Saturday, June 28, 2008

Just Fine is the New Better

It was pretty clear early in the season that Indians pitcher Cliff Lee was having a big year. For everything that went wrong last season, that much and more went right early and often this season. But who knew that in the process Lee would be the one more than anyone to help General Manager Mark Shapiro withstand the coming storm?

That coming storm would be, of course, the loss of Indians ace C.C. Sabathia. Lee was an afterthought going into the season, barely holding on to the fifth spot in the rotation. He’s emerged as the most effective starting pitcher in the American League, pushing his record to 11-1 and giving up well under three earned runs a game. And as he’s done so, he’s also becoming a key stake holding the safety net that Shapiro hauls out to blunt the impending loss of Sabathia.

Though Lee has a firm grasp on one corner of that net, he’s also being assisted by Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey. When Fausto Carmona comes back in a few weeks, he’ll be able to grab another corner of that net as well. In other words, as Shapiro will tell you, even without Sabathia the Indians starting pitching will be just fine.

As far as that goes, it’s true. It just won’t be better and that’s the distinction Shapiro will coolly avoid. Be it at the trading deadline or when this miserable season closes, whenever Sabathia does leave the Indians won’t be immediately better and for a fan base that grows more exasperated by the day with what they see on the field that safety net offers very little solace.

More than anything else, what this season is revealing, particularly placed in context with the previous four, is that the Indians remain in perpetual rebuilding mode under a general manager prone to occasional delusions. At times, that yields a team good enough to compete with the best in the league. At other times, like now, it finds itself looking up at the Kansas City Royals. Being fine, no matter how much fans are told otherwise, is not the new better.

What this season also has revealed is Shapiro’s growing tendency to sacrifice action at the expense of analysis. Time and again, Shapiro has expressed his disappointment with this team’s performance in terms of the inability of several players to meet internal expectations. The reality is that these were hopeful projections masquerading as foregone conclusions. The further reality is that by turning these hopeful projections into the expected reality, Shapiro was really providing himself cover for why he stood pat with a roster that begged for further manipulation.

To illustrate the point, as last year’s trading deadline approached, the Indians were struggling mightily to score runs. Designated hitter Travis Hafner was a big part of the problem, but hardly the only reason. I noted at that time:

… the Indians may be second in the league in runs scored, they also are second in the league in runners left on base. … But where the real difference starts showing up is the simple act of putting the ball in play. If you have the sense that the Indians strike out a lot, it’s because they do. Only Tampa Bay and Texas have struck out more than the Tribe….Digging deeper one can see why that lingering feeling about the offense is well justified. Not only is Hafner, for example, struggling with the bases loaded, so too is the rest of the team. Overall the Indians have had 104 at bats this season with the bases loaded and have just 24 hits for a .230 average….If that doesn’t tell enough of the story, consider the averages with runners in scoring position. The Indians have had 879 at bats with runners in scoring position. They have 230 hits for an average of .261. That’s a full 14 points under the overall team average.

Given these flaws, which were on full display for weeks at a time, it was reasonable to expect Shapiro to attack the problem in the offseason. Instead, he was seduced into thinking that any offensive woes were magically solved by the temporary spark provided by rookie Asdrubal Cabrera. When Cabrera became just another struggling sophomore and no one else stepped into to fill the breach, the Indians offensive woes returned with a vengeance. To date, the Indians have scored two or fewer runs in 27 games. The resulting record is hardly a surprise.

Listening to Indians’ broadcaster, Tom Hamilton, try his best to put lipstick on this pig of a season as the team was losing to San Francisco 4-1 on Wednesday evening, what struck me was how he touted the recent signings of Tony Graffanino and Juan Rincon as evidence that Shapiro is trying to improve the team. Hamilton’s a team employee and it’s hard to begrudge him the occasional suck-up to his employer. But seriously, if signing these two is evidence of a team working hard to improve, then it’s not hard to figure why things have gone wrong: management is nuts.

What those signings really signal is that Shapiro’s never-ending quest to find chicken salad among the chicken droppings continues unabated by prior failures. Shapiro has become Fred Sanford, always looking for gold among the junk because once or twice he spotted something shiny under a pile of discarded jock straps. Soon enough though Graffinino and Rincon are poised to join the likes of Trot Nixon, Roberto Hernandez, Aaron Fultz, Keith Foulke, Aaron Boone, Todd Hollandsworth, Brady Anderson, Jason Johnson, Lou Merloni, Alex Cora, Chris Magruder, Chad Paronto, Shane Spencer, Jeff D’Amico, Jose Jimenez, Rick White, Scott Stewart, Ricky Gutierrez, Jason Bere and Scott Sauerbeck on the island of misfit toys. And those are just the charter members. There are several other potential members on the current roster and others still to be signed by Shapiro.

