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Dealing with the Cleveland Indians front office

"...the Indians are just difficult to deal with because they overvalue their own players."
And thus begins the portion of the hot stove season in which "whispers" regarding the Cleveland Indians' front office and how hard Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff are to deal with start to surface at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario. It's one of those surface arguments that always occurs when there's a holiday void in player movement, or the normal void in Cleveland player movement from year-to-year, or just a plain void of thought. Regardless, any surface argument needs a lot more depth than just rampant speculation. So let's get right to it.

Are Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff hard to deal with?

It's actually a fair question to ask, and one that I've discussed ad nauseam in podcasts over the past couple of weeks with Stephanie Liscio from It's Pronounced Lajaway, Bob Toth from Did the Tribe Win Last Night and Michael Hattery from right here at Everybody Hates Cleveland. All of us agreed to the stubborn nature of Antonetti, especially regarding the rotation, but beyond that, the general feeling is likely based on three potential moves that didn't happen over the past two seasons.
  1. The failure to acquire Josh Donaldson from the Oakland A's after the 2014 season, only to watch him become the 2015 MVP with the Toronto Blue Jays.

  2. The failure to acquire A.J. Pollock from the Arizona Diamondbacks, or a package of prized prospects that included 2015 first rounder (first pick) Dansby Swanson, top 50ish prospect Aaron Blair and a pretty solid outfielder with five years of control in Ender Inciarte, as the Braves did with Shelby Miller.

  3. The failure to acquire Todd Frazier from the Cincinnati Reds, who eventually was dealt to the Chicago White Sox in a three-team deal that brought Jose Peraza, Brandon Dixon and Scott Schebler to the Reds from the Dodgers and Frankie Montas, Micah Johnson and Trayce Thompson to the Dodgers from the White Sox.
In a bubble, those three deals are potentially massive swings-and-misses for a Front Office who is doing the swinging. For a small-market team, missing on any one of these deals compounds the problem, let alone missing on all three, if you are to believe that's really what happened.

So yes, on the surface, it would appear that if Antonetti failed to get these deals done, it's possible that other General Managers consider him hard to deal with. Hell, there's likely truth to the statement that the Indians' front office is hard to deal with. Antonetti, like several successful GMs in Major League baseball, values his current roster slightly higher than other GMs for the simple matter of "fit." When you consider the Indians' starting rotation, as well as their top two or three prospects, I'm not sure "overvalue" comes into play here, which I'll get into later, but to begin and end the conversation there is simply not the type of depth the topic deserves.

Missing on Josh Donaldson

How good would Donaldson have looked buried somewhere in the middle of the 2015 Cleveland Indians' lineup? While I'm a Giovanni Urshela mark through-and-through, Donaldson at the heart of the Indians' order offensively would have been pretty sexy.

Last season, rumors of Oakland GM Billy Beane shopping Donaldson cropped up around the trade deadline, as well as right after the season. Beane snuffed out many of those reports, stating that he didn't have any interest in dealing his starting third baseman.

Yes, Chris Antonetti called Beane inquiring on Donaldson's availability, and Beane simply told him that he wasn't available...end of story. If you are to believe the multiple reports on the subject, 20+ teams inquired about Donaldson, with each being told the same as Antonetti. In the end, Beane saw players he wanted in Toronto, and like that, the deal was done.

"I wouldn't have done the deal unless it addresses now and the future," Beane said right after the deal. What Beane acquired from the Blue Jays were two major league ready arms with upside in lefty Sean Nolin and righty Kendall Graveman, a starting third baseman to replace Donaldson in Brett Lawrie (who could also play second), and a ton of future in the highly regarded shortstop Franklin Barreto. While you can play Monday Morning QB with the deal, it was Beane that made the call to the Blue Jays. He targeted them as having the unique players that he wanted, and went after it. If you ask any GM outside of Toronto, they'll tell you that they woke up that late November morning scratching their heads, wondering how they weren't involved.

In reality, Beane likely not only saw the players he wanted, but also understood that then-Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos was a big risk-taker, and would likely be willing to not ask a lot of questions in acquiring Donaldson.

In Toronto, Anthopoulos had the added advantage of having owners that were willing to spend a lot of money to fix holes in the team, so swinging for the fences on a deal that may deplete the future would fit in their plans more than in a smaller market. No, the prospects and players involved weren't earth shattering, but three-of-the-four were ready or already there, and provided several levels of upside.

Nolin was a fringy top 100 prospect, and Graveman was a guy with high make-up who had really propelled himself through Toronto's system quickly. Lawrie has been a player who had never quite lived up to his top 100 status because of injury and consistency issues, but had shown flashes of breaking-out over the years. Barreto is a teen, but looks the part of a future top 10 prospect in the bigs, and has already cracked the top 100. It doesn't SEEM to be equitable value overall for Donaldson, especially in hindsight, but this is what Billy Beane does.

