A Conversation with Indians Assistant GM Mike Chernoff

This week, DTTWLN’s Laurel Wilder was in Goodyear, Arz. to take in Indians spring training and some sunshine. Between exhibition games, B games, minor league games and the rest of his day, Indians Assistant General Manager Mike Chernoff was able to sit down for about 30 minutes and discuss a number of Tribe topics as the 2014 season is just over two weeks from beginning. Below is the complete transcript of their conversation.

Laurel Wilder: I’m sure you’re very busy every day here in Goodyear, but I don’t think the average fan realizes what you do on a day-to-day basis, especially when it’s not the time of trade deadlines or during the winter when trades are being made and contracts are being signed. Can you walk me through what an average day looks like for you, if there is such a thing as an average day?

Mike Chernoff: There is no such thing as an average day any day in baseball if you work in the front office. But spring training is a little bit of the same every day for our players; they’re getting in at 7:00 or 6:30 [in the morning] and their day starts, they have all their practices and then games start at 1 – that’s on the player side. We get in early, we get in at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and try to get some office work done. So if we’re negotiating contracts, multiyear contracts with players, we’ve got to do some of the legwork on the negotiations in the morning before the day really gets going and we have meetings with coaches and players and things like that. We are in the middle of March, so we’re getting ready for the amateur draft even though it’s in June. We’re getting reports in from our amateur scouts, we’ve got our pro scouts on the road watching other teams in spring training to see if we have a need at the end of spring training, who are we going to try to tap into. So a lot of it just is communicating with and coordinating with those groups and every day is different in terms of who you are communicating with, but it’s gathering those pieces of information and doing that type of analysis. Then, that takes you up until some time in the morning when things really start speeding up. That’s when meetings with some of the coaches, going out and trying to watch things like our B game today [March 13] at 11 and then going to watch our game at 1. A lot of the work really gets done early in the morning, and once the game starts, it’s bearing down on the game and trying to help; be a resource in terms of coaching and also evaluating some of our guys during the game.


LW: The organization has made it very clear with their promotions and message so far this season that they have “unfinished business” after last year’s 92-win season. Considering the losses of players such as Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, Joe Smith, and Chris Perez, what players do you think will need to have an increased role this season to fill those gaps and complete that unfinished business?

MC: I think we never know which one player is going to improve or continue his progression. What I think makes us so hopeful and optimistic is this group of guys, the way that they’ve come together as a team, didn’t happen until right at the end of the year. You saw the best of what we had towards the end of year. Essentially, most of the team is back and most of the team is really young. You’re looking at guys like Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, potentially Carlos Carrasco, guys like that who were younger than where they should be in their prime and will likely as a group, not every one of them, but likely as a group, get better, pitch more innings, and hopefully help our team’s rotation. Same thing on the field. You’ve got Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, guys in the primes of their careers that we think are just continuing to get better. Yan Gomes moving to catcher and Carlos filling a different role, that makes our team better to have both those bats in the lineup for the whole year. And when you add to that, I think, at least in their own minds, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn had what they would consider to be down years last year. They helped the team tremendously, but had down years, so I think there is a tremendous amount of opportunity for us, if things go right, to build on where we were last year and I think our group is expecting to do that.


LW: Looking at the AL Central, it’s probably more wide open than it has been in the past 3-5 years, with big changes in Detroit and improvements in Kansas City. Does this excite you and, as the Indians sit now, do you think winning the division is a clear goal for 2014?

MC: It’s always a goal – I mean winning the World Series is always a goal. That is where you set out every year in Spring Training and that is the goal. That is the singular focus, how do we get there, how do we do it. We don’t focus a whole lot on the things around us, we try to improve ourselves and make ourselves the best team that we possibly can be. I think you naturally are going to glance over at how the other teams are doing and sure, there are moments of feeling that other teams are doing well and they’re trying to be competitive and catch up with us. It’s on us to use both of those as motivation to try to push ourselves to the next level.


LW: Since Terry Francona has been hired as manager of this team, it seems like he’s really worked to make the clubhouse an environment that players want to be a part of. In recent years, you have the front office signing Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley to long-term extensions, with rumored contract extensions for Justin Masterson and Jason Kipnis. I know it’s not policy to discuss specifics, but is it fair to say that everyone is working to keep the core of this team together past 2014 and be a serious contender for a while down the road?

MC: Absolutely. I mean, Tito wanting to be here and deciding that this is where he wants to be is a huge thing for players. I mean, that’s it for us, too, in the front, for anybody, for fans. You have somebody coming to Cleveland who wants to be here and wants to make this his home and build a team to win a championship here. You’ve got a guy in the same offseason, Nick Swisher, the type of guy and personality that he is and the type of player that he is, making the decision to come to Cleveland. Those are recruiting tools for external guys and I think that makes our internal guys even more driven to help this team reach our ultimate goal. So there’s no doubt about it that Tito’s culture in the clubhouse, the environment he creates, all those things, that’s the big part of it, but the decisions of actually wanting to be here and taking the action to do that certainly speaks a lot, too.