If Shapiro is really hell-bent on improving this team, he must lose his fascination with reclamation projects and utility players. He also must lose his fascination with building a team for a just-out-of-reach future and focus much more intensely on the presence. But first and foremost, Shapiro needs to lose his fascination with the rose-colored glasses he wears in the off-season. They’re giving the fans a migraine headache.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Snowball Effect

You could read the tea leaves or just trust your own eyes. Certainly by this point, though, you’ve concluded that the Cleveland Indians will not make a run at a division title this year, let alone a World Series crown.

Sure, it’s irritating and aggravating but it’s not as if Indians fans don’t know how to deal with it. If disappointment was a degreed program, Indians fans would all qualify for a master’s. But the problem is that the rest of the American League Central division refuses to let you stew in peace.

In losing four of their last six games, the Indians only fell behind one game in the standings. What this signals is that the AL Central is ripe for the taking and the only ones not paying attention are the stats freaks in the front office. General manager Mark Shapiro seems caught in an endless loop of indecision, trying hard but failing to figure out if this disaster of a season is the result of injuries or bad luck. Manager Eric Wedge is acting every bit the company man, encouraging his light-hitting charges that though they might not be scoring runs, they are at least putting together good at-bats.

Meanwhile, it’s almost as if the rest of the division is deliberately taking a breather or two in order to actually give the Indians a chance to get back in this thing, as if they are themselves surprised at what a mess the team has become. They shouldn’t be surprised. This season was several years in the making.

The injury debate has gone on far long enough. At present, there are three legitimate injuries, four if you count what’s going on in Travis Hafner’s head as an injury, which the Indians have to overcome. But it’s time for everyone associated with the Indians to stop using these as the reason to completely write off another season. It is unrealistic to think that Shapiro believed that the Indians’ chances this season hinged on the team being injury free. It’s a part of every season. The good teams overcome. The flawed teams make excuses.

On closer analysis, the only injury that seems to have really had an impact is Victor Martinez’s ailing elbow. Losing two starters in Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook is far down on the list of why this team isn’t performing. Their substitutes may not be the equivalents, but they aren’t exactly killing this team either. Not having Hafner around just continues the status quo from last season. Reduced to its simplest terms, the Indians are essentially saying that can’t overcome the loss of Martinez.

If you buy that, I have the deed to the Detroit-Superior Bridge that I’ll sell you at a bargain price. If you don’t, then what you’re left with is the chilly reality that the lack of production is the end result of a series of bad decisions by Shapiro stretching out over several years.

Though it could be, this isn’t about revisiting the Hafner contract. It’s not about revisiting Brandon Phillips either. It’s also not about revisiting Kevin Kouzmanoff. Giving up on Jeremy Guthrie could be questioned, but won’t be here. Ryan Church? Ditto. What is worth re-visiting for a moment as the microcosm of all of that is Omar Vizquel, who Shapiro put out to pasture four seasons ago, deeming him unworthy of a three-year contract extension.

Vizquel was clearly one of the most popular players in recent Indians’ history. A nearly peerless defensive shortstop, Vizquel is a Hall of Famer. But at age 38, Shapiro decided it was Jhonny Peralta time. Shapiro didn’t pretend the Peralta would ever possess more than a fraction of Vizquel’s defensive skills. But the lure of a young (i.e. cheap) power-hitting shortstop was too much for Shapiro to resist. Perhaps if Vizquel had changed his name to Dellucci, Shapiro might have reconsidered.

What has always been less than clear is why Shapiro simply didn’t let the two co-exist. Peralta could have been moved to third base, still a hole on this team, or even to second. Either situation would have been far more stabilizing for far longer than the current state of flux that still finds Casey Blake at third and now role-player Jamey Carroll at second.

Ok, I lied. It’s not less than clear. In fact it’s crystal clear. Shapiro wanted Vizquel for maybe one more season but Vizquel wanted a multi-year deal for more than $4 million a year. Shapiro took a look at his skinny budget and made a value judgment that this money could be better spent elsewhere with negligible impact. Penny wise meet pound foolish.

