Before rolling into a LS, it’s time for a not-so-brief look at the past week, not in terms of player movement (for now), but a big-picture look at the unquestioned shift in strategy for the Polo Shirt Mafia and their seemingly new outlook on contention.
After what has been an obviously difficult tough couple of days for Indians’ fans, I find myself playing the role of “bad guy” even in my own house, attempting to explain the rationale behind trading CP Lee and El Capitan to The DiaBride (who bought a Cliff Lee jersey for herself…her first ever with the #34 that he wore before Millwood arrived, then received her prized Victor jersey the following year), much less simply coming up with an answer on Saturday morning to The DiaperTribe, when he asked me why “Bicker Marteenez” wasn’t hitting after Sin-Sin Choooo. It’s a microcosm of the feelings that we’re all dealing with as the names aren’t quite as familiar from day to day as a result of the Indians effectively drawing a very distinct line in terms of the group of players that was thought to lead them to years of “consistent contention” to a seismic shift, in terms of players and, it seems, strategy.
When the rebuild of 2002 started in earnest, the idea of building the team from within with impact players like CC, Victor, and Peralta had pieces like Lee, Sizemore, Hafner, and Westbrook all falling in line with the design that the team would mature together, then would be augmented from within to replace players lost either to ineffectiveness or injury or departure via Free Agency.
At the time of the rebuild, Shapiro stated as much and stood behind his “Plan” to develop a group of players that would evolve together into a cohesive unit, designed to compete year after year for a playoff berth with more “waves” of arms and overall talent arriving in Cleveland every year to supplement the roster and to ensure that a great chasm of talent never arrived. When 2005 hit, the Front Office saw their best-laid-plans coming into full bloom with the idea that this consistent contention would certainly be possible through the players already in Cleveland by 2005 and with the talent thought to emerge from the Minors to augment the parent club for years to come, keeping the Indians relevant through by being a constant contender through the end of the decade, at least.
The magic of the 2007 season seemed to justify that everything was truly right on track as Carmona, Cabrera, Gutierrez, Perez, and Lewis all emerged from the farm to fortify the Indians and lend credence to the idea that the Indians had figured out a built-in manner of reloading the 25-man roster with talent from their farm system. For a moment, think about the feelings after that 2007 season – the nearly universal feeling was that the Indians were standing at the precipice of a fantastic run of baseball, complete with young talent already topside and more on the way – and how those feelings have been modified to where we sit today.
The last two years have revealed that, for a team like the Indians, nearly everything has to go right within their “best-laid plans” to even think about contending in any given year, much less on a consistent basis. And the sad fact of this week is that things went very wrong for the Indians as the idea that locking up Westbrook then Hafner, and later Carmona was supposed to lock those three into the top of the rotation and the middle of the lineup to serves as the pieces that kept the window of opportunity open while the team evolved on the fly to plug new pieces into the lineup and the rotation while the brunt of the pitching and offensive burden would be carried by known quantities.
Obviously, over these last two years we have seen many things go wrong in terms of regressions by key players, injuries to key players, poor management of assets at the Big League level, and a jarring chasm in terms of player development created by years of subpar drafting and overestimation of the organization’s own players. We entered 2008 with the hope that the Indians could make one last push with CC in the rotation, but our disappointment was tempered by the emergence of Cliff Lee and the excellence of Big League Choo as a middle-of-the-order presence. Coming into 2009, seeing the deficiencies that their farm system could not fill (in what has become a wildly consistent theme since 2007), the Indians replaced Casey Blake with Mark DeRosa and inked Kerry Wood to ostensibly settle the erratic bullpen that had played such a role in the capsizing of the 2008 season.
Even with those moves of the off-season, made unquestionably to improve the team for this year, proved not to be enough as Carmona’s struggles “earned” him a trip to an extended Spring Training…in the middle of the season with no discernable injury, Westbrook remained shelved, Hafner’s shoulder prevented him from playing multiple games in a row, and the young players either simply adjusted slowly to the MLB level (as young players are prone to do) while being asked to become immediate contributors to the team or were never given a long enough rope to prove themselves at said level.
As the 2009 season sank deeper and deeper into the abyss of their own making, the Indians surveyed their roster and their organizational depth and forced some very hard questions upon themselves. Without necessarily laying the blame for the mess that had been created (and if that conversation isn’t coming, shame on them) and knowing that the future of the organization, for the foreseeable future at least, was at stake in terms of whether they would simply muddle along for a number of years with the mix of a few exceptional players not supported by a largely untalented group of players, the Indians made the decision to move quickly and decisively by moving their two of their best players (a full year and a half away from their own FA decisions) for the pitching that was so badly lacking in the organization, a damning assessment of player development to even the most casual pair of eyes.
