It was either a slow news day or Plain Dealer sports editors thought that columnist Bill Livingston finally had something interesting to say. How else to explain the fact that his column this morning appeared on the front page, above the fold. Usually you have to dig into the bowels of the sports section for Livingston's bland insights.
But rather than focus any more effort on Livingston's usual shortcomings, in this one instance let's turn our attention to what he actually had to say. Livingston used his soapbox to try and draw some parallels between Browns GM Phil Savage and Indians GM Mark Shapiro. In particular, he seems to find that each governs from a potentially fatal blindspot. With Savage, it's his alleged failure to sign a credible backup to quarterback Charlie Frye, particularly considering the abuse that's been heaped on Frye by opposing defenses. With Shapiro, it's his failure to notice that manager Eric Wedge simply can't motivate his players to perform at a higher level.
Let's exam each premise. Starting with Shapiro, we too have raised a similar issue as has others. (See "Eliminating the Variables", September 13, 2006). But Livingston doesn't necessarily come by his argument honestly. It's no secret that Livingston isn't much of a Wedge fan and never has been. So using still another column to knock the Indians manager is hardly groundbreaking analysis. It's fair to posit the question about Shapiro's loyalty to Wedge, but to try and answer it by simply suggesting that because Livingston can't recall a single instance where Wedge's managerial skills actually helped win a game hardly proves the point. With limited exceptions, such as Grady Little's decision to stay with a tiring Pedro Martinez in the World Series, baseball is always the most difficult sport to determine, at any given moment, the impact of the manager.
What, exactly, has Phil Garner, manager of the Houston Astros, done to turn his team into a second half sensation? Was there one specific moment, as Livingston craves of Wedge, or is it a combination of factors? The question answers itself much in the same way as it does with respect to Jim Leyland and the Detroit Tigers. The point is, we think, that you have to examine the body of work and not the individual moments to discern the patterns.
You can fairly criticize much about Wedge. Did he stick with Aaron Boone too far past his expiration date? Did he wait too long before publicly calling out Jhonny Peralta for his lack of professionalism? But if you're going to do that, you have to likewise give him credit for the development of phenom Grady Sizemore in this his second full year in the majors. While the Indians whimper into the off-season, Sizemore continues to play at a high level and has, in fact, raised his game even more in the last few weeks. Certainly at least some credit has to go to Wedge on that score.
We're not here to necessarily defend Wedge, but rather to point out a hack job when we see one. We get that Livingston doesn't like Wedge, so be it. But the truth of the matter is that Wedge remains and intriguing enigma, whose true abilities may never be known as long as he continues to ply his trade with the Indians. Until we have decent, well-financed ownership that gives the GM the ability to acquire players of greater depth and talent, Wedge will continue to earn a pass, whether deserved or not.
As for Savage, we think here too that Livingston misses the point. It's easy to assume that Savage is satisfied with backup quarterbacks Ken Dorsey and Derek Anderson since little effort has been made to sign anyone of a higher stature. But we think there is a bigger card being played. The last thing a young, developing quarterback like Charlie Frye needs is to have that seasoned veteran (such as Trent Dilfer) sitting on the bench, looking over his shoulder. In that scenario, your starter is always one bad pass from the fans and the media clamoring for the backup. It's always been true that the fans favorite quarterback is the one not starting. We think, given the Browns rather thin talent level anyway, that much of this season is about firmly rooting Frye as a legitimate NFL starting quarterback in the minds of everyone--from the opposing teams, to the players in the huddle, to the fans, to the media, and to Frye himself. No one expected the Browns to challenge for a playoff spot this year, anyway. Isn't it better, then, to use this year as a springboard for the next several? At least that's the theory.
If the Browns had signed, for example, Kerry Collins, many in the media and in the stands would be screaming to put him in. And how, exactly, would that make a difference anyway, except to further retard the development of a long-term quarterback?
If Livingston had posited, instead, that Savage has a blind spot when it comes to quarterbacks, in general, there at least would be a credible argument. Savage's old team, the Ravens, have been poorly served at this position for years. But when you consider the Ravens, it makes sense for them to toss Kyle Bollar aside in favor of a clearly aging and deteriorating Steve McNair. The Ravens defense is Super Bowl-worthy, there is talent in some of the skill positions on offense and thus resting your playoff aspirations on Bollar would be ridiculous. But in doing so, the Ravens know full well that they'll pay the price, perhaps as early as next season. McNair will not be able to last, physically, and when it comes time to go back to the cupboard, it will be bare.
We don't know if Charlie Frye is closer to Jake Delhomme or Trent Dilfer. Only time will tell. But blaming Savage for accurately assessing the Browns chances this year and then using the season to set the table for later years hardly seems like a crime. In fact, it seems like prudent long-term planning, something that has been sorely missing from this franchise since it returned.
But we are glad that Livingston got this once chance above-the-fold. It did remind us that if anyone has a blind spot, it's the editors of the PD who continue to thrust Livingston on an increasingly suspecting public.