Did Beane pass over the Indians because the front office was hard to deal with? Maybe with this type of deal, but not likely. A week later, Beane pulled the same type of deal with the Indians, albeit to a lesser extent, when he dealt one of his starting outfielders, Brandon Moss, to the Indians for minor league infielder Joey Wendle. Nobody outside of Cleveland prospect-beatniks (like me) knew who the hell Joey Wendle even was, and Moss was a guy that a whole lot of teams were looking at as a cost-effective, potential break-out star. No, this didn't have the weight of the Donaldson deal, but it was the same exact 'Billy Beane-type-move." Beane saw a player he wanted with the Indians, and dealt a player he didn't want to pay for that player.

Game Over.

Even if you look at the package of players the A's got, it would have been extremely difficult to match the quantity that Beane was looking for at the same level of quality, to fill his major league roster. I'm not saying the Indians couldn't have done it, but they'd have had to be involved, and it would have taken quite a bit of wrangling.

If Beane wanted two young starters ready to break it in the big leagues, you could have argued that Antonetti could have offered up a couple off the list of Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, T.J. House or Cody Anderson. The problem are that the mix-and-match of players just don't equate. While it's likely the Indians would have considered any ONE of Carrasco, Salazar or Bauer, along with perhaps a House or Anderson, it's likely the league overvalued the top end of those five guys (as they should have), and correctly undervalued the lower end.

While House broke out during the 2014 season, he likely didn't hold the same value outside of the Indians' organization. He literally came out of nowhere, and most front offices would have looked at him as a small piece to any trade puzzle. And while today, Anderson is likely a guy that teams notice, he dropped off a cliff in the minors in 2014. He had no value in a trade, and was busy getting ready to start the year off in Akron.

Past that, the Indians didn't have a third baseman ready to roll for their roster. Lonnie Chisenhall was so scintillating, that Carlos Santana started the 2014 season there, and while Giovanni Urshela found his way to the big league club in 2015, he wasn't a sure-fire major league starter last November. It's hard to argue the Barreto position because he is such a raw player, but very highly regarded. If Beane was puzzling a present/future trade, it's easy to see why the Tribe didn't quite fit the bill. The pitchers were all at different levels and they had no third baseman fill.

The Indians just didn't have a package of starters that fit Billy Beane's needs that wouldn't deplete their 2015 rotation, or match the value and quantity that he clearly was looking for. I don't ask questions about how Beane values assets these days, I just stare in dumbfounded wonder at his head-scratching moves. That deal wasn't a Cleveland thing, it was a 'Beane-thing.'

Missing on Pollock, or Swanson/Blair/Inciarte

Arizona General Manager Dave Stewart wasn't dealing Pollock.  Clearly, Stewart's plan of attack was simply to win, and win now. In Pollock, the Diamondbacks have one of the best center fielders in all of baseball, who is just entering arbitration this year. Imagine a GM (Stewart) giving an abundance of value to a player (Pollock) at a premium position with massive control.  You could say that Stewart was "hard to deal with," couldn't you?

So when Stewart inquired about their high premium player with massive amounts of control (Danny Salazar) to help bolster the top-end of Arizona's rotation, the Indians countered with Pollock. I'm not sure it's a fair trade on Arizona's end, but you can surely see where Arizona would balk a bit.

Stewart was thinking of other players to send other than Pollock, and the deal was never consummated. Remember, Stewart had already been pounding down John Hart's door for Shelby Miller prior to the Salazar discussion, and nothing could get done there either, but it's important to keep in mind that Miller was the prize that Stewart was truly looking for. Even then, it's likely the players Stewart was considering for both Miller and Salazar didn't include the entirety of Swanson, Blair and Inciarte. My guess is that at best, it was Blair and Inciarte at the time, or even Swanson and Inciarte, but my gut tells me that the three players that ultimately went to the Braves weren't discussed as a package to either the Indians or the Braves, at the time.

You could also generate a plausible discussion that Stewart initiated contact with Antonetti to help push the Braves and John Hart to get a deal done.

You also have to remember that Stewart was dogged about Shelby Miller, as that rumor had legs every day up until the trade finally happened. Ultimately, the Braves sent Miller to the Diamondbacks for that tantalizing package of players that would have certainly helped out the Indians right away, and in the future, depending on how long you think it would take last year's #1 pick Swanson to move his way through the system. That deal is exactly what the doctor ordered...mostly...in a trade of a top pitcher.

In Inciarte, the Indians would fill an outfield slot immediately with a controllable player with plenty of upside. In Blair, the Indians would acquire a starter that pitched half the season in Triple A Reno last year, and pitched well. He's close, if not ready, to fill the major league slot left open by the loss of Carrasco or Salazar. Swanson is already being considered a potential fill at his native shortstop, but also second and third. Truth be told, he's likely closer the the big leagues than people would like to admit. This isn't Tyler Naquin we're talking about here. Obviously, there's questions regarding his future, but he's a college junior coming in with advanced bat skills, who is as can't miss as they come.

