Aaron Laffey Gets Paroled... Possibly Too Late

In one of his posts, Jeff asked if anyone in Cleveland knew the backstory behind Aaron Laffey. I do, and it's pretty simple: the people running the Indians are microcephalics. This is, after all, the front office that handed you Franklin Gutierrez and, last year, thought Russ Branyan would be a better solution to their first base woes than Matt LaPorta.

'm not sure if Seattle received anything of value by getting the Laffey of 2011 ... but you might have. And, god knows, you didn't give anything of value up (Matt Lawson is 25 and it's not even clear if he can hit AAA pitching), so it's hard to diss the M's brains trust for the deal.

Let's start with the skills profile on Laffey...

Laffey is one of those guys that scouts disdain. He's listed at 6' and 185#, and both those numbers might be overstated. He's short and slender and looks like a good wind could blow him over. (You listen to how much  MLB scouts  talk about how they like "big studs", you'd think they're all casting for porno movies.)

Laffey's second 'flaw' is that he doesn't throw anything sexy. No heater. No killer breaking ball. 

All his pitches can do is sink. A lot.  

If you're an old guy-- who used to comb through the agate type of old Baseball Registers record books-- you might know that these guys have always been around and never been highly valued. They require a good infield defense to gobble up all the grounders they serve up-- they don't strike people out. And if you put the bat on the ball (or just wait them out, hoping enough sinkers will drop out of the zone), you stand a good chance of getting on base. Plus, teams figure that they'll get hurt.

But they can pitch. Laffey's ten most similar comps include Rick Honeycutt, Bob Ojeda, Charlie Leibrandt and Jason Isringhausen. Usually it takes a club desperate for pitching, who would look at the 2.45 ERA in the minors and say "Well, why not try him?"

Let me run through his career at length, because it's incomprehensible if not detailed. Laffey drifted through the Indians' minor league system, posting impressive results with zero fanfare:

  • In 2003, at age 18, he posted a 2.91 ERA in rookie ball
  • In 2005, at age 20, he posted a 3.24 ERA in 24 starts in a low 'A' league
  • In 2006, at 21, he made four starts in a high 'A' , 19 in 'AA' and his ERA dropped to 3.16.

The Indians valued Laffey (who was 21 and had just pictehd well in AA) so highly that, during the winter of '06-07, they didn't mention him even once as a possible prospect. Indians Prospect Insider, a site run by a real homer who uncritically channels everything the front office tells him (and, as a result, is almost always wrong)-- didn't even list Laffey in his "Top 30 prospects" of 2007. 

Laffey began his 2007 in  AA. After six starts, he was 4-1 with  a 2.31 ERA and the Indians jumped him to Buffalo. After 15 starts there, he was 9-3 with a 3.08 ERA. In June, when GM Mark Shapiro was asked about Laffey, he described Aaron as a medium-range prospect who had a chance to play a role on a major-league team someday if things went right.

"Someday" turned out to be August 4th, and the role turned out to be fifth starter on the 2007 AL Central champs. In 2007, Cliff Lee, who had been a mediocre and inconsistent pitcher throughout his career (look him up), came unglued. In July, he had a dugout shouting match with his catcher (Victor Martinez) and his pitching coach (Carl Willis).

When he made gestures to the fans on his way to the showers (they were booing him because the Indians were struggling to stay in first and Lee's ERA had swollen to 6.29), Eric Wedge blew his stack and told Shapiro he wanted Lee in Buffalo and Laffey in Cleveland.

Shapiro (I was told) resisted, but literally didn't have any alternative. Jerermy Sowers (Shapiro's pet project) had already gone 1-6 with  6.43 ERA in Cleveland. Jason Stanford (30) and Jeff Harris (32) were never-wases and Sean Smith (4.25) and Adam Miller (4.82 and hurting again) both had ERA's more than a run higher.

So Laffey came up onto a very hot seat. The Indians were 62-48, only a game ahead of Detroit (the defensing AL Champs) and 5.5 games ahead of Minnesota. In nine starts, he went 4.2 (the Indians winning all three of his no-decisions), with a 4.56 ERA. The Indians-- who'd had four rotation slots in good shape (C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook, Paul Byrd) but been hemorrhaghing at the fifth-- went 34-18 and pulled away

Laffey wasn't Stephen Strasburg, but he had a winning record and an ERA below league at age 22. He also pitched 4.2 scoreless innings in the ALCS. So, of course, Laffey started the 2008 season... in Buffalo. 

In fairness, Lee responded exactly the way the Indians had hoped-- he came into training camp with fire in hie eye and became the pitcher he is today. But the reluctance to dispatch Byrd (37, in the final year of his contract and nothing special) seemed puzzling.

Shapiro assured everyone that Laffey would be only a phone call away. And, when Westbrook blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery, up Laffey came. In 16 starts, he posted a 4.23 ERA.

