Winter Meetings Snapshots: AL Central

Managers and front office executives have media obligations at the Winter Meetings, and here at FanGraphs we do our best to engage in, and report on, as any those sessions as possible. Today we’ll share some of what I learned in San Diego, with the five American League Central teams front and center.

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How do trade talks typically work at the Winter Meetings? Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey touched on that subject as things were winding down in San Diego.

“A lot of it is continuation of previous conversations,” Falvey told a small group of reporters. “End of season, everyone kind of takes a breath and looks at what’s going on. Then you have the GM meetings and start a lot of the conversations. This is just an extension of that. In many ways, we sit in our suites and text, and call, other teams. We’re not necessarily even walking down the hall, or going to another floor.”

The Twins aren’t unique in that respect. I subsequently overheard an executive from a National League team saying he’s not sure if anyone came to their suite all week.

As for the level of non-face-to-face exchanges, some clubs were more engaged than others. The AL Central champs fit into the “less” category, their attention directed more toward non-trade acquisitions.

“Last year was a little bit slower Winter Meetings,” Falvey said of expectations going in. “Could it be slower again? We weren’t sure. If anything, this gave us some more clarity around what our next few weeks will look like. We’ve already assessed the players. I’ll say this: The conversations with teams seemed a little less frequent than the free agent conversations.”

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The Indians apparently had at least one fruitful conversation in San Diego. On Sunday, news broke that Cleveland would be sending Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields Jr. Suffice to say, swapping the 33-year-old former Cy Young Award winner was a bold move for the Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff-led front office.

A few days earlier, the duo had addressed the shared relationships between rival executives when proposals get tossed around.

“It’s a closed group,” Antonetti explained. “Especially on a trade. It’s not like you’re going to a car dealership and it’s a one-time thing where the guy might be lying to you, and has no reason not to. You know there’s a high probability that you’re going to have repeat negotiations with other teams. That doesn’t mean there won’t be deception, or people putting different angles, or different pressure, on you. But you’ve at least built up some track record of negotiations.”

I asked the pair how common it is for teams to kick the tires without actual interest in a player, basically just trying get an idea of what’s going on within the industry.

“There’s a high amount of communication between teams,” responded Chernoff. “To your question, I think a lot of that is just exploring interest to see if there might be a fit. [From there] it gets more serious if you see a possibility.”

According to Antonetti, possibilities abound — in most cases, with people outside the aforementioned closed group having little inkling of what’s being discussed.

“It always feels like there are a lot of conversations on trades among teams,” said Antonetti. “The last couple of Winter Meetings have felt, maybe externally, to not be that active. But they felt very busy to us. We’re not sitting here very often thinking, ‘Hey, what are we going to do today? We have nothing to talk about.’”

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Jumping back to last month’s GM Meetings, I was part of a small scrum when Rick Hahn was asked about deals that don’t work out. The Chicago White Sox Senior VP/General Manager allowed that they have a way of haunting the decision-makers.

“It’s human nature,” said Hahn. “We spend a lot more time trying to unpack what goes wrong, as opposed to examining all the things that may have gone right. For example, the James McCann signing last offseason [went right]. The losses tend to hurt more than the wins, so we spend more time looking at them.”

How does he, along his inner-circle colleagues, go about assessing the misses?

“We lose sleep, drink.” Hahn responded with a smile. “No, we look internally at the reports and the metrics, and what led us down this path. And what’s changed, and why. Look, you’re projecting human performance. You’re projecting human behavior. You’re going to be wrong sometimes.”

Meanwhile — and this is by no means meant to disparage the deal that was later consummated — Rick Renteria was asked, during the Winter Meetings, about the team’s rumored interest in Nomar Mazara.

“He’s obviously a powerful man, 6-foot-4, I think, 6-foot-5,” said the White Sox manager. “He looks like he’s seven foot every time I see him in the box. Runs extremely well for a big guy. Can defend. Good arm. Brings a lot of qualities to the plate. Can pop one in the seats as quickly as anybody. I think he’s done it against us a number of times.”

Mazara — acquired from the Texas Rangers mere hours after Renteria spoke — has six home runs in 91 plate appearances against his new team. His career slash line against White Sox pitching is a healthy .309/.374/.642.

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The Tigers will have a new bench coach next year, and no learning curve will be necessary. Lloyd McClendon, who is stepping into that role, has been Detroit’s hitting coach for each of the past three seasons. Moreover, he’d already been serving as Ron Gardenhire’s right-hand man when it comes to putting together a batting order.

“I kind of leaned on Lloyd for lineups,” Gardenhire said at the Winter Meetings. “We would get all the information, but also talk with Lloyd about what he thought. He was with the hitters and had a really good feel of who he thought was swinging good. We had a lot of conversations.”

Gardenhire added that it’s a good move for the former Pirates and Mariners manager, as he’d been taking “a beating over the last couple of years, trying to figure out these young hitters.” Joe Vavra, who spent the last two seasons as Detroit’s quality control coach, moves into McClendon’s old role. The extent to which he’ll influence lineup decisions remains to be seen.

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Mike Matheny is entering his second big-league managerial job with some new knowledge. Earlier this year, Kansas City’s new skipper took an analytics course at Sports Management Worldwide. During his Winter Meetings media session, I asked Matheny if he could give any examples of what he learned, and how those things will impact his managerial decisions going forward. His answer was nonspecific.

“It was just [about] continuing to improve in every area,” said Matheny. “It’s [about] trying to stay ahead of what some of the norms are, some of the expectations. A lot of it was really myself connecting with people like Ari Kaplan, who was heading up the course, and asking them to evaluate me. What are some of the trends, some of the tendencies, some of the things that are weaknesses that need to be worked on.”

His history with analytics is an interesting one. Eight years ago — this at the outset of his managerial stint with the St. Louis Cardinals — Matheny told me the following in an interview that ran here at FanGraphs:

“For me, first and foremost is gut instinct. Second is understanding the players. There are things that statistical analysis can’t help with, and the state of the individual players is going to rate really high with me. But is statistical data going to play into every decision? I would say yes. I want to make an educated decision with everything I do.”

Fairly or not, the University of Michigan-educated former catcher gained a reputation of being largely analytics-averse while managing in St. Louis. He’s now joining a team that’s had a not-dissimilar reputation for years. But as Royals GM Dayton Moore made clear in a recent Sunday Notes column, that’s not entirely fair.

“I think the Kansas City Royals maybe have downplayed a little bit the amount of analytic involvement they have,” said Matheny. “I don’t think it’s an organization that runs around waving a banner that tells everybody how data-driven they are. I’ve been extremely impressed and excited about some of the information we have to help us make decisions.”

In our 2011 conversation, Matheny said “I’m going to do whatever I think is right and what gives us the best chance to win.” All these years later — Kaplan’s class now under his belt — he’ll presumably weight analytics more heavily, and temper down his reliance on gut instincts. Time will tell.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Joser

It’s not like you’re going to a car dealership and it’s a one-time thing where the guy might be lying to you, and has no reason not to. You know there’s a high probability that you’re going to have repeat negotiations with other teams.

Hey, look! Baseball transactions are an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma! (No surprise, except maybe to fans who want to see their GM “win” every trade)