Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Sunday Drive with a flawed culture cultivated by Shapiro

Today's baseball market in Cleveland in a finicky thing. There are several philosophies floating around with regards to the club making money, and the fans coming to see the team play. You have the train of thought that if the Indians win, the fans will come. There's also the opposite stance that the fans will never come again, at least not in the near future, win or lose. With the Indians not making any moves this offseason worth talking about (sorry Mike Redmond, but when you are the class of the free agents, as in, the only free agent, well, you get my drift), it's time to take a bit of a look at the Tribe philosophy, and if and when the Indians will ever build excitement again.

Now, I know this is going to be a bit of an incoherent rant, so stay with me. As I sit here watching the Cavs rumors, realizing that the Cavaliers are finally answering the call to add when the adding is good by signing Amar'e Stoudemire, I can't help but look to the Indians. Do they answer the call, or are they just looking at a plan, and some numbers?

The Indians are a small market team, and the Dolans and Mark Shapiro have run it as such. Management has built teams since 2001 mostly with either home-grown talent or young talent acquired from other clubs in deals for players that were out of the Indians' price range. Shapiro and his staff most definitely work off the "Money Ball" philosophy of utilizing statistical analysis to try and sign players that are undervalued. You can judge for yourself whether or not this philosophy has been successful over the years. I'll get to that in a second.

Before I go there, I want to take a quick look at Mark Shapiro's successor, John Hart. Hart, in many ways, had perhaps the biggest impact of ANY general manager in baseball over the past thirty years. The much-hyped Billy Beane, who's Money Ball/Sabremetrics approach to baseball has seemingly revolutionized the game, get's much credit for the way GM's look at signing players. Guys like Hart, and to some extent, Beane's mentor Sandy Alderson are often overlooked.

Remember, Alderson was the guy that led the A's to four division titles, three pennants and the 1989 World Series. Hart mirrored Alderson in many ways, leading the Tribe to six American League Central division titles, with appearances in the World Series in 1995 and 1997. Both GMs, and in particular John Hart, created a mentality to do four things:
  1. Sign your young talent to long-term deals.
  2. Add pieces to fill in the holes to ensure that your young talent has a veteran, quality presence.
  3. Build your minors, not only to support the big league club, but to create a source of trade-able parts.
  4. Hire the best management staff in the game with not only old-school baseball minds, but with people that would be considered brilliant thinkers who weren't necessarily baseball guys (remember, Hart created his staff long before Beane was even in the picture).
Sure, it was a little more complicated than a four-step plan. Certainly, the economy at the time played a part in it. No, Cleveland wasn't exactly exploding on the money front, but perception at the time had the Cleveland downtown growing, and at the heart of the growth were the Indians and their new ballpark. The Browns left, and left the city devoid of anything but the Indians and the Cavs, who weren't worth talking about either. The fans showed up in droves, selling out nearly half a decade, and the Indians money-coffers were certainly full. Still, the root of the success was a well-laid out plan by Hart and his baseball people, one of which was Mark Shapiro.

It had it's flaws. Hart could never land the #1 starter that he needed, but not for lack of effort. He signed Black Jack McDowell and Steve Finley, but both were just a bit past their prime. He made trades for players at the deadline, but they never seemed to show up as much as it appeared they would on paper (man, I really though Jeff Juden was going to be something special). Those deals also cost us valuable youngsters, without any payout (still can't stop thinking about the Kevin Seitzer for Jeromy Burnitz deal).Still, thanks to long-term deals for guys like Thome, Ramirez, Belle and the rest, the Indians were able to win, and win a lot. They were also able to bring in solid players through trades (like Dave Justice, Marquis Grissom and Matt Williams), and were willing to sign big-name free agents (Roberto Alomar, Orel Hershiser, Eddie Murray and Dennis Martinez ) to keep the momentum.

Today, the Indians are in rebuild mode, and are making mostly the right decision to not overpay for a free agent who will never figure into a rebuild. In the culture that the Dolans and Shapiro have created here in Cleveland over the years, it fits. Shapiro and the Dolans work under a very strict budget to continue to be a viable, if not cyclical team. The theory makes sense to some extent. You build a team with solid drafting, maximizing your all-stars and veterans into help stock your minors, and long-term contracts to that youth prior to their arbitration years. You sign those undervalued free agents when you can, but rarely, if ever, gamble on a big-name free agent (Kerry Wood notwithstanding).

What's the problem with the culture? Perhaps the most important facet in Cleveland baseball has been a fan base that still, somehow, remains in place after a half-decade of some of the worst losing in the history of the game. The six-year run for the Tribe in which John Hart tried to do everything in his power to bring a championship to the city regained a sense of trust with a club that many thought would be playing somewhere in New Orleans or Carolina in the eighties. More important, there was an excitement not seen in the city in years. The Winter Meetings were as exciting in many ways as the playoffs. Grabbing the News-Herald every Sunday to read Hal Lebovitz column and find out who the Indians were pursuing were akin to Church. You knew the Indians would do something to improve...something...

Enter the regime of Mark Shapiro and the Dolans. Sure, they were behind the eight-ball, following Jacobs, Hart and the only winning era of Indians baseball for many of the living Indians' fans. That said, from the point that Shapiro was hired, things changed. Shapiro was much more guarded than Hart, and that counted against him. The Dolans knew they had to be more frugal than the Jacobs to make money, and that counted against them. The veterans were all gone or leaving, and that counted against them. Still, Shapiro and the Dolans built a young club that had promise. In 2005, the fourth year of Shapiro's tenure, the team won 93 games. Here was the moment at hand for Shapiro to make a move, to show there was a willingness to spend when the playoffs were at hand, and they didn't.