 In 2009, Laffey started the season in the rotation, and was 2-0 with a 4.09 ERA after four starts. But when Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis, for the second straight year, went into the toilet, the powerful thinkers running the Indians decided to move Laffey into the bullpen.

Shapiro's logic behind the move made no sense. Clearly Lee and Carmona ought to stay in the rotation, but  Anthony Reye was 27, and he'd been jettisoned by Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan (the two guys who fix pitchers when no one else can) late in 2008. Plus, Reyes had an injury history and had been fighting with them because he only wanted to throw fastballs. Does that sound like he might be better suited for the bullpen?

The other starter was Carl Pavano. He was 33 and attempting to come back from injuries that had limited him to 45.2 innings in the past three years. And he was signed to a one-year "If I do well, maybe I can get a long-term deal and flush this toilet" contract that the Indians like to hand out. (If the player sucks, they have a bad player. If he does well, they lose him.)

Shapiro reminded everyone that Cleveland didn't have anyone in AAA who could relieve, but they could promote Sowers, who had gone 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA in four starts. Sowers was only 26, Shapiro reminded everyone, and he'd gone 7-4 as a rookie only three seasons ago.

On Planet Earth, Laffey was 24, had made 29 major-league starts and had a career ERA of 4.30 in 165 innings. Sowers was two years older than Laffey, had an ERA of 5.17 in 276 innings and had been blasted out of the rotation in the previous two seasons. And his start wasn't indicative of a turnaround, In 2008, Sowers's ERA in Buffalo was 2.08 and it had been even lower in 2006.

Plus, there was a possibility that Laffey's arm-- which had never been asked to relieve before-- might not be up to the task of pitching every few days. 

But the Indians tried it. For six weeks, Laffey sat in the bullpen,warming up every so often, hoping to be handed a lead . Thanks to Pavano, Sowers and Carmona, that didn't happen often (and Lee didn't need any help). In late June, the Indians sent Laffey to AA, telling him to prepare his arm to start.

It didn't go well-- Laffey had an ERA of 8.15 in five starts-- and he didn't look the same when he returned. It's real easy to tell when Laffey is tired: the ball stops sinking, and people hit his pitches in the air.In 2007, Laffey's GB ratio had been 1.81 and it was 1.30 in his first four starts of 2009. But when they brought him back up, it was  .94.

Same story in 2010. The Indians decided that Justin Masterson (who had been a reliever when Boston had him), David Huff (the new Jeremy Sowers) and Mitch Talbot (a no-longer-young player discarded by Tampa, which knows talent) should start and Laffey could do more for them in the bullpen. 

This time, Laffey's ERA ballooned to 5.61. With the rotation sucking wind again, Cleveland sent Laffey to the minors to start and then brought him back to Cleveland as a starter. When he got hammered, they put him on the DL and then tried him again in the bullpen late in the year. Then they decided they had no spot for Laffey and traded him.

BOTTOM LINE: As you can tell, I have been in Laffey's corner for years. I have, I think justifiably, been appalled at the Indians idiocy in handling his career.

But I have no idea what kind of a player the M's just acquired. If Laffey is the same player he was in 2007-08, Seattle has picked up a great value. In Safeco, where homers go to die, if he has a decent DP combo, he could be very tough to hit.

That was another issue in Cleveland-- the Indians fielded one of the worst infields  in baseball in 2009-10. At one point in 2009, the Indians were playing two converted catchers (Ryan Garko and Victor Martinez) at first , a converted shortstop (Asdrubal Cabrera) at second, a third baseman (Jhonny Peralta) at short and a second baseman (Mark DeRosa) at third. Their zone ratings were all at the bottom in 2009, and the 2010 infield was even worse.

The downside on the deal is that players with bodies like Laffey's generally can't withstand much abuse. If his arm has lost even 10% of its snap, it's likely that his career as a productive player is over. 

But if I were Jack Zduriencik, yeah, I'd have taken the shot. Wedge and Willis know Laffey, and their record with pitchjers speaks for itself. In addition to Sabathia and Lee, they were the first guys to get value from Westbrook and they've been really good with bargain-basement veterans. The bullpens have been problematic, but Shapiro stuck them with an awful lot of garbage over the years.

Anyway, when the price is Lawson, what are you really losing? I know he was "one of the players traded for Cliff Lee"-- but so were Jason Donald and Jason Knapp. Lawson doesn't draw enough walks, he strikes out a lot and he doesn't turn the DP well. Generally when a team tries a 24-year olld 2B in center and left (as Texas did, before trading him), it's a sign that he isn't destined for glory.

I genuinely hope it work out for Seattle. I think Wedge, Willis and Laffey all got raw deals here, and I'd like nothing better than to see the deal blow up in Cleveland's face.

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