Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mark Shapiro Faces His Defining Moment

He is the reigning MLB Executive of the Year according to The Sporting News.

He is the only active General Manager to win the award twice. Last year, and in 2005 when he was also named Executive of the Year by Baseball America.

The Cleveland Indians won TOPPS’ Organization of the Year under his watch in 2006. The only time the Indians have ever held that honor.

He oversaw the Indians dramatic reconstruction that began in 2002 and had produced a 93 win season in 2005 and a 96 win season in 2007 that include a trip to the ALCS.

Despite all of those accolades Cleveland Indians General Manager, Mark Shapiro, faces his defining moment in the summer of 2008. After a spring full of high expectations from experts and fans alike, the Indians have fallen flat on their face and reside in the basement of the American League Central with a 35-43 record.

Only the Seattle Marines have a worse record in the American League. In the National League, the Washington Nationals, San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres have worse records that the Tribe. The Rockies swept the Indians last week and the Giants are on the verge of doing the same thing tonight.

Where Shapiro takes this franchise over the next few months will ultimately determine his legacy in Cleveland sports. In 2002 he instituted “The Plan”, his vision of how to keep the Indians continually in contention despite being a small to mid-size market in a non-salary capped sport.

The Plan began by trading off established veterans in order to restock a weakened farm system short on talent due to the low draft picks the Indians received during their most successful run in team history from 1995 to 2001. The idea was to build from within while making savvy trades and logical free agent signings to accentuate the young talent pool.

While The Plan saw consistent improvement each year, minus a hiccup in 2006, and almost bore fruit in 2007, 2008 has been a totally different story. While the Indians organization appears to “Waves of Arms”, as Shapiro likes to say, the offensive talent in the minors, and majors for that matter, is marginal at best. With most of their young talent only locked up through 2010 or 2011 their window at a legitimate run as contenders is small.

The good news is that Shapiro does not face a complete rebuilding project as in 2002. Tony Lastoria does a great job of following the Indians’ minor league system for The Cleveland Fan and from all indications the “Wave of Arms” does exist and is itching for promotion to Cleveland. Most of the issues are at the plate and in the field as evident in the Indians struggles to put even four runs on the scoreboard on a nightly basis.

The bad news is that there are many experts who feel that the Indians’ draft strategies and selections have been poor under the watchful eye of Shapiro. Included in that group is Dennis Nosco, who detailed the Tribe’s 2008 draft here.

Add in the fact that none of the Indians’ top selections in the past few years have made an impact at the MLB level and it does raise an eyebrow. Adam Miller has been hurt and Jeremy Sowers inconsistent but can you name another Tribe first round selection?

Free Agent signings haven’t been a giant strength of the ball club since 2002 either. For every Rafael Betancourt, Paul Byrd or Casey Blake there has been a David Dellucci, Roberto Hernandez or Jorge Julio. And these iffy veterans always seem to block the Indians’ young talent from breaking into the bigs. The big name free agent that could make an immediate impact has avoided Shapiro as well.

Where Shapiro has excelled has been in trades. The Bartolo Colon for Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee started “The Plan” in 2002 and remains signature deal. Jake Westbrook from the Yankees for David Justice, Travis Hafner from the Rangers for Einar Diaz and salvaging Franklin Gutierrez from the Dodgers for the enigmatic Milton Bradley also were some of Shapiro’s better moves.

Even the smaller deals like Tom Mastny from Toronto for John McDonald and the acquisitions of Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-soo Choo from Seattle for Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard, respectively, have paid some dividends. Shapiro has shown is a very adept trader.

He is not without his share of clunkers. The Brandon Phillips situation is his biggest sin, despite possibly getting a steal in Jeff Stevens in return, and has haunted this franchise as much as the Colon deal revitalized it. In response he had to trade 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff to the Padres for Josh Barfield, a deal that San Diego looks to have gotten the best of, leaving a giant hole at 3B that has been there since the departure of Travis Fryman.

The Coco Crisp for Andy Marte and Kelly Shoppach deal with the Red Sox also looks sketchy as the highly touted Marte has done nothing in his tenure in Cleveland. Netting Jason Michaels for Arthur Rhodes was a wash, but it did create the infamous LF platoon that has driven Indians fans crazy for three years.

Whatever Shapiro does it has to be bold and it has to be decisive. He can not sit on his hands as he did in the off-season between 2007 and 2008. It was that lack of foresight and indecisiveness that has put the Indians in the position that they are today. He needs to roll the dice, take a chance and be creative. That is what good GMs do. That is what he did in 2002. He needs to get back to that philosophy to right the Indians’ ship in 2009 and beyond.

The Cleveland Indians’ 2008 season may not yield a championship but what happens off the field will be Mark Shapiro’s defining moment, good or bad, establish his legacy in Cleveland, good or bad, and shape the direction of the Indians for the next few years, good or bad. If anything it will be more interesting than the current product on the field.

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