LW: How much do contract extensions by other players in other organizations impact your own negotiations, if at all? For example, you have Homer Bailey in Cincinnati who has a six year, $105 million contract extension – how does something like this effect what you’re trying to do with your own players? 

MC: We come up with our own way of valuing what we can do on a contract, so that is outside of the market. I think where it really plays in is when you are trying to help a player understand if it’s a fair deal. In the end, we’re looking for fair deals. A player, by signing long-term, we are taking on a lot of risk that if things don’t go well for him, we are guaranteeing him a lot of money. But at the same time, he is forfeiting some of his upside, his earnings potential, by signing now instead of waiting until free agency to see what he can maximize in terms of his earnings. So, as players look at that, as we look at it, that is the market, that is the market for that type of player. It’s not one guy, it’s not Homer Bailey, it’s not each player, it’s the group of players that have signed deals in recent years that always factors in, at least in terms of their context. Now, it may mean that our threshold can’t allow us to get to there, or it allows us to get a great deal done, because those deals are less than what we would be willing to pay – but it only factors in at that level, as what is termed as a fair deal.


LW: Talking about fair deals, I know you’ve been very involved in the Tribe’s side of arbitration hearings this offseason. I’m sure that’s not always necessarily a fun thing to be involved in. Is this a last resort – would you rather work out other options before having to go to this extent with a player?

MC: Yeah, I mean we did for 22 years before that, and our hope is that we would do that again this year. It’s a miserable process, in a lot of ways, for everybody involved, but it’s part of the business and it’s something that, if you can’t reach what both groups feel is a fair deal, there’s a process in place to handle it. The best part about it is that there is no personal aspect to this, it’s not a personal thing. It’s, hey, this is outside of the context of what we think of these people as players and as human beings; it’s just a way to set their salary. We always hope to avoid it and we always try to, from our perspective, do what we think is a fair deal and a player, I’m sure, does the same thing. If you can’t match up, you go through the process and somebody else decides whose number is fair; that’s what it comes down to.


LW: Can you talk to me a little bit about where you think player evaluation is going in the future? Do you think it’s going to become sabermetric heavy, or how much weight do you think is given to someone being a “good” clubhouse guy, a “bad” clubhouse guy, a hard worker, a hustler on the field, things along those lines?

MC: I don’t think those things are independent. The way that you value players, you’ve got scouts going out and watching players, and coaches watching players, and you’re analyzing different things. There’s no reason you can’t analyze what a scout or coach says, and see if that factors in to quantify that. Really all that sabermetrics has done is allowed us to quantify the things that we think are important. So now, it’s not just, “Is he a good clubhouse guy or not a good clubhouse guy,” but how much do we think him being a good clubhouse guy impacts the team. It’s a way to help. In the end, business decisions around the globe are being pushed in this direction; you’ve got to quantify how much you’re willing to pay. When the dollars are as high as they are, you have to be able to quantify that, to justify to your owner for why you’re willing to pay a certain amount. And I think things like clubhouse chemistry, we just don’t have ways to quantify right now. So the challenge is for our analysts and our sabermetrics-oriented people to quantify that, not to disregard it. That’s how we view it, and that’s how we view the lens of evaluation in everything we do. If we can’t quantify it, you’ve got to make a subjective decision and factor it in. But that could be clubhouse chemistry, that could be statistical indicators that we don’t know how to factor in yet. That’s how we look at it.


LW: Last year the Indians had a disappointing season in terms of attendance. How much does attendance effect the organization’s ability to do things such as long-term deals? For example, people think that with new, lucrative television deals, revenue generated at the turnstile is not nearly as important as it used to be.

MC: Revenue generated at the turnstile is very important. It is one factor, but it is very important, there is no denying that in any sport. Especially in baseball, you have 81 home games, and that’s a big part of what you can get. But at the same time, there are other revenue sources, and our challenge is to do the best that we can with the resources that we have. So, in two ways, I think that the better we do, we’re hopeful that putting a good product on the field will allow more people to come and we can build on the success that we’ve had. In the end, it’s up to fans to believe in that and feel that we have that type of product that they want to support.


LW: Now to a little bit more on the field. When did Carlos Santana approach the organization about trying to play third base? How much work has he put in during the winter and spring and have you been impressed with his drive toward this new goal?

MC: He came to us at the end of the season last year as we had end of season meetings, and, as Yan really started taking on the catching role, Carlos was really motivated to try to be on the field in some way, not just DH. He felt he could play third base and he took it upon himself to learn the position, go down to the Dominican, figure out how to play. It has been incredible watching him. I think it has been one of the best parts about spring training for us this year, watching the work that he’s put in every day, the work that our coaching staff is putting in with him every day, and, like you said, the drive that he’s had to try to succeed there. So, in the end, whether it works out or not, this has been a positive thing for Carlos and for the organization because he has improved himself as a player.


LW: Looking at Danny Salazar, is the plan this season still for him to pitch without an innings limits?

