that Shapiro hasn't adequately addressed it in the last few years, satisified instead with the underachieving Belliard.

On the positive side, though, Barfield has a full year of major league experience to draw on and appears to have, in Shapiro speak, a "huge upside." But to get Barfield he also gave up a player in Kouzmanoff who also has a"huge upside." From that angle, it's an interesting trade made even more interesting since they are both infielders. Clearly the Padres think Kouzmanoff will hit for higher average and power in the years to come. His performance in the minors suggests as much. But this is the kind of trade that does keep the hot stove going and the kind of trade that rarely gets made these days. Players of similar age and abilities going to teams that obviously like slightly better the guy the other team had.

And while on the subject of free agents, we also noticed the story in today's USA Today in which they handicapped the derby for the high-priced free agent pitchers. (A similar article appears with respect to the top hitters as well) In the article, the various writers predict where the top free agents will land and what kind of contract they'll get.

In a surprise roughly on the scale of the either the news of John Daly's fourth divorce or Brittany Spears' split from serial breeder, Vanilla Ice wannabe Kevin Federline, no one predicted the Indians would make a pitch for any of the first tier free agents. Long gone are the days when owner Richard Jacobs would unveil his free agent Christmas presents to the fans in the form of Dennis Martinez or Orel Hersheiser or Eddie Murray. And, not coincidentally, long gone are the days when the Tribe would sell out the season before it opened.

In short, don't expect much this off-season. The Tribe, under the ownership of the Dolans, has gone from market setters to bottom feeders. And in that role we know what we'll get: some second or third level free agent with a career that features more down side than not.

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