By sacrificing Vizquel to the budget gods, Shapiro turned his back on a player who actually could have supplied the Indians with the kind of veteran leadership that he tries to wring out of such lesser talents as Dellucci or Jason Michaels. He also turned his back on a player who wasn’t done and still isn’t, although four seasons after the fact it’s finally starting to look like retirement is near.

When Shapiro had to confront Vizquel’s impending free agency, he guessed correctly that Vizquel probably wasn’t going to hit .333 again like he did in 1999. But he was painfully wrong in guessing that Vizquel wouldn’t live out a multi-year deal. Vizquel was the steady clubhouse presence while the Barry Bonds circus played nightly. In the process, he didn’t embarrass himself in the field or at the plate. He hit .295 in 2006 and stole 24 bases in both 2005 and 2006, the most he had stolen since 1999. If anything, his defense over the last four years has been better than the previous four seasons in Cleveland.

In short order, Vizquel at $4 million for each of the last three seasons would have been a good deal and not strictly because of the production. It also likely would have kept Kouzmanoff in Cleveland playing third, Peralta would be at second and Josh Barfield would be back in San Diego. Casey Blake might have survived another season or two but by this point he’d likely be the odd man out. If you think all this would have resulted in a far better lineup then the present mess, you’re not alone.

This season will not do anything to diminish Shapiro’s status in the eyes of his employers, but a few more like it will. The problem with personnel mistakes is that they tend to snowball until they begin to smother you seasons later. The decision to not re-sign Vizquel may not have been the lynchpin for why this season’s team is suffering, but it certainly helped sow the seeds of this latest season of discontent. And, if past be prologue, then there’s little doubt that a few years from now we’ll be dissecting another egg laid and pointing probably to the decisions to offer long-term contracts to Hafner, Peralta and Jake Westbrook, coupled with the inability to sign C.C. Sabathia, as the culprits.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A Return to Boldness

As the Cleveland Indians’ slide deeper and deeper into mediocrity this season you can see the fan base breaking into three distinct camps. The first advocates trading C.C. Sabathia. The second advocates trading C.C. Sabathia RIGHT NOW. The third has lost interest in the whole damn thing and just wants Browns season to start.

The fact that virtually no one believes that Sabathia will be re-signed speaks volumes to how effective general manager Mark Shapiro has been over the years in slyly lowering fans expectations after initially promising something that seems impossible in retrospect, a consistent contender.

Shapiro blew up the team in 2002 when he traded Bartolo Colon. It was a bold and audacious move. Recall that when the Colon trade was consummated, Shapiro was candid about his intentions: “This very clearly and very definitively demonstrates that we are moving into a formal rebuilding process with players that we all feel are going to be here in the ‘04 and ‘05 seasons which are when we feel we can start to emerge as a contender again. From the start of the offseason, we stated that if the difficult goal of transitioning and contending was not successful, we would have to enter into a more dramatic and profound rebuilding process. That is the juncture we find ourselves today.”

As unpopular as that trade was at the time, Shapiro sold it by staking out his part in the bargain: the team needed to take a step back in order to re-capture the past and re-build back into a team that would consistently contend. It sounded difficult but reasonable. In practice, it was naïve.

Exactly when the storyline changed is a little harder to peg, but clearly Shapiro realized his mistake and changed course by embarking on a different sort of sell job the last several years, one aimed at convincing the fans that Cleveland is a second-tier city, at least when it comes to major league baseball. Fans have been told so often that the economic realities of this market make it difficult to invest in Sabathia or any other premier free agent, it’s now accepted fact.

The frustrating part of this story line is that there’s a healthy amount of truth to it. Slightly below the surface, Shapiro is really saying that it’s not the near term money a free agent gets that’s the problem. It’s the millions on the back end of the contract that will still get paid even when the free agent has long outlived his usefulness either because of an injury or ineffectiveness or both. Backing up Shapiro are reams of examples, particularly of pitchers. No team likes paying out dead money, but some teams are in a better position than others to withstand the hit. The Indians aren’t one of them.

For as much truth as the story line holds, it’s not complete. It’s hard to begrudge the business model of owners Larry and Paul Dolan that bases the team’s budget on its revenues. But there is a point at which this mentality can overtake another accepted business maxim: you have to spend money to make money.

To this point, Shapiro has been the person most responsible for balancing these two sometimes conflicting principles. To be incredibly generous, the results have been decidedly mixed and the trends disturbing.