MC: The innings limit thing is fluid and it is something we as an organization keep internal. I think we are hopeful that Danny can have a completely healthy season, where he transitions himself into being, we’ll call it a “normal, unrestricted pitcher”. I think a lot of that is more than just setting a certain number of innings, it’s a touch and feel thing with how he’s doing and how he’s feeling throughout the season. We do that with every young player that we have – we, in fact, do that with every player, but we focus on young players who haven’t established that baseline yet. It doesn’t come down to one innings number and that’s it.


LW: The Indians seem to have a really good job lately of helping players resurrect their careers. You have David Murphy, Vinnie Pestano, and John Axford who are coming off what you could call subpar seasons. What makes you think they’ll rebound this year, and what are your thoughts on guys coming off major injuries, like Shaun Marcum and David Cooper?


MC: I think you’re looking to find players and guys who may thrive in our environment and in our situation. We were able to find that last year – guys like Ryan Raburn, who was coming off a down year, guys like Scott Kazmir coming off a down year. Even internal guys coming off of down years – Ubaldo. We had so many of those cases of guys who had already reached high levels in their careers and were just coming off of really poor years and got better, thrived in this environment. All we can control is the environment and the types of players we try to acquire, so we focus on, “Hey, who are these guys that may be looking for an opportunity?” You have to have an opportunity first of all, and maybe we see something or think we can help them, or maybe they see something where we may have the resources where they feel we can help them. So, you hope that those match up; you never know for sure but you hope that they match up and you hope that you can find one or two of them.


LW: Looking at some of the younger players, you have Francisco Lindor and Tyler Naquin who have seen significant time with the big league club this spring. I know they’ve been re-assigned to minor league camp. Is it still possible they could make an impact at the big league level at some point this season, knowing that they do have quality big leaguers in front of them?

MC: There are no limits on any player in our system. What it comes down to is the work they put in, the progress that they make, the maturation that they make as a teammate and person. It’s hard to handle failure and players have to learn how to do that as they get to the Major Leagues because, undoubtedly, they will face it. So what we try to focus on is the controllables. They can control their work, their progress, their open-mindedness to coaching, and in the end, what that leads to, is a mature player who can handle those types of things. Both of those players have shown tremendous signs of that; it’s a big reason why they were in big league camp. They weren’t in big league camp because they were first-round picks. They were in big league camp because they are two of our hardest workers and most coachable players. It’s why Joey Wendle was here. So you mentioned those two guys who were number one picks, but Carlos Moncrief, Joe Wendle, Erik Gonzalez, there are plenty of other guys in camp who are not as well known but are doing the same types of things. And I think for any one of those players, they could be here in a hurry if things work out and the opportunity is here.


LW: When you look at the number of middle infield prospects the Indians have in addition to Lindor, you have Jose Ramirez, Ronny Rodriguez, as you mentioned Joe Wendle, Erik Gonzalez, Dorssys Paulino. Obviously they can’t all play middle infield at the big league level. A year ago, you had Tony Wolters move to catcher – any chance any of these players could see a position change if there was the need? 

MC: I sure hope so – because that means they’re all knocking on the door of the big leagues and are ready to go! Those things, we are hopeful that we have way too many guys who are really, really good. And I think, especially through the middle of the diamond, you always want to have more of those guys than other organizations have. So I think we’re fortunate in a lot of ways to have those guys; I think they push each other a little bit. But we don’t worry about it until they’re knocking on the door of the big leagues and, when players are that good, it tends to work itself out. You find ways to fit them in.


LW: This year is going to be the first year for instant replay. The Indians recently hired new replay coordinator Greg Langbehn. He’s been predominately a coach throughout his career – what was the organization looking for in someone for this position? Since it’s new, it’s not a job people have set out to do in baseball. Were people like technology experts or minor league umpires considered? Again, what were you really looking for in someone?

MC: There was a lot of uncertainty – it’s a new position, we didn’t know the technology, we didn’t know the system, we didn’t know how much of it was a feel for what was going on on the field versus the technological part of it. I think what we focused on was finding somebody who was going to be diligent in watching the game, who understood the game and the situations of the game, and could be a resource for Tito. We have other people in the organization – our video coordinators are incredibly good with the technology and the video aspects of it, so they can be resources for Greg in that process. But we felt like, for the first year, we wanted somebody who had a good feel for what was going on on the field, and Greg seemed to fit that perfectly.


LW: What is one thing about this coming season that excites you that maybe the average fan doesn’t realize, even something just for you, personally?

MC: The thing that drives me every day is trying to win a World Series. I think as we look around not just our Major League clubhouse but on our minor league side, into our player development and even into our scouting group, we have, there are things going on behind the scenes that the average fan doesn’t see that are the building blocks of a successful organization for years to come. So Tito and the Major League team showed some of that last year and showed a way to unlock this potential. The guys on the team didn’t change that much but we won 24 more games. So we were unlocking this potential that the team had, and we took huge strides that I think were unexpected in a lot of ways to people outside the organization, but we believed in it. We look at the other things that are happening in the organization and the work that our coaches and staff are putting in, and I think we feel equally excited about unlocking the potential throughout the system this year as we had done on the Major League side last year.

Photo: Kyle Terada/USA Today sports images

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