Saturday, May 31, 2008

Becoming Unhinged

If anyone was worried that the dismal performance of the Cleveland Indians has gone unnoticed by manager Eric Wedge, worry nevermore. With each passing loss, Wedge is coming far closer to becoming unhinged than at any point since he took over as manager in 2004.

The latest evidence was on display after Wednesday afternoon’s loss to the Chicago White Sox when a visibly angry Wedge uncharacteristically challenged relief pitcher Rafael Betancourt, claiming essentially that Betancourt is afraid to pitch inside.

That Betancourt is underperforming is hardly news. Heck, it means he fits in well with this group of underachievers. That Wedge has taken his complaints public, however, does qualify as genuine news on any number of fronts.

First, blasting a player publicly is something either a rookie manager or an icon does. Wedge is neither. He may be a veteran manager, but he doesn’t have the gravitas or resume of a Jim Leyland in Detroit, for example, to pull it off just yet. By showing what some would say is his human side, Wedge began a walk on a slippery slope in new shoes with wax paper on the soles.

A manager fills many roles, from babysitter to Godfather. But first and foremost, the players have to believe that the manger is like a Secret Service agent, ready to take a bullet for them if necessary. When the manager starts firing the bullets instead, the dynamic is inverted. Put it this way, do you think Betancourt believes that Wedge has his back? To the extent that there’s a sliver of doubt in their minds, the players will now be that much more cautious with Wedge. It’s not one of those good problems to have.

Second, as awful as Betancourt and the bullpen have been, you could have won a small fortune wagering that to the extent Wedge would lose it publicly it would be because anyone of his hitters just killed another rally by swinging at another ball four. Think about Wednesday’s ninth inning. Wedge, playing small ball with a team ill equipped to handle the task, watched, in order, Ben Francisco and Victor Martinez fail to get the tying run home from third base.

When Wedge has talked about the team’s offensive problems, it’s been mostly in a generic sense, complaining that “the hitters” keep giving away at-bats but generally not focusing on any particular player. To the extent he’s spoken about anybody, it’s been in even, measured tones about Travis Hafner and the need to get him going in the right direction.

One aspect of Wedge’s attack on Betancourt that is particularly intriguing was the statement that Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis have been making the same points over and over again to no avail. It’s similar to Wedge’s statements that he’s talked with the hitters numerous times about their approach, again to no avail.

In some sense, it suggests that the players, for whatever reason, are beginning to tune out Wedge and his staff. Wedge admitted that Betancourt isn’t listening and it’s pretty clear that no one’s much listening to hitting coach Derek Shelton either, given how the ninth inning unfolded on Wednesday.

By taking on Betancourt as he did, Wedge unwittingly presented his general manager with an issue that probably wasn’t yet on his radar screen but probably should have been: that Wedge may be starting to lose the clubhouse. How true that ultimately is will undoubtedly be the key to the way the rest of this season unfolds. Right now, it’s doubtful that Mark Shapiro sees this as anything more than isolated examples involving one or two players. But if the struggles continue, Shapiro is going to reassess that premise. And if he thinks that team is no longer listening to Wedge or his staff, then Shapiro will have a bigger problem to deal with than whether or not to dump Andy Marte.

The guess, though, is that if the clubhouse is being lost, it’s not by Wedge but by Shapiro. Wedge is just the convenient target for a boatload of frustration stemming from a variety of failures, not the least of which was Shapiro’s inability to upgrade an offense that was struggling long before this season started.

Essentially, Shapiro stood pat on an offense that last year was too highly dependent on the long ball to produce runs. Forget about runs scored, the Indians struggled on offense last year and the players know it. It was masked by the emergence of Asdrubal Cabrera late last season, but most should recall that until Cabrera arrived, the Indians looked every bit as woeful as they do now for significant stretches, which is no surprise because it’s largely the same players.

Shapiro entered this season adhering to certain assumptions that, at the time, seemed pretty reasonable: that Hafner’s 2007 was an anomaly, that Cabrera and Sizemore would be even better and that Franklin Gutierrez looked poised to make a huge jump as well. Unfortunately, not a one of them has worked out so far.

In many ways, 2008 is turning out like 2006. Having gotten painfully close the previous season, Shapiro once again resisted the urge to make any major changes. Just as they did in 2006, the players this year seem to have taken note and responded in the most negative way possible, by failing to live up to any reasonable expectations. Instead of being energized by the confidence in them that they’d be even better, they seemed to have taken Shapiro’s minor offseason tweaks as a lack of commitment.
There’s no way of really knowing of course what’s deep in the psyche of most of these players. And whether or not it’s too late to save a season that’s hemorrhaging hope by the inning is a matter of opinion that ultimately will take another 50 or so games to confirm. While this season may not end up amounting to much, it won’t be a total loss if Shapiro is now able to learn the lessons he didn’t learn following the 2005 season, that rare is the team that can improve by standing pat.

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