What really started the Indians down this path was Shapiro’s signature trade of Colon in 2002. Shapiro became convinced that a team that had averaged over 90 wins a season for seven consecutive years was on the decline. He was right. He acted with a forcefulness and sense of purpose not seen since, parting with the team’s pitching ace for three very young prospects, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore. To make the long term plan work, however, he needed to remain ever vigilant, ever bold. Instead he’s been a passive and often ineffective tinkerer.
Dolan has shown some willingness on occasion to spend a little extra to foster Shapiro’s original blueprint though he and now his son Paul don’t make a habit of it. Shapiro has made some good decisions in pursuit of his quest but he’s not been making a habit of that either. As a result, you get these radically inconsistent on-field performances. A team that won 96 games last year is on a pace to win 74 this year. Of course, that 96-win team only won 78 games the year before. But then again that 78-win team had won 94 games the previous season. Whatever the merits that the Dolans and Shapiro find in their approach, one thing is clear. It’s not yielding the consistent, competitive team they envisioned when they blew up the team in 2002 by trading that team’s Sabathia, Bartolo Colon. Maybe it never could.

Whether you’re in trade Sabathia camp that wants to still wait another 15 or so games to really see if this team can turn it around, or you’re in the trade him yesterday camp, keep in mind that either way you’re throwing your faith in a system that hasn’t necessarily served you well.

Here again is where Shapiro is doing another effective job of lowering expectations, this time on his own ability to perform. Consider how many times fans have heard Shapiro caution not to expect another Colon-type trade. According to Shapiro, teams are no longer making those trades in order to rent a pitcher, even one of Sabathia’s caliber, for a few months.

The frustrating part of this story line is that there’s a healthy amount of truth to it as well. Even the New York Yankees, with general manager Brian Cashman tentatively in control, is seeing the prudence in holding on to low-priced high potential prospects. With the Yankees exercising a degree of responsibility, substantial trades will always be more difficult.

Another related factor is that teams are taking a much more serious-minded approach toward the draft. Knowing that trading Sabathia means that he’s giving up the two compensatory draft picks that he’d otherwise get if Sabathia leaves after the season is reason enough to give Shapiro pause to pull the trigger. A team trading for Sabathia now better feel like whatever they give up will be worth it either because they can sign Sabathia for the long-term or because the compensatory picks they’ll get if Sabathia signs elsewhere will make up for what they traded to the Indians.

But, too, for as much truth as it holds, it’s also not the complete story. The Indians of 2008 are far different than their 2002 counterparts. It’s not a formerly good team on the decline, but an occasionally middling team with potential. Fixing it doesn’t necessarily require the bold strokes of 2002 but a kind of courage and finesse that Shapiro now seems to lack. The need to blow the team up with a Colon-style trade isn’t there now. But the need for boldness remains. If the Indians are to ultimately succeed under Shapiro, indeed if Shapiro can ever going to deliver on the audacious promises of 2002, he’s going to rekindle a little audacity himself. Right now, Indians fans have a right to wonder whether that’s the most naïve thought of them all.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Another Lesson from the Local Media

If the average Cleveland Indians fan was surprised by the team’s announcement last week that catcher Victor Martinez was being shelved for the next two months because of elbow surgery, apparently it paled in comparison to the shock felt by the local reporters covering the team on a daily basis.

Crank-in-residence Sheldon Ocker of the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday really upbraided Indians’ management for all the mystery surrounding both the Martinez and Travis Hafner injuries. Ouch. Jim Ingraham of the Lake County News-Herald and Lorain Morning Journal matched Ocker indignant word-for-indignant word. Double ouch. Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer couldn’t personally muster the energy to register his protest formally, but once someone wakes him up I’m sure he’ll get right on it.

Sure, as Ingraham said, the Indians look bad. Guess what? The reporters covering the team look worse. Lost in the convenient rage by the local press is their complete lack of appreciation for irony. Doing what reporters often do best, pointing fingers elsewhere, these three should really be asking themselves why they were scooped on this story by the Indians’ public relations office. They supposedly cover the team on a daily basis, spending more hours with the team during the season then they do their own families. Yet not one of them was even aware that Martinez had a chronically sore elbow until Martinez left the game or if they were never mentioned it.

The complacency of most of the local media covering the town’s various pro sports teams is hardly breaking news. But then again, either were the injuries to Martinez and Hafner, playing out as they did over the course of months, not days let alone hours.

