Monday, June 26, 2006

The Hot Seat

I suppose at some point Cleveland Indians' manager Eric Wedge will start feeling the heat. I suppose he already is starting to if his recent testiness to the Tribe's beat reporters is any indication. ["You can't worry about the press," he said. "You can't worry about scrutiny. It's major-league baseball. If you can't take it, get the hell out." from the Cleveland Plain Dealer] And quibble, if you will, about Eric Wedge. But for my money the stench on this year's team starts at the top with the Dolans.

The problem with this year's team stems from the Dolans inability to actually run a successful business. In essence, the prior business experience of Larry Dolan and his son Paul amounts to running a small law firm. They are not in Kansas anymore. What they have failed to realize is the demoralizing impact their off-season has had on this season's performance.

Last year the Indians won 93 games. In many ways, they came out of nowhere to do that. They collapsed during that crucial final week or else the Chicago White Sox aren't sitting fat and happy as World Champs and Ozzie Guillen and his circus act probably would have exited the dugout by now. (And in keeping with the overall theme of this blog, there is no doubt that the Indians would not have won the World Series instead, but that's for another day.) But there is no question that when the season ended, damn near every team in the American League, including the White Sox, were nervous about the 2006 Indians.

If you want evidence, look no further to the White Sox off-season. They added significant starting pitching depth and greatly strengthened their offense by re-signing Paul Konerko and trading for Jim Thome. The Indians had a chance at Thome as well but weren't willing to part with any of their vaunted minor leaguers in order to re-acquire the city's most popular Indian since Rocky Colovito. In short, the White Sox smelled the threat and responded accordingly.

The White Sox needn't have bothered. The notoriously cheap Dolans, who had promised the fans that once we were in contention would spend, instead cut again. Their overall budget may have increased slightly, but they aren't keeping pace. You could argue, of course, that their budget increase for 2006 was the same as the White Sox. That's true as both increased their payrolls roughly 26%. But keep in mind that the White Sox, long the much poorer stepchild of Chicago sports, increased 26% off of a $75 million budget in 2005 while the Indians increase was off a 2005 budget of $41 million. In other words, the White Sox and their owners continue to dig deep, to the tune of almost $103 million, to ensure a winner while the Dolans are content to stay near the bottom of the pack.

In short, the Dolans continue to give GM Mark Shapiro a Kansas City Royals-like budget, again, and ask him to again perform magic with re-treads. Shapiro couldn't take on the salary of Thome and let him go to the White Sox. Shapiro couldn't take on the salary of Kevin Millwood and let him go to the Rangers. Shapiro couldn't take on the salary of one of the league's most effective set-up men, Bob Howry, and let him go to the White Sox. And, for good measure, Shapiro simply let offensive catalyst Coco Crisp go in a trade to the Red Sox, the previous season's World Champs. The jury may still be out on the Crisp fiasco, but it's in on the other moves.

Journeyman Paul Byrd for Kevin Millwood? On paper, this is the kind of thing that ultimately gets GM's or the manger fired. You can almost hear the discussion: "Well, Byrd had as many wins as Millwood did last season, and he's a lot cheaper, so this would be a good move." And here's where the inexperience of the Dolans reared its ugly head. If you look at wins, on paper they were right. But what they failed to realize, of course, is the intangible effects that a clear number one guy like Millwood brings. Things like maturity. Things like presence. Byrd may be a decent guy, but he's a little light on the presence thing. In other words, Byrd for Millwood has had an incredibly detrimental impact on the psyche of this year's Tribe.

The same goes for the Crisp trade. Andy Marte may work out well and is doing better now at AAA, but there is still a leap to make. Crisp was a bona fide major leaguer who fit quite nicely at the top of the line-up. His replacement, free agent retread Jason Michaels, is what you'd expect--decidedly average with the glove and the bat. But more importantly, he lacks the presence that Crisp had in the clubhouse. And let's not even start the debate about Brandon Phillips, who has to be under serious consideration for this year's All Star game.

And the same goes for what the Indians didn't do. They pursued darn near every free agent closer only to come up short once again. In other words, they no longer are attractive to first-tier free agents. Baseball players are notoriously bigger gossips then Aunt Bea's sewing circle and if you don't think the poor mouth ways of the Dolans hasn't made the rounds among the players, then you've never hung around a major league batting cage. So while the Indians were pursuing players they had no chance of getting, they lost out on trade opportunities and other signings that may have strengthened them overall. The impact, however, is clear. They went backward by any objective measure and at a time when the White Sox, already the champs, took quantum leaps forward.

If you don't think this had an impact on the players, then you just aren't paying attention. They got no support whatsoever from the owners in their quest to take the next step from competitive to contender and the fans scratch their heads and wonder what's wrong.

My guess is that at some point, perhaps soon, Wedge will be made the scape goat. Once he's replaced, the fans will direct their ire to Mark Shapiro. But in each case, the fans will be wrong. The Dolans have no business owning a business. They no nothing of the intangible factors it takes to make any business successful. In baseball, as in any enterprise, the players need to feel like they are being given opportunity to be successful. The message these players have gotten to this point is quite the opposite. If the owners don't care, why should the players?

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