Sunday, December 11, 2005

The PLAN

With the endless possibilities of the off-season in full swing, there seems to be an underlying theme, both in comments by the Indians and the perception of the (more astute) fans. The theme that seems to guide every decision made by the Indians’ deep thinkers is THE PLAN. Shapiro, Wedgie, and Antonetti always refer to “sticking with the plan”, or “staying within the plan” when decisions are made.

So, what is this PLAN? What are the “core beliefs” of the organization that factor into every decision made? Seeing as how it is unlikely that Shapiro would offer me an invitation to sit in on an organizational meeting or answer questions directly (and not vaguely in business-speak, as is his custom), I’ve come up with my best guess.

The PLAN is a philosophy of making decisions that will not only put the best team on the field today, but also have an eye toward the future, both talent-wise and financially. As far as I can tell, the PLAN has 3 main objectives:
1) Be Right More than Wrong in Talent Evaluation
2) Be Flexible – Financially and in the Field
3) Maintain a Strong Farm System to Keep the Pipeline Filled

Obviously, these objectives are pretty broad and could apply to any ML team, but I’ll take them one at a time to show how these three ideas seem to dictate the personnel decisions that are made on a daily basis.

Be Right More than Wrong in Talent Evaluation
This is obviously something that every ML team strives to do, as no team is going to be right every single time. To my knowledge, no GM has ever had a spotless record when it comes to trades, FA signings, drafts, etc. But by limiting mistakes, or being right more than wrong, you can put a quality product on the field despite the inevitable flops.

Case in point: When the Indians traded Roberto Alomar, they received Alex Escobar (the alleged “jewel” position player of the Mets’ organization), Billy Traber (a former #1 pick LH pitcher), and Matt Lawton. The thought was that Escobar would settle into RF, Traber would become a mainstay in the rotation, and Lawton would serve as a stopgap until more talented players were available.

Ironically, around the time that it became obvious that none of the 3 scenarios were going to work flawlessly, Shapiro had a decision to make on Bartolo Colon. He moved him, as we know, for Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore (Lee Stevens notwithstanding).

Shapiro was taking another shot at prospects, this time a middle infielder that would ideally replace Omar, another hotshot LH starter, and a raw OF. We all know how Shapiro’s two “blockbusters” worked out, with Lee and Grady developing into “core players”, while Phillips, Escobar, and Traber floated off (or will float off) into oblivion. 2 out of 5 actually is not that bad, looking at the history of trading veterans for prospects.

Where Shapiro really made hay at the time, though, were the acquisitions of Coco, Hafner, Broussard, Westbrook, Gerut, and Bard in trades for Finley, Diaz, Branyan, Justice, and Jacob Cruz.

These new Indians were meant to complement the young players already in the system (Victor, Corey Smith, and C.C. among others) to constitute the new era of Indians’ baseball.

Not all of the players worked out, but Shapiro was essentially getting about 2-3 players for every position with the knowledge that not everyone would pan out. Players like Peralta eventually forced their way into those plans.

It’s a simple idea, but when executed well, it puts a lot less pressure on a team financially because it reduces the amount of money that is spent in FA. Which leads us to the next principle…

Be Flexible – Financially and in the Field

The idea to stay flexible, financially and on the field, comes from the hard lesson learned by Shapiro pertaining to the team he inherited from John Hart.
The team that Shapiro took over in 1999 was an aging, one-dimensional team that had a lot of overpaid players in the final years of their contracts.

Shapiro saw how he was handcuffed in the moves that he could make because of contracts that had one or two too many years on them and because of how older players lose versatility as their bodies age.

Consequently, Shapiro has since been reticent to give a player additional years in a contract (Thome, Vizquel) just to get the first few productive seasons. He realized that those contracts become a burden, not easily lifted.

Thome is a perfect example. The Indians wanted very badly to keep Thome, for reasons of productivity and pleasing the fan-base, but their doctors told them that Thome’s body would hold up at 1B for only so long, then even as DH for only so long. The Indians offered that many years and refused to match the Phillies’ offer when it was extended to too many years.

The results have been obvious as Thome was very productive for 2 years at 1B; but, when unable to move to DH, his body caught up with him, rendering him ineffective and on the DL. How he performs this year and beyond in Chicago will be interesting, in that he would still be in his 4th year of the contract (which the Tribe did offer) as mainly a DH.

The signings that the Indians have made have been very short on years, and thus, very short on risk. When they feel comfortable enough to extend contracts and relationships, they do with surprising ease (Belliard, Boone, Wickman).

By staying flexible, financially in particular, guarantees that there is not a $8M mistake languishing on the bench (which has actually become a common sight in baseball), but rather that money is spent on players on the rise or trying to prove themselves.

Maintain a Strong Farm System to Keep the Pipeline Filled
The last aspect may be the most important and the most obvious to the general public. When Shapiro took over the Tribe, mid-season trades and poor drafting had depleted the farm system. Shapiro re-built it by trading his commodities (Colon, Justice, Finley, even Einar Diaz).

The idea is to have a ML-ready replacement ready for the big league team when a hole is identified. If there is not an able replacement, a short-term fix is acquired to plug a hole until the minor league player is ready.

The most obvious example of having a minor league player ready to plug a hole is at SS, with Peralta replacing Omar last year. Omar’s contract was up, and rather than giving him too many years, the Indians had Peralta ready to step in (very ably, I might add).