This episode really provides a nice backdrop to a column I wrote last week and the feedback it received about how the Indians management, utilizing their local media enablers, were busy weaving a new story line into the collective conscious that injuries alone were the real reason this team was performing well below the misguided preseason expectations. Injuries are playing a role certainly but the far bigger culprit is general manager Mark Shapiro’s increasingly disastrous decision to essentially stand pat this last off season.

A reader, agreeing with the points made and wondering why Hoynes, for example, wasn’t willing to come out publicly and say that that this team wasn’t wearing clothes, sent the column to Hoynes for a response. Hoynes, expressing far more anger at the reader then he could muster at Shapiro, suggested first that I got the idea to write the column from the Plain Dealer and, by the way, it must be nice sitting in the safe confines of an ivory tower and pontificating while he and his ilk slug it out each day, going down to the locker room, talking to the players and writing on a deadline. Who knew Hoynes had such contempt for Bill Livingston and Bud Shaw?

The surprise though came at the end of the email. Essentially Hoynes said you can’t use injuries as an excuse but you can’t ignore them either. In other words, he really didn’t disagree.

I’m not suggesting that anything that happens in the world of sports, particularly pro sports, is worth the wrongheaded emphasis we place on it as a society. But so long as we’re going to cover sports, there’s nothing wrong with taking it seriously. In the bubble that Hoynes, Ocker and the rest occupy the only ones apparently capable of taking it seriously and reporting on it with requisite insight are the beat reporters that “go down to the locker room.” Without them, we’d miss manager Eric Wedge saying after another loss, “we’ve just got to keep playing hard.”

What Hoynes’ email really reveals is that he like many others in his line of work these days has taken on a bunker mentality when it comes to their internet competitors. Rather than embrace the diversity of voices or accept the challenge they present, reporters like Hoynes have increasingly taken on the tone of the aging ex-wife pushed out for a younger version. In the process, the loss of relevancy they fear is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s a fair point to make by whoever makes it that Shapiro and Wedge cheated fans by not being more forthcoming earlier in the season. Indeed, it’s equally fair for anyone with a keyboard and access to an audience to second-guess the thought process that led to Shapiro and Wedge thinking that it was a good idea to initially play two obviously injured players and then keep them in the lineup while their failures and the losses continued to pile up like sandbags fending off flood waters. The problem is that it would have been far more useful for those with the supposedly inside access, like Hoynes, Ocker or any of the rest of them, to be on the front end of the story, not the back.

If the secret to insight is in the locker room, then why, again, did Hoynes, Ocker and the rest completely miss the Martinez and Hafner stories? They missed it because, gosh, Shapiro decided to be deceptive with the fan base. That doesn’t get Shapiro off the hook but a little after-the-fact indignation doesn’t mean the local reporters that were sleeping all along shouldn’t likewise hang with him.

Incapable of self-reflection, the local press has long since taken on the clubby persona of a jaded insider. Indeed, what Hoynes is essentially saying is that he and his brethren pull punches and play it safe in order to maintain access that they don’t really utilize in the first place. Shapiro and others like him know it and play into it, doling out access to them just infrequently enough to make it seem special. The reality is that Shapiro didn’t volunteer the information about Martinez sooner because he knew he could get away with it. He has a complacent pack of reporters covering this team, a pack whose interest doesn’t extend much beyond the relative merits of whether or not the chicken picata on the pre-game buffet is a bit too spicy. If Shapiro takes a little flak afterward for not being completely truthful, so be it. It isn’t going to change the coverage of his team going forward.

The lesson here is that access is overrated and insight underrated. A valid point isn’t any less so because it was made by someone on this site and not by one of the drones sitting in the press box. If you’re still relying on the local media to hold the team and its management accountable, then you’ll surely be disappointed and ill-informed. Then again you’re probably not reading this anyway. And, for the record, I couldn’t have gotten the idea for my column from reading the Plain Dealer. That would have meant that someone like Hoynes would have had to have written it in the first place and we all know by now that didn’t happen.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

It's Only Business

Beware the fist in the velvet glove.

Channeling Hyman Roth, Browns general manager Phil Savage essentially positioned Wednesday’s release of center LeCharles Bentley as purely business, nothing personal. Bentley said pretty much the same thing. But just as Michael Corleone’s business move of snuffing out Moe Greene had its repercussions don’t be surprised if there isn’t some attendant fallout from the Bentley situation.