They hadn't made the playoffs in 2005, so the Indians signed a series of no-names and old-names (Einar Diaz, Steve Karsay, Danny Graves) to fill the roster. It didn't seem like a smart thing to do when a team was so close to being good. The Indians would lose more than they'd win in 2006. The bullpen was deplorable, and the team didn't respond. Of course, why spend on a team under .500. Of course, we did get David Dellucci and Jason Michaels. In 2007, the Indians would win 96 games and take the Red Sox to the limits in the ALCS. Surely, only a game away from the World Series, the Indians would pull all the stops to sign or trade for a difference maker. If you believe the reports, they tried to pry Jason Bay from the Pirates. If you believe the reports, the Indians were players with a few free agents. Again, the Indians signed a series of no-names.

The Indians bombed in 2008. A trade was finally made, only this time, it was a goodbye to CC Sabathia for prospects. Shapiro stuck to form. Then, prior to 2009, Shapiro went out and signed a closer in Kerry Wood. It was such a strange move for Shapiro, most people didn't know what to do. The Indians had been starving for a closer the previous two seasons, and now we had one. Of course, the Indians would stink up the American league in 2009, and Wood would pay the price of a depleted line-up with V-Mart dealt, and a newly depleted staff, now that Lee was traded away as well.

The Indians were once again in rebuild mode.

These are enigmatic times, if you are an Indians fan. Today, we are all scratching our heads, likely thinking that Shapiro is doing the right thing, signing all these guys to minor league deals. In this era of Indians baseball, it's pretty much the accepted way of doing things. The problem with that thinking is that you would think the Indians would find a way to spend when they are close...

I remember back in 1997, hammering on the Marlins for buying players and winning a title. Of course, they DID do the wrong thing. They essentially bought an entire team. I don't condone that at all, because it nearly ended baseball in Florida (would it matter, though?). Still, I get it, as much as those Marlins fans got it in their fourth season of competition. When you have a chance to win a title, you take it, at any cost. Would I have been okay with the Indians spending freely in 1997 to give them a title, even if it meant losing for ten years? You bet I would.

Do I expect the Dolans and Shapiro to do the same? Of course not, but there should be a happy medium. I understand that the Indians are a corporation, and that the Dolans owning that corporation deserve the right to make money. With that said, do all owners buy teams expecting a windfall of money? Do you purchase the championship starved Indians thinking, "I'M GOING TO BE RICH!"

Maybe you do, and I understand that. Still, as an owner, there has to come a time when you say to hell with it, and make a move to win...or sell the team. There has to come a time when you stand in front of the fans and say, "I'm going to win. I'm going to parlay this young talent that we have into a championship. I guarantee you that if we are close, I'm going to make a move that leads to that championship, or die trying." Somehow, that would make all of what we are dealing with in 2010 a bit more palatable. Somehow, if the Indians had made a couple of moves after 2007, then the 2010 rebuild would make more sense.

Yes, fans will show if they believe they will win. In 2007 though, the fans never really did return like the old days. Was it the economy? No way. I know Cleveland was hurting, but not any more than today. How are the Cavs drawing today? Try second in the league with nearly 21,000 a game, and the tickets aren't cheap. Sure, LeBron helps, but do you think the fans would show up if Dan Gilbert wasn't going to do everything he could to re-sign LeBron? How do you think the Shaq signing energized the ticket sales this year? 500 more a game doesn't sound like a lot, but add that up to over 41 games, and see what you get...and it's not like the Cavs can add MUCH more than that.

Now the Cavs are hunting down another cohort for LeBron, even with the best record in the NBA, salary cap be damned.

I know, this piece doesn't fit today, with the Indians waiting on the likes of Russell Branyan, Jermaine Dye and Hank Blalock. I was simply going to write about how signing a couple of free agents would be helpful in many ways, when I realized it wouldn't. Why? It won't help the fans, because this management team has proved that they won't sign quality to fill holes when they are winning. The only reason why you sign Dye or Blalock or even Branyan now is because you can sign them to a cheap deal. In other words, they are those underrated players that Money Ball loves so much.

With all that said, Cleveland isn't an easy place to be a GM. The fact that Shapiro has been Executive of the Year twice is just as much an indicator of the town as it is for the quality of the GM. Quite the little catch-22, isn't it.

Perhaps this is a new era of Shapiro and Dolan. Perhaps the plan is to keep the new youngsters, give them a chance in 2010, and start moving forward in 2011. Perhaps the Indians will make the playoffs in the next two or three years. Perhaps the Indians will then sign a player or two that will take them over the top.

Of course, I don't believe it will happen...the trust just isn't there.

The Rearviewmirror: See you later, hot stove season, I barely knew you were there!

1 comment:

  1. Of course, is the culture that Shapiro cultivates more or less flawed than the culture that Bud Selig and the owners cultivate?

    PC over at the Diatribe nailed that on the head a couple of times a couple of weeks ago...

    With the Big clubs like Boston and New York doing their due diligence, is their such a thing as money ball? Is anyone undervalued anymore?

    The easy answer is no...

    ...unless you are 40 years old and past your prime...

    and you get lucky...