The short-term fix approach can be seen at 2B and 3B, where Brandon Phillips and Corey Smith (two once highly touted prospects) disappointed in their development. This forced the Indians seek out suitable veterans, while not mortgaging the future. The result of that search was the contracts to Belliard and Boone. The extension of those contracts came as a result of the realization that there was still not an adequate replacement close to Cleveland.

By simply looking around the diamond, one can see the application of this principle:
C- Victor panned out remarkably well, as the Indians used the catching of Einar Diaz until The Stick was ready. V-Mart was always a top prospect and moved seamlessly into the lineup when he arrived. When he did, Shapiro was able to trade Diaz at the height of his value to get Hafner.
1B- Michael Aubrey was seen as the heir apparent to Thome, with Broussard serving as the stopgap. Once thought to be the Opening Day 2006 1B, Aubrey’s development slowed, forcing the situation of today – wondering if Aubrey is the long-term answer, and if not, what direction to go in as Broussard still represents nothing more than a stopgap.
LF- Alex Escobar’s flameout opened the door for Coco to become a part of the lineup. Coco’s long-term stay may be determined more by the development of former 1st Round Pick Brad Snyder than anything else.
CF- Milton Bradley’s meltdown left the Indians gasping for an answer that (luckily) came in the form of Grady Sizemore. Bradley was traded with the idea that CF was the deepest spot in the minors (Escobar, Crisp, Gutierrez, Sizemore), but the emergence of Grady is the real surprise.
RF- Like 1B, the development of a top prospect (Gutierrez) that was thought to have been contributing in 2006 is putting the pressure on the Indians. Matt Lawton and Jody Gerut (the stopgaps) sustained injuries or were generally ineffective, causing further uncertainty. Forced to look outside the organization for this year, the Tribe has to determine if Gutierrez is a long-term answer and, if not, where would one come from? RF has been a sort of “anything that could go wrong, has” causing the current situation, which most Indians’ fans realize without looking at the whole timeline.

The application of this idea for next year will (probably) be at the 5th starter. Shapiro’s comment that they are in a “Vizquel-Peralta” type situation makes me think that the Indians will let one of their young arms (who should be ready) compete for that spot, rather than spending the money of re-signing Elarton.

Obviously, other players are going to emerge and force their way into the discussions (as Ryan Garko has), but those players’ developments are viewed as more of icing on the cake as opposed to something that’s counted on.

This principle is the easiest to monitor and see the Indians’ working on. They draft young pitchers with the idea that not all of their talented arms are going to stay healthy or pan out. They draft Trevor Crowe, who projects as a big-league 2B, in the first round of the draft because the organization lacks a top-flight 2B prospect. And so on, and so on.
All of their moves can be dissected this way, which is what makes it fun.

This idea to have a pipeline to the Majors is not a new concept, it’s just hard to perfect. The Atlanta Braves have always been amazingly efficient at this. When a hole on the team becomes obvious, there just happens to be a stud prospect ready to step in, usually with good results (Furcal, Giles, Francouer, etc.).

Everyone knows that the best way to build a team is to build continually from within; it’s just that the execution of that idea that is not very easy.

So, there you have the PLAN, as best I can figure it from the couch and from the Mezzanine. One thing is for certain (whether or not I have any of the components right), the PLAN is a very highly held principle that should guide this team for years to come.

6 comments:

Baltimoran said...

i should know the answer to this, but how long is shapiro locked up for...i'm sure there is a handful of owners willing to throw a lot of money his way when his contract is up.

i love that the browns are competing, developing their young qb, yet still have a chance for a top five or six pick. i can't wait to see frye with winslow next year...and braylon again eventually.

hang in there rock, its get easier

Cy Slapnicka said...

Knock it off PC, my brain just exploded all over my monitor.

I think "the plan" involves stem cell research with Grady, Braylon, and Lebron and creating a super-Cleveland athlete that will render all other athletes obsolete and lead to multiple World Series, NBA Finals, and Super Bowls. This will of course lead to ulta-conservatives flipping out and Senate investigations for some free pub for our elected officials. Everyone wins.

Welcome to happyland. I'm talkin about a place where the salmon flow like wine, where the women instinctively flock like the beer of Capistrano...or something like that. I'm talkin about Cleveland.

T-Bone said...

oh sh*t!

Diamondbacks trade RHP Vazquez to White Sox
ESPN.com news services

The World Champion Chicago White Sox have traded for Javier Vazquez, adding pitching power to a starting rotation that included four pitchers with double-digit wins last season.

Baltimoran said...

i would love to see shapiro sign noomaaah but i see no chance of us beating out the big guys for him, i wonder what it feels like to expect good things to happen to your team

T-Bone said...

from steve phillips article today about the remaining free agents...

Cleveland Indians Need: Right-handed power hitter
They tried with Juan Gonzalez in 2005, but that didn't work. The Tribe needs a big right-handed power bat to protect Travis Hafner in the lineup and to spell Ben Broussard against tough lefties. Fortunately, the hitter can be an outfielder exclusively because Casey Blake can move to 1B to make room for him. Ideally, the more versatile the player is the better, because the Indians do have a number of movable pieces depending upon the matchups.

Preston Wilson could help the Indians. Even though he struggled after his midyear trade to the Nationals, Wilson still hit 25 homers and drove in 90 runs in '05. There doesn't seem to be much action on him now, so he will probably come at a good bargain. He is also a year removed from knee surgery. He can play all three outfield positions, and he is a definite threat to go deep.

T-Bone said...

any thoughts on packaging Bard with someone to somewhere, and signing Piazza to catch every fifth day and spell at first the others?