To many fans, the news that Bentley supposedly asked for and received his release probably came as a surprise. Bentley had just passed his team physical and looked poised to finally pay some sort of dividend on the Browns’ heavy investment in him two years ago. On the surface, Bentley’s request looks to be motivated by the numbers, as in there are too many incumbents that currently block his desire to resume his career as a starting center. Just below the surface and promising to rise soon enough are Bentley’s lingering feelings that Savage hasn’t quite treated him fairly. It’s a complicated set of emotions with no right answer.

Bentley, of course, was Savage’s first legitimate big name free agent signee. Bentley was the marquee free agent of the 2006 class and his six year $36 million contract, with $12 million guaranteed, cemented that status. In Bentley as well as Kevin Schaffer, who was signed at the same time, Savage saw an opportunity to finally improve the offensive line. Bentley was a perfect signing, really, because it involved a highly skilled lineman with a desire to return triumphantly to his home town.

It didn’t work out that way because Bentley got hurt during his very first drill in his first Brown’s training camp. Amazingly in a non-contact drill he suffered a torn patella that morphed into a staph infection that morphed into even more surgery. Bentley’s career wasn’t just in jeopardy, so too was his life.

The injury was devastating to Bentley personally and to the entire Browns organization. It set in motion a pall that hung over the 2006 training camp and started a confluence of bizarre events that ultimately resulted in Savage making a trade for Hank Fraley, who today occupies the spot that Bentley coveted upon his return.

When Bentley went down, there was no way to know at that moment how serious the injury ultimately would become let alone whether it would truly imperil Bentley’s career. But as the season progressed, it became clear that Bentley was not going to be ready for the following season either. This put the Browns in a difficult spot.

Under the collective bargaining agreement, if a player is injured during the season and cannot play in the team’s final game, he can be waived the next season if he is unable to pass the pre-season physical. If he’s waived, he’s entitled to an injury protection settlement of $250,000 but otherwise the team has no further salary obligations unless his individual contract provides otherwise. But player contracts in the NFL are never guaranteed so in Bentley’s case, the Browns had an opportunity to avoid paying off the remainder of Bentley’s rather large salary over the next five years by simply waiving him prior to last season.

Making a move like that on a marquee player is rare and not just because of the public relations hit. Generally, a team will put a player like Bentley who can’t pass the pre-season physical on the physically unable to perform or PUP list in order to keep that player in the fold. When that occurs, the player receives his salary for that year as if he were actively playing. The reason a team puts a player on the PUP list is because they believe he will eventually recover and become a valuable player again.

As Bentley’s situation progressed and the extent of his injury became clear, it’s pretty obvious that Savage played a bit of poker with Bentley and his agent before last season. Knowing that Bentley couldn’t pass the pre-season physical, Savage used that fact as leverage to get Bentley to re-work his contract. Bentley chose not to call Savage’s bluff and instead agreed to a shortened contract, three years instead of the original six, and a salary at the league minimum of $605,000, more than double the $250,000 injury protection payment he would have received had he been waived. The Browns got out from under a large contract at a cost of an extra $350,000. Plus Savage got a bit of upside protection for the Browns if Bentley could actually return in 2008. The re-worked contract was loaded with incentives that could have pushed this year’s salary to more than $4 million.

But this wasn’t quite a win-win situation. Savage proved to be a shrewd and clever general manager, leaving the team with cap room by reworking a contract that would otherwise have been a burden. And while Savage arguably did Bentley a favor, it was of far lesser magnitude. Bentley got that extra $350,000 over the injury protection payment last season by agreeing to the new contract and he also got an extra year of retirement benefit credits when he sat on the PUP list last year rather than being cut. He also got the chance to further rehabilitate his knee knowing that he still had a salary coming from the Browns.

But he also got the situation that played out on Wednesday. Rolling around in his head had to be the thought that the Browns might cut him anyway and perhaps too late to really catch on with another team. That kind of move would cost him his salary of $605,000 and possibly the chance of continuing his career with another team until at least 2009. Frankly, it was a situation he couldn’t risk and didn’t. It’s why he asked for his release.

Anyone watching Savage operate in this case shouldn’t be surprised by this turn of events. When Kellen Winslow, Jr. had his motorcycle mishap that almost ended his career, Savage threatened to void Winslow’s contract in order to wrangle out a more club-friendly deal. Fans may have understood that better, but the impact of that move still lingers like a rain cloud over Berea as Winslow subtly threatens to sit out if he doesn’t get a new deal or at least get the benefit of his old deal.

