Brandon Moss and the Packed Refrigerator Effect

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Aug 12, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oakland Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss (37) drives in a run with a double against the Kansas City Royals in the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Moss came to Cleveland today in exchange for sending Joe Wendle to the Athletics, and our own Jason Stout recently gave an overview of the trade. Many Indians fans are no-doubt thrilled that the Tribe managed to acquire a big bat for a second baseman that many of them had never heard of.  What fans probably don’t realize is that this move is more of a risk than it is a steal, and likely means that another big trade is on the horizon for the Cleveland Indians.

The average baseball fan knows that Brandon Moss played for the A’s the past few years and made it onto the 2014 AL All-Star team.  The more avid baseball fans know that he bounced between the majors and minors with the Red Sox, Pirates and Phillies before coming to Oakland, and that he’s averaged about 25 homers and 75 RBI over the past three seasons.  They also know that he has battled some injury issues, including a major hip problem that led to a stark decline in his second-half performance.  After hitting 21 homers before the All-Star break in 2014, he managed only four in the entire second half.  Here are some other things you need to know about Moss last season.

The Good
1. His overall walk rate in 2014 was 11.6%, a 17% increase from his 2013 walk rate of 9.9%. Conversely, his strikeout rate dropped from 27.7% in 2013 to just 26.4% in 2014. For what it’s worth, his walk and strikeout rates were 8.8% and 30.4%, respectively, in 2012.
2. He accumulated more plate appearances last season than in any previous season of his career.
3. His first-half numbers from 2014 prove his upside, meaning his ceiling is probably around 30-35 homers with a .265 batting average and an OPS of .850 over a full season.
4. He’s projected by MLB Trade Rumors’ Matt Swartz  to earn $7.1 million in 2015 after his arbitration raise (a great value for the production he’s capable of), and will come with one more year of arbitration in 2016. This means that the Indians have the option to not tender him a contract if he performs poorly in 2015, but still have him cost-controlled for 2016 if he has a monster season.
5. His late-career improvements suggest that he may not fall into the “29 and decline” category and could instead beat the aging curve for another couple of years.
6. His BABIP of .286 in 2014 suggests that there is room to improve.
7. His walk rate actually improved in the second half of last year, up to 14.8% from 9.6% in the first half.
8. He hit two home runs in the Wild Card Game in 2014, not included in his second-half total.

The Bad
1. He recently had surgery, so he’s not a lock to return by spring training.
2. His .268/.349/.530 batting line in the first half last year imploded to an ugly .173/.310/.274 in the second half of last year.
3. His strikeout rate also jumped from 23.6% before the break to 31% after.
4. He has only played two seasons in the major leagues with more than 300 plate appearances.
5. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and has a hip issue.

It’s important to note that Wendle isn’t just some scrub prospect. While many sites after the trade have been saying things like “who the hell is Joe Wendle”, we at Wahoo’s on First have been paying close attention to him for over a year. After hitting 16 homers and 32 doubles while slashing .295/.372/.513 with the Carolina Mudcats in 2013, he took home the Lou Boudreau Award, an award given to top position player in the Indians’ farm system each season. He slugged .414 at the AA level last year after missing part of the season with a hand injury. And he’s played solid defense at second base throughout his career, a position that doesn’t see much power. He has the potential to be a solid major-league player in a year or two.

All that being said, this trade is more of a risk than it is a steal. The Indians gave up a second base prospect with power potential to land a $7 million player who may or may not ever fully recover from injury and provide them with two years of power behind Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana. But, while it is a risk, it makes a great deal of sense for both sides. The Indians already have at least six more years of both Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez in the middle of the infield. Beyond that, Zach Walters is a natural middle-infielder who has shown that he deserves a chance in the major leagues, while Francisco Lindor and Erik Gonzalez are ranked ahead of Wendle in the Tribe’s farm system. It’s fair to say that Wendle was simply blocked by too much talent, and therefore moving him was a smart idea. And although I really like Wendle’s potential, I doubt the Tribe could have gotten a better return for him than two years of Brandon Moss. On the other side, Oakland sheds itself of $7 million in salary in a year where it’s looking less and less like they’re going all-in on a championship again. They also fill a gaping hole at second base, though Wendle might not arrive in the majors until after the 2015 season.