Rather than simply take their chances that everything would break right for them in 2010 (and the argument can still be made that it wouldn’t have taken that much in the weak AL Central) when everything had gone so wrong for them for two consecutive years, as well as 2006, the Indians made their moves for what they deemed to be the best offers on the table, not simply willing to reside in the state of limbo of “are they or aren’t they” in terms of whether they were attempting to contend while rebuilding, having learned their lesson early on (Matt Lawton, anyone), in that such an endeavor is even more difficult than it sounds and that either you’re going for it or you’re re-tooling.
The Front Office can spin laughable declarations that the Indians likely weren’t going to contend in 2010 with Lee and Victor, then moments later state that 2010 contention is no possible with the mix of players received for the pair; but in reality, the Indians know what they are at this point and they know what direction they’re headed…it’s just not one that they foresaw for themselves in the halcyon days of late 2007. Ultimately, the Indians’ brass came to the realization that, in their economic climate, the Indians cannot afford to make ANY mistakes or the whole dynamic of the team gets drastically altered to the negative. The contracts to Hafner and Westbrook and later Carmona and even Wood showed that the Indians took gambles on these guys to carry them through that window of opportunity; but when they failed to varying degrees, the middle ground of mediocrity (at best) was a terrible place to be standing.
That's not unlike most of MLB as they can't simply buy their way out of mistakes the way that the Red Sox can (as they've done with Lugo and Dice-K this season) and simply have to make a decision to keep on with the current plan in an attempt to keep that “window of opportunity” open for the longest possible timeframe or rip it all up and give it another go when that time arrives.
Which brings us all to this week, where the Indians’ Front Office had to face some very disturbing realities to acknowledge that the idea of consistent contention was no longer viable for this organization as it was presently constructed. The question as to whether they could contend in 2010 likely bounced around, with compelling arguments being made both ways…in the end coming to the conclusion that 2010 wasn't going to be happening, particularly on what looked to be a tightening payroll and acted accordingly, taking the best offer they thought they got for both Lee and Victor.
Once the decision was made, there was no going back and both Lee and Victor were going to be moved at what was deemed to be peak value (even if the returns for them underwhelmed most observers) as the strategy of the organization, in terms of the best way to have this team contend, seemed to take a drastic shift in thinking. The week saw the sobering realization that the Indians cannot realistically build that consistent contender and instead will opt for the “Tampa model” or the “Marlin model” of throwing a bunch of young talent together that should arrive in MLB at the same time and hope for the best. The window gets shorter, but the chances get better in that short window than they are trying to compete with those teams that simply throw money at their problems. The Indians came to the harsh reality that they're no different than about 25 of the 30 MLB teams and that they can't simply outsmart or analyze their way ahead of the curve given the landscape of MLB.
Of course, it can be argued that other teams consistently contend in smaller markets than the Indians and that there always seems to be that one “David” amongst the “Goliaths” every post-season (with the Indians holding the stone in 2007), but the current construction of MLB allows one, maybe two, of these “Little Engines” every year to battle it out with the teams assumed to be there every year, by virtue of their payroll and by their organizational philosophy to simply spend their way into contention every year. This season has forced Shapiro to accept that he's no different than a whole group of GM's trying to find that perfect storm to compete with the perennial contenders, who put themselves in that perennial contention not by wisdom or perfect plans, but simply by being able to pay for what they need and keeping the market imbalanced.
Don’t take this as a “this is unfair” way to look at things as most of MLB has realized this and the Indians now, seemingly, are just getting the memo. Every couple of years, there is a team whose talent matures and evolves at exactly the same time, creating that magical run of a few seasons – the current group of Rays and Brewers come to mind – but the realization that their success is likely to be fleeting as top players move on to “greener” pastures when allowed is the certain end for these runs. While teams can fight off the inevitable through player development of augmentation from within (which simply did not happen for the Indians), a peak often is reached and the group of players left simply represents too little as a group, whether age (young or old) or injury or simple regression becomes the ultimate dagger.
The Indians made the decision, at some point this week, that the pitching they had in the pipeline simply would not hold up in support of their unquestionably stronger position player grouping and instead of perpetuating the pattern that the Indians followed for too long (one year of all hitting, no pitching…the next of no hitting, all pitching) through 1980’s and early 1990’s in my lifetime, the trade of Victor and Lee, as well as others (for ostensibly all arms) signals that the Indians are attempting to create their own next perfect storm of players as ultimate maturation of the position players now thought to complement Sizemore, Choo, Cabrera, and maybe Hafner in the next season and a half (which at this point, I’d put as LaPorta, Santana, Weglarz, Brantley, etc.) are now designed to line up with the maturation of the newly acquired pitcher (Masterson, Carrasco, Perez, and Todd in the upper levels) to complement the likes of Huff, Laffey, Rondon, Gomez, and Sipp with the idea that the team is no longer necessarily counting on a return to form for Carmona, Perez, and Lewis…but would certainly welcome it to become more of the “let’s throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” strategy that has now moved from just the bullpen to the entire pitching staff.
