Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bucking the Status Quo

If what’s past is truly prologue, perhaps it’s time to go back to the last Indians season that came close to the disappointment of the 2012 campaign and get into the silver Delorean to take us back to 2006.  In case you don’t remember (or even if you do), the Indians were coming off of a 93-win season in 2005, were returning their assumed “core” and were picked by many to make the playoffs, or better.  They stumbled out of the gate and found themselves 10 ½ games back in the division by Memorial Day, a deficit that would grow throughout the season with the team being 24 ½ out by the Trading Deadline, ultimately finishing with a “flourish” to salvage a 78-84 record, a mere 18 games out of the divisional lead.  As a quick reminder here, let’s remember that the offense featured Victor, Grady, and Hafner (with the latter two posting OPS of .907 and 1.097 VERY respectively) and boasted a starting staff of CC, Westbrook, Lee, and Byrd with Raffy Betancourt and Bob Wickman at the back-end of the bullpen.

Though this 2012 team seems like a complete failure, to look back and see that abomination (the bright spots were Jeremy Sowers’ success upon arrival – at the time – and the trade of Benuardo for Choo and Asdrubal – in hindsight – just to put it in perspective) is to recall similarly dark days as a team that looked to be young and full of potential fell flat on its collective face.  Certainly, that 2006 team was full of hope and promise, but coming off of the disappointment of 2006, the organization was left wondering how those seemingly best-laid plans that led to 2005 had come undone so quickly.

Now, this is where things get interesting as I’m not sure how many people remember this, but the Indians hired Buck Showalter – who had just been fired by the Rangers – as an “advisor” to then-GM Mark Shapiro.  His official title was “senior advisor to baseball operations”, but many saw him as a ready-to-jump-in manager in case the 2007 season careened off of the tracks early, with Eric Wedge being fired as a result of another potential slow start in 2007.

Though that “slow start” would never happen in 2007, the addition of Showalter at the time is interesting to consider in the context of where the Indians sit now.  While some have called for an outright explosion at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, I wonder if an addition similar to what Showalter was after the 2006 season is what’s more likely to be in store.  At the time of Showalter’s hiring, the press release contained this quote from Shapiro:
“Buck Showalter will serve as a valuable resource to myself and the entire Baseball Operations staff…Buck has a unique set of skills and experiences that will greatly enhance our organization in all facets at the Major League, Player Development and Amateur levels when it comes to decision-making, instruction and mentoring our younger staff members.”

He was essentially a different voice that wasn’t cut from the same Polo-shirt-shaped cloth that the rest of the organization seemed to be (and still is) and was meant to question the methodology of why the Indians did this or how the Indians came to the conclusions that they did.  While most that covered the team at the time saw Showalter angling very sharply for Wedge’s job, his presence likely shook up the manner in which the Front Office or the manager made decisions, injecting questions where questions may have not previously existed in their decision-making and providing a dissenting voice to the cacophony of agreement that seemed to pervade the Tribe Front Office at the time.

Ultimately, Showalter would quietly make his way out of the organization and back to ESPN before he took the reins in Baltimore, but seeing his Orioles (somehow) battle their way into the AL East race…and stay there, got me thinking about what a kick in the teeth his presence must have been to people who needed a kick in the teeth and who responded accordingly to keep their jobs.  He injected a different perspective and a path in perhaps another direction to an organization that was seriously considering it at the time.  With his arrival to Cleveland, he could compare the way that things were done with the Indians with the way they had been done with the Yankees, the Diamondbacks, and the Rangers and provide insight – that didn’t exist prior to his arrival – to the Indians as to how critically assess what they were doing right, what they could improve upon, and (most importantly) how to make those improvements.

For as much as there is building momentum to scrap the entire Front Office, I’m unable to escape this idea that Shapiro, Antonetti, etc. are very well thought of in the industry (just as they were after the disaster of the 2006 campaign) and what they may need (once more) is someone to question the methods that lead them to their conclusions, just as Showalter was asked to do six years ago.  With Showalter, there was a sense that he was also being given the opportunity to view the organization from the inside to perhaps set him up for a greater level of involvement or a promotion that would include greater responsibility.

Maybe that’s the direction that the Indians take – to break up the groupthink that (from afar) looks to have pervaded their decisions and their actions.  Now, this is not a new suggestion around these parts because as far back as when Shapiro was bumped up to his new post and Antonetti ascended to the GM post, there was a line of thinking that an external – if familiar – voice was needed.  At that time, the suggestion here was Josh Byrnes, who has since become the GM of the Padres (with former Tribe Front Office member Bud Black as his manager), with the rationale for adding a guy like Byrnes, who has roots in Cleveland, but has been exposed to organizational decision-making and philosophy outside of Cleveland still ringing true.  Here’s what was written back when Antonetti became GM:
To that end, as for the rest of the Front Office promotion looking like a continuation of the status quo (when the status quo has looked woefully underprepared and unprepared in the 2008 and 2009 seasons), perhaps the rumors that former Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes could be joining the Indians in a Front Office role (first reported by Ken Rosenthal ) can find some favor on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, if only to bring in that “fresh set of eyes” who has been in other organizations and is not simply resigned to accept the process because “that’s how it’s done around here” and could instead bring a discerning (and perhaps dissenting) voice to an organization that could be stuck in a rut because of tunnel-vision.

If you don’t remember, back when Byrnes was fired from Arizona, I advocated a return to his “roots” back in July, in the hopes that he would return (yes, return…and you should read this ) to the Tribe Front Office. If you want a prudent use of money this off-season, use it to acquire a talented executive who will question why the Indians do what they do and provide some fresh perspective (or at least an outside perspective) on the road they’ve already laid out in front of them for the past 2 ½ years.

