Friday, August 11, 2006

Changing of the Guard

Is it a coincidence that the Indians first two-game win streak (is that even the proper description?) in a month occurred the same night the Browns opened their preseason? Probably. But if you're into that kind of metaphysics, then perhaps there is some connection not obvious to the yo-yos on local talk radio.

To the extent the items are related, it must be that the dispirited Tribe wanted to send a message to its dwindling and fickle fan base that there is still more to be excited about at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario (a.k.a. Jacobs Field) then at 9th and Lakeside (a.k.a. Cleveland Stadium). Which raises the question, which major pro sports team is really on the rise--the Indians, the Browns, or the Cavs?

At first blush, the answer seems to be the Cavs. Without question, they have an absolute, bona fide superstar in LeBron James, one of the 10, if not 5, best players in all the league. They have him locked up for another four years. With LeBron in the line-up, real success is never that far behind. The Cavs also appear to have a well-financed owner in Dan Gilbert. The only knock on Gilbert is that he's from Detroit and still lives there, which leaves fans with the lingering notion that if the Pistons ever came up for sale, he'd jump at the chance to buy them and sell the Cavs.

But putting that bit of typical Cleveland fan paranoia aside for a few moments, we think that if most Cleveland fans had their choice as to which team they'd like to see win a championship, the Cavs would come in third. In other words, to most fans, the NBA is a lousy form of basketball and is the worst of all major sports. Other than the fact that the Cavs are Cleveland's entrant in the league, it matters little whether or not the Cavs are on the rise.

The other thing is that the NBA's bizarre salary cap and all its exceptions does nothing but confuse the average fan. All they know is that the Lakers seem to be able to get whomever they want at whatever price it costs while the Cavs continue to be saddled with cap problems. GM Danny Ferry isn't helping matters right now with an awful quiet off-season on the heels of a breakthrough season. Hopefully Ferry is watching what's transpiring with the Indians and learning, like George Kostanza did but only too late, to do the opposite. The fear is that he's not, but he's got some time before the Cavs open camp.

That takes us to the Indians. On the one hand, they have locked up some objectively decent core players for several years. It's true that the book on some of them may need to be radically rewritten, but those they've signed seem to be legitimate major leaguers that most teams would pencil into their starting lineups. But on the other hand, the Indians are easily the most underfinanced of all Cleveland sports teams. Larry Dolan is a cheapskate, to be sure, despite what his apologists in the established media will tell you. But he's a cheapskate because, frankly, he doesn't have the money to spend. He overpaid for the Indians and needs this investment to pay off in order to service his debt. He can't deficit spend, not even a little. Thus, do not expect Dolan to ever employ the spending money to make money philosophy. In other words, the Indians will never be competitive, budget-wise, even within their division.

As we've said time and again, for the Indians to be successful, Mark Shapiro has to consistently turn water into wine. And as we've seen this season, a few wrong moves can spiral a team out of control. But a few wrong moves should be expected when you are forced to troll the depths of the B and C levels of free agency every year. In short, as long as the Dolans own the Indians they'll never be the team on the rise in this town. Never.

Which brings us to the Browns. They are an intriguing bunch. They play in the most difficult of all pro sports leagues. Fielding a team of 22 (plus kickers) is a difficult process. You have to be adequately financed but revenue sharing and a hard salary cap puts all 32 teams on similar footing. Thus, a well financed owner like Randy Lerner is a luxury. We'd rather have him then not but, frankly, with the current management in place, Larry Dolan could own the Browns and the team wouldn't suffer nearly as much as the Indians.

And that's the key. The Browns have good management in place. Phil Savage seems to be the real deal with a keen eye for talent. It's difficult to judge a draft just a few months out, but right now the Browns 2006 draft seems to be a dramatic improvement over years past. Their free agency signings were terrific by any measure. They have a well-respected, plain talking, head coach and enough young talent on the rest of the staff that gives you a sense that this franchise is headed in the right direction.

But that's the problem. It's tougher to turn around a franchise in pro football than in either baseball or basketball. Football doesn't have the minor league system that let's you develop players over time. The addition of one or two players can make an immediate and dramatic change to a basketball franchise as witnessed just by the drafting of LeBron James. In football, of course, the climb is longer and steeper.

For our money, then, the Browns are the real team on the rise. Unfortunately getting to the point where the light actually starts peaking through the tunnel is still a ways off, perhaps years. And as we've seen with just LeCharles Bentley, so much can happen on the journey.

1 comment:

Metsfannn said...

Let me tell you, I follow baseball day in and day out and Cleveland- bad luck from being in the powerhouse AL central aside- is in real good shape.

You have a fantastic ballpark for starters. I've been there and it has been one of my favorites (I've visited a lot of them) You have a good GM- very key. And you have a collection of locked-up talent that is the envy of lots of teams - Sizemore, Hafner, Marte, C.C. , Cliff Lee - I truly believe that last year was indicative of the true Indians, that this year was a temporary step back (it happens sometimes)

All you need to do is find a closer and some arms to compliment C.C., Lee and Westbrook.

Next year the Tribe shoots 90 wins. Bank on it