Is the strategy or the shift in thinking a wise one?
We won’t know the answer until probably late in 2010 as these players not only begin to log serious time in MLB, but also as the wheat begins to separate from the inevitable chaff.
This week’s moves represent not just a seismic shift in terms of recognizable players and whether that group of players could have contended in 2010 (a question that will remain unanswered in perpetuity), but also represent a monumental change in thinking by the Indians’ Front Office as the idea of simply loading up on as many young players, thought to be developmentally on the same timeframe, is now thought to be the most effective path to contention even if that contention comes in two to three year spurts instead of decade-long competitiveness. If that two-to-three-year spurt can be extended a little longer, so be it…but this week showed that everything has to go right, wise decisions have to consistently be made, players need to progress accordingly both at the MLB and MiLB levels for that extension of contention to even reasonably be an option.
It’s a brand new day at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario…you don’t have to like it or agree with it, but the sun has set on the group of players that was thought to lead us into an age of consistent contention some seven years ago and the light is only peeking over the horizon on the new day.
Wipe away the tears, take a deep breath, and turn the page…and with that, let’s finally roll into a Lazy Sunday:
Assuming that if you’re here, you’ve likely been inundated with pieces on Lee and Martinez and analyses of the trades and the players coming back, I’ll just throw a couple more out there that you may not have, if only to serve as a segue into the Lazy One. While it doesn’t really break any new ground, Christina Kahrl at B-Pro takes a look at the whole haul, trying to put into context exactly what the Indians gave up and what came to them, though the Vic deal is not included:
Well, these weren't the worst deals, but they also weren't necessarily the best. Getting Barnes from the Giants for an entirely fungible first-base bat like Garko's was reasonable enough; he's not a high-velocity southpaw, but good command and an excellent changeup have yielded a 99/29 K/BB ratio in 98 IP while allowing just 3.3 runs per nine in the Cal League in what is his full-season debut as a 21-year-old. Knapp's interesting as a high-velocity arm pumping gas in the Sally League (as noted in the Phillies segment). Marson's a decent OBP type and a good receiver, but limited power potential makes him a better backup or second-division starter behind the plate, and his presence in the organization that employs Carlos Santana seems to suggest his future's as the Kelly Shoppach (Lite) to Santana's V-Mart; it's certainly not the whole potato, but it beats Bako bits as backstops go.For another national perspective on the whole week, Jayson Stark actually counts the Indians as among the five “winners” in Trade Deadline week, justifying it thusly:
Donald is an athletic shortstop, with a good swing that's far from slappy at the plate, but even allowing for the knee injury that has hampered him this season, he's a player who next year will be headed into his age-25 season with a track record of showing some power, but not a lot, and some speed, but not a lot. In this, he's very much like Asdrubal Cabrera, the man he'll be paired off with up the middle, giving the Indians a nifty pair of defenders around the bag, neither of whom should be offensive zeroes, but neither of whom look like burgeoning offensive stars either. The 2010 Indians will have to get their runs from other departments, and while Grady Sizemore's a start and Victor Martinez a part of a quality lineup, it's looking like 2009 is the year when they really did have to give up on all that and turn the page towards building anew.
Now certainly, Knapp might be a part of that, not to mention Todd in the pen, and Marson and Donald could be supporting players on a future Indians contender as well. But for the Indians to really feel they got mileage out of this exchange, they're going to have to get good stuff from Carrasco. Placing that much pressure on a young arm might seem harsh, but the Indians will manage his workload appropriately as well as anyone in the industry might. He's not exactly been dominant in Triple-A, giving up 5.7 runs per nine but nevertheless striking out 112 in 114 2/3 IP, and walking just 38 (or just under three per nine). His power fastball/curve combo has delivered somewhat bass-ackwards results for the Iron Pigs (righties have touched him for a .457 SLG), and he's had troubles holding baserunners (potential thieves are 17-for-20 off of him), but these are things you work out over time or learn to live with, and the Tribe knew it wasn't getting a perfectly polished, ready-now blue chip prospect, but a quality arm who should be able to step into their rotation and stick sometime next season.
As for the other odds and ends, it looks as if Andy Marte's taking over Garko's role as Victor Martinez's right-handed foil at first base, which is fine, while Crowe re-adopts a bench role; trading both Francisco and Garko should open up left field for, say, Matt LaPorta, but for whatever reason, he's not here yet.