That was written a little less than 2 years ago and the part that was bolded was done by me for this piece for emphasis to point out that the collaborative cohesion (to an outsider, at least) that seems to pervade the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is still in need of that discerning outside perspective.  When that was written in October of 2010, Byrnes felt like a good idea because he had “grown up” in the Tribe organization, but had spent time with the Rockies (with Dan O’Dowd), the Red Sox, and the Diamondbacks, with his time in Arizona as the GM.  Of course, a couple of months after that was written, Byrnes signed on with the Padres as their VP of Baseball Operations under Jed Hoyer.  Once Hoyer moved to Chicago with Theo Epstein, Byrnes was promoted to Padres’ GM, a position he still holds.

Regardless of Byrnes’ LinkedIn profile since that was written, what might make sense for the Indians this off-season is to find someone that knows how the Indians currently operate, but also how OTHER teams operate in an attempt to jump-start an organization that has strengths, but also obvious weaknesses.  The obvious name that jumps out with that criteria is former Tribe Assistant to the GM Terry Francona, who also used to…um, manage some team in the Northeast and while that may seem like pie-in-the-sky thinking, it would be interesting to see what Francona might be interested in doing after the season as a role similar to that of Showalter a couple of years ago might appeal to him.  He might enjoy being out of the limelight – though he’s terrific as an analyst – while being in baseball and ingratiating himself into another organization.

Remember, Francona was given his “second chance” by the Indians after his first managerial gig in Philly cratered and just last July, Francona gave an interview to Grantland recounting his first interview with Theo Epstein.  Francona told Grantland that, “Right before I interviewed for the job with Theo, I called Mark Shapiro of the Indians. He’s one of my best friends in baseball and I asked him what I should do…He gave me good advice I still use today. Mark told me, ‘Just don’t try and bullshit him.’”

Now, I don’t know what Terry Francona wants to do in the coming year or years, but if Mark Shapiro is “one of (his) best friends in baseball”, he would certainly fit the mold of a “baseball man” that knows how the Indians have operated in the past (he was with the Tribe in 2001) and is keenly aware of how other organizations – and successful ones – operate on a macro and micro level.  Maybe Francona is headed back to Boston (and here’s an interesting piece from Ken Rosenthal that says the Red Sox should try to get him back…while also mentioning Cleveland as a destination) or maybe another former member of the Tribe Front Office (John Farrell) will assume the reins again, and it’s entirely possible that Francona wants to stay in the broadcast booth.

While it’s not quite clear what the Indians are going to do with Acta, it is worth noting that what they’ve done in the 2nd half is nearly unprecedented in terms of an identical roster playing like a first-place team (certainly playing over their heads) then a last-place team (to be kind) for prolonged portions of the season.  Maybe the Indians do with Acta and a guy like Francona what they did with Wedge and Showalter after their last supposed-to-contend season that ended…um, poorly.  Or maybe the Indians fire Acta, promote Sandy Alomar (to the cheers of everyone still stuck in the 1990s in their Indians’ fandom) with a “senior advisor” brought in to lend a critical eye to the Indians’ hierarchy and organizational structure.

What was so interesting about the hiring of Showalter after the 2006 season is that he had NO ties to the team – other than spending some turbulent times in Arlington with John Hart – and was able both cast that discerning eye upon the Indians’ operations while applying some pressure as a “waiting-in-the-wings” option that was ingratiating himself with the Tribe.  For as much as everyone talks about their payroll flexibility this off-season and as everyone wanted them to give a third year to a guy like Willingham, what I’d prefer would be for them to pay the best people the most money to make decisions or fill the scouting departments – both on the amateur and pro sides – with proven evaluators so we’re not having to talk about spending money on the FA market…be that a high-profile name like Francona or lesser names like those that have catapulted the Nationals’ player development department (and here’s an interesting piece that focuses on Jay Robertson, now of the Nationals, who “spent roughly a decade alongside John Hart in Cleveland”) into the upper echelon of player development in short order.

Maybe you think a bigger housecleaning is in order – and that opinion is valid and not hard to argue for – but I tend to think that we’re going to see a shake-up in the Front Office that (finally) jettisons some of the flotsam and jetsam that has been unable to draft/develop amateur talent or identify MLB talent whose talent could help the Indians’ rebuild/reload/whatever.  Without an ounce of uncertainty, whatever scouts and/or analysts that led the push for Ubaldo as the “horse to bet on” last July need to have their offices packed up as soon as possible.  Because as much as that  trade squarely falls on the Front Office – and more acutely, Antonetti – there were scouts and/or analysts that advised him on the deal and settled on Ubaldo as the target.  It’s on Antonetti to make that final decision, but if his decision was based on “bad” scouting reports or “bad” data in terms of anyone thinking that Ubaldo was the missing piece, those responsible should be out of a job.

Maybe “those responsible” includes Antonetti – and maybe even Shapiro – but the Indians need a new voice in the Front Office to cast a critical eye to their methodology and whether that new voice comes with a “familiar” tone to it, the way that Francona’s would, or from completely outside the organization, what’s become clear this season is that the status quo is not acceptable.

In the past they’ve “bucked” that status quo with an outside influence and a similar step – at the very least – is in order once more…


Anonymous said...

I live in Colorado, and did not like the Ubaldo trade. The only 'intelligence' and research the Tribe would have had to do is reading the Denver Post and maybe seeing Ubaldo pitch. From the beginning of the 2011 season, it was clear Ubaldo was not in the Rockies plans. With a little research and common sense, it does not take a lot to understand why. Instead, we get typical Shapiro-esque arrogance. He and his team are smarter than the Rockies. They can fix Ubaldo. Just like they can develop Masterson, LaPorta, Jason Knapp and Carrasco into stars. The arrogance of Shapiro and his underlings is what has put the franchise in the awful place it is now.

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