Wednesday, February 02, 2011

SABR Day in Cleveland: Mike Chernoff's Comments on the Indians

This past Saturday was SABR Day, and Cleveland's Jack Graney Chapter celebrated with a meeting in the press room of Progressive Field. One of the star guest speakers was Mike Chernoff, the new Indians Assistant General Manager. Chernoff is a 2003 Princeton graduate, where he studied economics and played baseball.

Chernoff's dad was in the back of the room; father and son have played a game of catch monthly for as long as the two remember. The elder Chernoff works in the Mets radio team, and the younger's career began as an intern with that very same team. Since then, Mike has worked his way up from Indians intern to Indians AGM. Here are his thoughts on this year's team.
  • The front office expects to contend and suprise ahead of schedule, like it did in 2003 and 2004.

  • Carlos Santana will start season, and in fact should be ready ready at start of spring training.

  • Chernoff compared Matt LaPorta to the Cliff Lee of 2007-2008 - a player struggling with injuries and inconsistencies who spent some time in the minors and was poised for a breakout.

  • Because of all the time Asdrubal Cabrera lost to injury last year, his return is like a "new acquisition" for the team.

  • Other teams call all the time for Michael Brantley as their CF.

  • Shin-Soo Choo is an elite RF, but "don't tell his agent I said that."

  • Austin Kearns was re-signed as insurance in case Grady Sizemore can't play every day at the start of the season. (Kearns would play left field with Brantley moving to center.

  • Jason Donald and Jayson Nix are in the mix at third, with Luis Valbuena at second.

  • Second and third base are the biggest holes right now, but also the biggest positions of strength in the future.

  • It would be unrealistic to start Lonnie Chisenhall in the majors without more time in AAA, but Chis may prove the team wrong in spring training.

  • Understandably, the team gets a lot of calls about Chisenhall.

  • Cord Phelps is ahead of Jason Kipnis right now, but both have similar star power.

  • The second half of the season was much better than the first for the Indians, especially the pitching.

  • Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, Mitch Talbot, and Carlos Carrasco are set in the rotation. The fifth spot will go to one of the guys from last year, or a free agent.

  • The Indians have 10-12 available bullpen arms who are young but good.

  • The front office, who has struggled putting together an effective bullpen in the past, has determined that they need to get tons of guys with flexibility (options), so they can swap parts in and out as needed.

  • Bryce Stowell, Josh Judy, and Zach Putnam are all candidates for a bullpen spot.

  • Travis Hafner is still productive, but not a "seven day" (everyday) player. He's most effective against righthanders, so hopefully playing Pronk against righties and Kearns/Shelley Duncan against lefties will give the combined production of a top five DH.

  • Mike Hargrove will have a variety of roles with the Tribe, on the field and off. For example, he will be an instructor at spring training. He also will serve as a liason between the front office and fans, both by spreading the team's message to the fans, and by relaying fan feedback to the team.

  • For what it's worth, the business and baseball departments are now more closely tied to each other.

Chernoff also fielded a few questions:
  • A SABR member asked why Manny Acta seemed so distant and reserved. Chernoff was a bit surprised, as he sees the manager as an open door guy with the team and the community. As an example, Chernoff noted that Acta is often out on the field with a fungo bat in his hands. Personally, I'd side with Chernoff on Acta - an aloof manager wouldn't be out enjoying Snow Days.

  • Another question was asked about Valbuena. Chernoff didn't sugar coat things, saying that, "It's not like you're sitting there saying he's terrible, and I'm sitting there saying, 'Oh wow this is great!'" He said that the team sees a player that is still young and has tools, with a good minor league track record and one option left. If they get decent defense and good power out of him, he'll stick around. If he plays like last year, he won't just be off the field, he'll be off the team.

  • Someone asked about Hafner's shoulder. Chernoff said that the shoulder is in the best condition it's been in in three to four years, but Hafner still needs to work on it constantly.

  • There was a very good question about psychological tools employed by the team. The Indians do have an on-staff psychologist that meets with the players regularly. Scouts notice players' makeup on and off the field. And all potential draftees are given a psychological test.

  • One questioner mentioned the concerns about Drew Pomeranz's throwing motion. Chernoff said that because of the injury risks, the Indians may consider fast-tracking Pomeranz to maximize what they can get out of him.

  • Alex White is the farthest along of any minor league pitcher. He'll start in AAA, but may reach the majors this season.

Chernoff kept referring to the Indians as a small market team, so there were a few questions about that.
  • He said that the mid-90s were essentially a perfect storm of consequences (my words, not his) that allowed the team to have such a high payroll. The stadium was brand new, the Browns were gone, and Cleveland's economy was doing well. Now, the stadium is one of the oldest in the league (There were cherry pickers parked outside the stadium in several locations for renovations), the Browns are once again the most popular team in Cleveland, and the economy hasn't been great for anyone in the area.

  • The quote of the day from Chernoff: "Really? The Angels can just take on the entire Vernon Wells contract?"

  • Someone asked how the Indians can go from small market to middle market. Chernoff really didn't have an answer, except to say that if the Indians aren't bringing in money in ticket sales, they can't put that money into payroll. He did say the team was working to figure out why Cleveland finished behind teams like Pittsburgh and Kansas City last year when the Tribe has had more recent success than those two clubs.

  • Chernoff said the best way to handle free agent attrition was to focus on trade returns and diversify the "portfolio" of players gotten back. He pointed out that Casey Blake was signed as a 29-year-old minor league free agent, and the Indians eventually got Carlos Santana back for him.