Salazar is a better player with more upside and with a year of more control than Shelby Miller, unless you're one of those boneheads that saw Salazar's elite skill-set and make-up as a reliever. That said, the Indians still have to make that deal if it's available. In a bubble, you do have to scratch your head and ponder how the Indians didn't somehow wiggle their way into this deal, and I'm sure they would have, if they'd have been given a chance.

But in the end, Dave Stewart made the deal for the pitcher he wanted in the first place. It's sorta funny how the Braves and Diamondbacks couldn't get a deal done until Stewart spent $206.5 million dollars on Zack Greinke. It was almost like Stewart said, "alright, we went this far to win now, why stop now." Maybe one-fifth of a billion dollars will do that to you, who knows.

My point here is that this was likely more on the Stewart side than on the Antonetti side, Don't forget, former St. Louis Cardinals' manager, Tony LaRussa, is the Chief Baseball Officer in Arizona, and it was LaRussa who had a close-up view of Shelby Miller coming through the Cardinals' system. And while Miller might project to be the fourth best starter for the Cleveland Indians over the three years left on his contract, LaRussa knows Shelby Miller, and saw him as a "fit," in the same way that Billy Beane saw the package he received as a fit for Donaldson.

That's just the way things work.

Sure, I'd have traded any one of the Indians 'Three Amigos' for that package of players, but it's likely LaRussa and Stewart wouldn't have offered that package to the Indians until John Hart and the Braves turned it down, if at all. And sorry, Braves President John Hart and General Manager John Coppolella would never turn down that deal. The Diamondbacks had the prospects to get the players they wanted to contend now. Chris Antonetti likely didn't even enter into the equation.

Missing on Todd Frazier

The White Sox acquired two-years of Todd Frazier, while sending some prospects to the Dodgers, who sent some prospects to the Reds. It's a weird deal, that doesn't make a lot of sense if you consider what the Reds asked from the Indians.

The Indians absolutely wanted Todd Frazier, and had several conversations with President Walt Jocketty and new GM Dick Williams, who had just taken the job over from Jocketty this past November. Jocketty and Williams have a similar relationship to former Indians GM and President, Mark Shapiro and Antonetti, and both had dealt with the Indians' front office on several occasions over the past seven years. In other words, it's not likely that either team President or GM had any preconceived notions regarding the other. They are known commodities to each organization, and contact each other often regarding players.

At the core of the potential Indians/Reds trade was TFrazier from the Reds and either Danny Salazar or Cody Allen from the Indians. Neither pitcher is worth Frazier straight up, especially Salazar, so I won't even talk about that side of it. You could make a case for Cody Allen, but as one of the top 20 or so relievers in baseball, the Indians need him, or else they would weaken what could already be an area of need throughout the 2016 season with Allen. In terms of fit, Allen has tremendous value to the Indians, and the Reds wanted more than just one of those two guys.

Remember, this is the deal that the Reds came at the Indians with.

When the Indians balked at that, the Reds reportedly came back to the Indians asking for a package of prospects that included either Bradley Zimmer or Clint Frazier, and two or three more prospects on top of that. Keep in mind a couple of things here. The Reds didn't get that value in their ultimate deal, and there were several layers of concern regarding Frazier's offense outside of the Great American Ballpark.

Progressive Field is always rated as a pitcher's friendly ballpark, and when factoring everything in, it;s one of the toughest overall parks for hitters in all of baseball. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Great American Ballpark, which routinely rates as one of the top five most hitter-friendly parks in the game. When you look at Todd Frazier's overall splits, it's easy to see that he took advantage of his home-field.

While I hate taking cursory looks and generalizing splits and statistics overall, it's pretty clear that Frazier has a pretty substantial difference in his home and away numbers. His OPS is 100 points higher at home, than on the road, with substantial differences in average, homers, RBI and runs scored. In other words, in a cursory look, Frazier has snacked on pitching in his hitter-friendly park.

In Cleveland, Frazier has been downright bad over the years, with a .162/.244/.216 slash in ten games on the North Coast. Sure, it's a small sample size, but one that seems to follow him in most pitcher-friendly ballparks.

Chicago's U.S. Cellular is another top-half-of-the-league hitter's park, and while it averages out closer to the middle-of-the-pack than the GABP, there have been seasons in which it has been a top five hitter's park as well. Todd Frazier has only played their three times with mixed results, but suffice it to say he'd likely have more success there over the long haul than in Cleveland.

