Friday, June 27, 2008

42 Days of Hell

On May 15th the Indians stood in first place of the AL Central at 22-19 holding a 1.5 game lead over the Chicago White Sox. They were getting ready for the opening series of Interleague Play versus the cross state rival Cincinnati Reds in the Battle of Ohio.

As they ready for the conclusion of Interleague Play on June 27th, against those same Reds, the Indians fans are in the midst of what can only be described as “42 Days of Hell”. A stretch of baseball, based on the opponents they faced, has caused the hearts of the Cleveland faithful to sink into their stomachs.

Going in to the Reds’ series on May 16 the Indians’ schedule looked to set up favorably. All their games were against the last place Reds, marginal Texas Rangers, weak NL West and the teeter-totter that is the AL Central. A perfect time to pad that 1.5 game AL Central lead.

Quite the opposite happened. The Tribe was swept in back to back three game sets by both the Reds and Chicago White Sox. Then they lost three straight three game series to the Rangers, White Sox and lowly Kansas City Royals.

They split two consecutive four game series to the Rangers and Detroit Tigers to at least stop their consecutive series lost at five. They did show a little life by taking the next two series against the Minnesota Twins and San Diego Padres, but struggled to do so.

But is was only a tease as they were swept by the Colorado Rockies in three games as the Indians were only able to muster seven runs total in three games… in the thin air of Denver. A series win was attained versus the Los angles Dodgers but that work was undone by a series loss to the San Francisco Giants.

In what was the perfect opportunity to shine, the Indians fell flat on their face. Not included in the win-loss column were the losses of Fausto Carmona, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez to the DL. Jake Westbrook was lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. Even Josh Barfield was lost for two months after only appearing in two games.

Forty-two days. Thirty-seven games. A 13-24 record against the bottom of the MLB circuit. Simultaneously, the rest of the AL Central was beating up on the NL West. When it was all said and done the Indians sat at 36-43, 7.5 games behind the White Sox, and every other team in the AL Central leapfrogged them.

Yes, even the Royals. The Indians found themselves in last place for the first time since June 25, 1993. Fifteen years. Back when there were only two divisions per league and no wild card berth. That’s how long it has been.

But not as long as the last 42 days. 42 Days of Hell. Hopefully that's as long as it will last or God help us all.

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.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Cleveland Indians Fooled Me

I grew up going to old Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the mid-80s when the announced crowd may have been 10,000 but if you were there you knew if there were quadruple digits in attendance it was a good night at the gate for the Tribe despite what was announced.

My Dad’s employer at the time happened to be the president of The Wahoo Club and had season tickets in the first row behind the visitor’s dugout. The Indians were so bad we used to get to go to 20-30 games a year, for free, because you literally couldn’t give them away to clients, no one wanted them.

The Indians were a bad baseball team, for the most part, in the 1980s and early 1990s and because of that I have always considered myself an optimistic realist when it comes to the Erie Warriors. No matter how bad they were I always had hope that they could be the surprise team of the year but knew that the odds were slim against that.

When the Jacobs Brothers/John Hart regime took over and changed the direction of the Cleveland Indians Baseball Club it was a dream come true to have a contending team for the first time in my life. The optimist always felt the Indians had a shot at the title but the realist in me was always skeptical about the offense first make-up of the team when it came to playoff baseball.

It has always been a pretty even balance with me. I have never been one of those “woe is me” they will find some way to blow it, Cleveland is cursed or any other line of BS that sometimes, and too frequently, permeates from a Cleveland sports fan. I have always been a firm believer in the team but have always realized their weaknesses.

But for some reason, before this season started, I let the optimist in me blind my realism. I wrote prior to the season that the Indians may be the team to beat because of their incredible starting pitching and lights out bullpen. The fact that their offense was sub-par in 2007 had me thinking that there was only one way to go, up.

But as this dreadful 2008 season drags on and I get increasingly demoralized at watching the same game over and over each and every night I realize that the Cleveland Indians fooled me and fooled themselves and it makes me sick to my stomach.

I wrote a month ago about whom I felt was to blame for this debacle and named everyone from Mark Shapiro to Eric Wedge to my pride and joy, The As-Man, Asdrubal Cabrera as culprits. But it just hit me today that I wrote this about the time the Indians broke camp for the final time in Winter Haven, Florida.

I can take the fact that they fooled me. I am a fan not a paid executive of a Major League Baseball team. But the fact that they fooled themselves and are in this situation has brought out the realist in me and my outlook is not good.

I outlined in my previous article that there is a baseline for veterans like Joe Borowski, David Dellucci, and Casey Blake. How I expected anything beyond that, I don’t know. But it’s blatantly obvious that Dellucci and Iron Joe are D-O-N-E, done, and that Blake is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades player, great veteran clubhouse presence and all around good guy but not an everyday major league third baseman.

I expected a little too much out of the young arms of Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez and Tom Mastny and should have expected some ups and downs from them. The same goes for the bats of Franklin Gutierrez and Asdrubal Cabrera. It looks now that Gutierrez may be more of a 4th defensive outfielder and The As-Man needs a little more seasoning.

To think that Ryan Garko would develop into a prototypical power hitting first baseman may have been a stretch and a 20 HR season is all we can realistically expect from him. It appears obvious that Andy Marte is a bum, and there was a reason he was traded by both the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, two teams that have impeccable scouting departments and farm systems.

The one whom has fooled me the most… Jhonny Peralta. All I wanted was another solid defensive season, continued improvement in pitch selection and no laziness. He has failed on all accounts. Yes, he only has six errors but he’s not getting to ground balls he was last year. Not only is he susceptible to the breaking stuff sway but now he loves the high-heat up and in. The low RBI total despite 11 HRs is evidence of that. And his laziness is back.

I’ve seen it here or there earlier but I realized I was covering for him last night. It took the return of the great Omar Vizquel to notice it but when Jhonny bounced two throws on routine ground balls to first in the game last night and Omar made a patented spectacular play in the 9th to save a hit, and inevitably a run, to preserve the game and I realized that Peralta epitomize all that is wrong with this team right now.

He is lazy, unmotivated and appears to be walking through the motions on every single play. And that is the vibe that the Indians are giving off this season. I’m not saying that they are not trying or giving effort but to watch this team you can’t honestly say that there are not two or three plays each game, usually in critical situations, which just make you shake your head. Whether it’s someone getting thrown out at home, a piss-poor at-bat at the worst time or a bonehead defensive play that cost them a run and the game, it is a nightly occurrence.

The injuries to Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez are a factor as well, but the St. Louis Cardinals among other teams have the same problem but generally look like a good baseball team. The Cleveland Indians do not.

At this point to say they are would be fooling myself. You know what they say… “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.” Well I’ve already been fooled once, and despite the optimist in me, the realist in me tells me not to be fooled again.