They're not going to feel like winners in Cleveland right now. We know that. Trading away a rent-a-player such as DeRosa was one thing. Trading two pillars the likes of Martinez and Lee is another. So, as one AL front-office man put it, "I'm sure there are no smiles in Cleveland right now. You think about where they were in 2007, up 3-1 in the ALCS and one win away from the World Series. And next thing you know, they're the big sellers two years in a row in July. That can't feel real good."2012 looks to be a long way from today, and maybe I’m still that cockeyed optimist that I’ve always been (Billy Mumphrey-style), but I could still see this team as a factor in 2011, depending upon, quite obviously, a lot of things between then and now.
But of the teams that spent July selling off, nobody reeled in the quality haul of prospects the Indians did. They collected six solid young players who are either big-league-ready now or will be shortly (Chris Perez, Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson, Jason Donald and Jess Todd). And they built both the Lee and Martinez deals around younger, 6-foot-5 flame-ballers who both project as No. 1 starters -- Jason Knapp and Nick Hagadone, respectively.
So for what they were trying to accomplish, they did well. But "here's the tough part," said the same front-office man. "This is different than trading CC. At least they could do that and know the next year they still had Cliff Lee. But these trades mean they're not going to win for a couple of years. I'm sure they're excited about a lot of the guys they got back. But 81 times a year, you've got to sit there and watch it. And that's tough. I think they're going to end up being really good in about 2012. But in the meantime, it's going to be hard."
Elsewhere, Tony Lastoria attempts to put some semblance of order in terms of the players that now find themselves in the Indians’ organization after a hectic week. As Tony writes:
Of the 11 players added, nine of them are pitchers. Two were currently on a major league roster (Perez, Masterson), four in Triple-A (Carrasco, Donald, Larson, Todd), one at Double-A (Graham), two at High-A (Barnes, Price), and two at Low-A (Knapp, Hagadone). All 11 players are 24 years old or younger, and five of the 11 were in Keith Law's Top 100 ranking at the start of the 2009 season. Seven of the 11 were ranked among their respective club’s top four prospects entering the season, nine of the 11 were ranked among the top ten and ten of the 11 were ranked among their respective club’s top 12 prospects entering the season.What was that whole “add pitchers to this mix of organizational talent” thing with the idea that they all arrive around the same time…much less these high-upside power pitchers like Hagadone that have been sorely lacking in the organization for years?
Looking at Tony’s list though, is anyone else having trouble keeping all of these guys straight? It’s something that I talked about in this week’s edition of “Smoke Signals”, when I was joined by my guest co-host Jay Levin of LGT (who penned a great farewell to Vic) as we welcomed Anthony Castrovince and normal co-host (on “vacation” somewhere around Kinston, not so coincidentally), but it’s hard to even keep track of the players that have entered the organization over the past week, much less attempt to figure out where it all fits…and when. While the show was done on Thursday night (and thus has no mention of the Vic trade specifically), if you have the time, I feel that it is definitely worth the listen as I was beyond pleased to get three of the most knowledgeable people on the Indians to join me for an hour…OK, an hour plus.
In terms of the where we stand now on the ML level, that’s a few days off as my head needs to stop spinning first. But in terms of the Minor leaguers, Adam Van Arsdale puts a wonderful attempt look at the Minors as a whole, attempting to quantify and put into context some of the arms that entered the organization as he updates how some of the highly rated arms in the system have progressed in the first half of the year. Some of the “numbers” may look new to you, and in that case, it would be helpful to read this and this as a primer for some of the values.
One of the names that really jumps off of Adam’s list, to me at least, is one Jesse Ray Todd (yes, he goes by “Jess Todd” but the guy is from Arkansas and the last Razorback who donned a Tribe uniform came to be known affectionately by his first and middle name, so I’ll continue the tradition with Todd), who came over this week as the PTBNL in the DeRosa deal and could end up being the most immediately effective name off of the “newly acquired list”.
Not content to simply focus on the pitchers and all of the new names, Adam also took as look at the MiLB hitters, which serves as a quick reminder of why the Indians added all of these ML-ready arms to complement the likes of Santana, LaPorta (um…would now be a good time to bring him up, what with Trevor Crowe and Andy Marte starting at LF and 1B?), Weglarz, and Brantley all in the pipeline to essentially fill the holes that are now very apparent on the MLB roster.
And with that, I’ll try to turn that page too as the Indians obviously did this week, getting into some analysis of who all of these new players are and where they fit going forward. As much as this week has hurt as an Indians’ fan, there will be other days and it is, after all, a game that we follow because we enjoy it, through the good times and the bad.
Right now, there is no question that times are bad and, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go talk up Justin Masterson and Carlos Santana to The DiaBride, who’s likely to be wearing her Victor jersey today…and all black otherwise.