So although Moss is definitely more of a gamble than he is a sure thing, I believe he’s a gamble that’s worth taking, especially since the Tribe doesn’t have to guarantee him a contract past 2015. However, this is where we come to the looming question: what happens to the Indians’ roster with the addition of Moss? He has some positional flexibility (although his defense isn’t exactly stellar), but the Indians already have a cluster of first base/outfield/DH types on their 25-man roster, and Moss adds to the confusion.  This is where we come to what I have so hastily dubbed The Packed Refrigerator Effect.

We’ve all dealt with an overstuffed refrigerator before.  You come home with a carryout box from your favorite restaurant late at night and can’t find room in the fridge to fit your delicious leftovers.  You want to move the milk, but it won’t fit anywhere but the top shelf because it’s too tall.  So you move a couple of things like orange juice and salad dressing to the side shelf on the door of the fridge, maybe you toss a few things into the vegetable crisper and try to make room.  Maybe you even have to take your hot sauce out and relegate it to the pantry.  The point is, moving all these things around is a chore and kind of annoying, but you just got this awesome takeout and you can’t just throw it away, so you have to make it fit in the fridge.

Brandon Moss is your steak from Chili’s or whatever you brought home.  The Tribe has to fit him into the lineup somehow, but there’s a lot of shuffling around to be done in order to make it work.  We all know that teams have a 25-man limit on their major league roster for any given game. That includes the five-man starting rotation as well as the bullpen, which consists of at least seven relief pitchers. Take a look at the players currently projected to take up the remaining thirteen spots:

CF Michael Bourn
LF Michael Brantley
RF David Murphy
OF/1B Nick Swisher
OF Ryan Raburn
3B Lonnie Chisenhall
SS Jose Ramirez
2B Jason Kipnis
1B Carlos Santana
UT Mike Aviles
UT Zach Walters
C Yan Gomes
C Roberto Perez

This is assuming OF Tyler Holt is optioned to the minors to begin the 2015 season, which is the most likely scenario. These players are all either guaranteed roster spots or very deserving of one based on past performance and potential. Add Moss into the picture and something has to give. The only players who aren’t under contract (and therefore guaranteed a roster spot) are Chisenhall, Ramirez, Walters and Perez. So, as things stand, in order to have him on the roster the Indians must send one of those four players to the minor leagues. Chisenhall and Ramirez are Cleveland’s best options at third base and shortstop, respectively. So, as things stand, Cleveland needs to demote either their backup catcher or a high-ceiling young right-handed power hitter. And it gets even more complicated when you look at how these players bat.

Left Handed Hitters: Bourn, Brantley, Murphy, Chisenhall, Kipnis
Switch Hitters: Swisher, Ramirez, Santana
Right Handed Hitters: Raburn, Aviles, Gomes, Walters, Perez

The Tribe’s consistent hitting is, as is the norm in recent years, predominantly coming from the left side of the plate. Raburn is a question mark at best, Aviles comes up with a big play now and then but has never given us reason to believe he has a high ceiling, and as far as switch hitters go, it’s hard to be optimistic about Swisher heading into 2015. That leaves, out of a nine-man lineup, Gomes, Santana and maybe Ramirez who can hit reliably from the right side of the plate. Even Brantley isn’t completely matchup-proof, as we’ve seen from his splits. And when the Tigers can call up any scrub left-hander from AA (a.k.a. Kyle Lobstein) to wreck the Indians for five innings, it’s a good idea to start looking at ways to balance your lineup. In this vein of logic, it’s hard to justify stashing a righty with pop like Walters in the minors. And if anyone thought sending the backup catcher down to AAA was a good idea before, the fact that he’s a righty has now probably made them think a bit harder.  Oh, and by the way, all those rumors/thoughts/suggestions about moving Kipnis to the outfield just died an instant, gruesome death.

Nobody here is doubting that Moss is a great addition and belongs on the roster. But this situation has already gotten messy, and that’s before we even consider the fact that Terry Francona usually prefers to go with an eight man bullpen as opposed to the usual seven.  In all likelihood, we’re looking at another trade coming sometime in the very near future.  My guess is that Murphy is almost a sure bet to be moved.  With Brantley, Bourn and Moss all batting from the left side, it would be ludicrous for the Indians to pay an average left-handed fourth outfielder $6 million this year.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of Raburn or Swisher on another team before spring training as well.  The Tribe just doesn’t have enough room for all these outfielders in their refrigerator…

…okay, but you get what I mean.

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