No doubt, the stat-laden Chris Antonetti took all of this into account when pondering the return he'd give Cincinnati in a potential deal, which likely closed down talks early. In other words, it was likely the Reds that were playing hard ball, to the point that the Indians President and GM decided to walk away. Hell, the Indians went so far as to reach out to a third team, and likely brought the Dodgers into the conversation, since Antonetti was already talking to Dodgers President Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi about a trade involving one of the Indians starters.

I know, it sounds a lot like Antonetti is hard to deal with, right? This is where I roll my eyes, in a snarky sorta way.

Could the Indians have matched the Reds haul of Jose Peraza, Scott Schebler and Brandon Dixon? Well, it's hard to think that they couldn't. Peraza is an interesting piece. Prior to last year, he was a top 50-100 prospect in all of baseball, as a middle infielder. I've heard comparisons to Jose Altuve, but also realize that this will be his third team over the past couple of years. Teams are giving up on him, and not for a lot. There's upside there, but Altuve may be too high of a ceiling. In the end, I wonder if there's more JRam in him than Altuve. Still, he's likely a top two or three prospect for the Reds at this point, which likely speaks to their system, as much as anything. Perhaps they rated him with Frazier or Zimmer, which is ludicrous, in the grand scheme. Still, rankings had him as high, or better, so perhaps this was the piece that was needed, and as I mentioned in the other two "misses," just the fit the Reds were looking for.

Schebler really is just a guy. He has power upside as an outfielder, but he's never been highly regarded, and would have likely never been a full-time guy with the high priced Dodgers. He did find time with the Dodgers last year, but wouldn't be a top ten guy in just about any system, including some bad ones. Not sure where he is with the Reds, but likely somewhere around 10 overall. Brandon Dixon is a 23-year old who struggled in Double A. I'll leave it there.

To get the Dodgers to give up virtually nothing, the White Sox sent three really interesting guys to the Los Angeles in Frankie Montas, Micah Johnson and Trayce Thompson. Montas has liquid heat, and no control, but still would project to be a top three or four prospect in any system. As a starter or reliever, the Dodgers would likely use him long before thoughts of Peraza enter their minds long-term. Micah Johnson immediately replaces Peraza as a middle infielder in the system. I'm not sure his long-term projections make him all that special, and at 25, it's hard-pressed to even consider him a prospect, but he's major league ready in a sense that he's done it all in the minors. Thompson raked for the White Sox last year after his August call-up, but that's likely an aberration. If it's not, it's a steal for the Dodgers' organization, who continues to look for the right deal for a top-end starter.

It's hard to believe that Chris Antonetti wouldn't have found the right pieces for this type of deal, but the Reds just looked elsewhere. I find it intensely hard to believe that it's because the Reds didn't want to deal with the Indians' front office, especially when considering the simple fact that they've always found common ground in the past. Perhaps the Indians were hard-nosed regarding their three potential ace starters, and their two almost untouchable prospects, especially considering the return of "only" two years of Todd Frazier, but I think there are enough questions in TFrazier to allow the Indians to walk away and not regret it.

That said, had the Reds persisted, I can't fathom they couldn't have found a straight up package that would have equated to the one they eventually got.

**********

So, if you just want to scratch the surface of the supposed "Indians' misses," you can say that the league has been "whispering" about the Indians' front office being difficult to work with, even though most front offices look to the Tribe's management as one of the best in baseball. You can say that the Indians overvalue their prospects and players, even though nearly every front office has been calling non-stop since October, asking if they're available.

Honestly, there's some truth the the hard-nosed approach that the Indians' front office has taken for years. But that's only one part of this year's equation. Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff and now Terry Francona have all expressed how much they value Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, as they should. Do they overvalue these three? I mean, seriously? They're pretty good, right?

Yep, I'm rolling my eyes again.

Let's not beat around the bush here. Kluber and Carrasco already have ace-status, and most smart baseball people consider them top ten starters in the world, with incredible team-friendly contracts. Salazar, at 26, with four years of control and elite stuff, has ace written all over him. In giving them up, you have to hit a home run, and with the Indians set to contend now, you need to find that crazy deal that returns controllable players, who can start start now, and have the type of impact that offsets a top-end starter, and can anchor an offense. Yes, that's a long, run-on sentence for a reason. It's complicated, and for a small-market franchise trying to win now, you can't miss.

Unlike the C.C. Sabathia trade, that took 3 1/2 years for Michael Brantley to click; and the Cliff Lee trade, that took almost five years for Carlos Carrasco to click, a Kluber/Carrasco/Salazar deal now has to fill a couple of holes, and click now. On top of that, the Indians also need to fill a major hole in the rotation created by the trade to begin with. You know, there are teams looking for those specifics all over the place, right?

Like I said, it's a "YOU CAN'T MISS" proposition, that far-too-often misses, so if the Indians' front office is "hard to deal with," I think I can with that. Thankfully, the lack of a trade involving three of the top 25-30 starters in all of baseball likely means they are valuing them 'just right.'
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