In each case, Savage acted properly and ethically. But it won’t go unnoticed, particularly by the players and that could very well sway a future free agent. Fans, egged on by team owners and general managers, get all sanctimonious when a player under contract seeks to re-negotiate forgetting what it looks like when the team basically does the same thing.

What this situation really did was provide resonance to the prophetic words that John Matuszak’s character O.W. in the movie North Dallas Forty said to his coach after his North Dallas Bulls lost the conference championship because of a fumbled snap on an extra point “every time I call it a game you say it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business, you call it a game.”

Monday, June 09, 2008

Making the Wrong Excuses

The only thing that could be more disappointing than the Cleveland Indians performance thus far is if general manager Mark Shapiro blames it on injuries. With the losses piling up, the talk about the impact a host of injuries allegedly is having on this team is growing louder. All that means is that Indians’ vice president of public relations, Bob DiBiasio, is doing a good job getting weaving the institutional message into the public conscious via team broadcasters Tom Hamilton, Mike Hegan, Rick Manning and Matt Underwood and the enablers in the main stream press. It doesn’t mean it’s true.

Injuries can be an excuse or a rallying point. But talk about them enough and the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. Even the healthy players will use them as an excuse for why they can barely muster enough energy to stay interested in a game for nine innings.

The Los Angeles Angels have two starters out and several positions players on the disabled list. Vladimir Guerrero has turned into Travis Hafner. Yet, the Angels have the best record in the major leagues. The Indians have been beset by a similar rash of injuries but only Detroit (but not for much longer), Kansas City and Seattle have worse records in the American League.

The Eric Wedge haters will naturally say that the difference lies in the simple fact that Wedge is no Mike Scioscia. If that were only the case. In actuality, the two are quite similar. In one all important category Wedge, like Scioscia, has never been big on making excuses for non-performance. The difference lies in what they had to work with. If the Indians’ top management really thinks that the injuries are at the root of this team’s problems, then it’s time for Shapiro to go into the Cleveland Clinic himself for either a reality transplant or some ego reduction surgery, maybe both.

This team hasn’t been right since the opening bell. Shapiro took a tinkering approach to the offseason and it’s turning into one of the worst decisions of his career. The sad fact is that going into the season there wasn’t enough pop in the lineup anyway to sustain the team through the inevitable valleys of slow starts and 0-22 slumps. Far too much emphasis was placed on Hafner regaining his swing and his confidence without recognizing that even as the best case scenario that still wouldn’t have been enough to allow this team to consistently score runs. It wasn’t last year.

Short of taking the deposition myself of Hafner’s doctors, I’ll cynically remain unconvinced that his right shoulder is the source of his issues. It’s an injury of convenience, a way for the Indians and Hafner to save face while he quietly re-works his game without having to suffer the indignity of doing so in the minor leagues. The Hafner Indians’ fans grew to love disappeared over a year ago and was replaced by a guy that sort of looks like him, but with the swing of Gorman Thomas.

With Hafner’s track record, it’s easy to get see why folks get caught up in hopes and prayers. But what’s ailing Hafner is far more serious than a supposedly balky shoulder and the other various aches and pains this guy seems to pick up at an alarming rate considering he doesn’t even play defense. Even if there once was a physical reason for his slide, it’s far more psychological at this point, a diagnosis I feel safe in making even without having stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

As for Victor Martinez, there has been so much talk about his lack of home runs thus far, you’d think he has been the second coming of Johnny Bench. In his first four full seasons, Martinez has averaged just under 22 home runs per year. Those are good, but not great power numbers. His real value is as a consistent hitting presence in the middle of the lineup, someone to keep rallies going. While Martinez’s power numbers are obviously down, his streakiness as a hitter is hurting the team far more. And for the last few weeks, that streakiness has resulted in a precipitous drop in his batting average and hence his effectiveness at a time when because of injuries the Indians really needed him to go in another direction.

The bigger picture to all of this is that the rest of the lineup, and that includes Grady Sizemore and Ryan Garko, doesn’t look like they’re in slump. Instead, it looks like they are pretty much where they should be, give or take a few percentage points. Unlike what’s remained of the Angels’ lineup, the Indians don’t look to have anyone in their lineup that can be consistently counted on for either power or average, which means rallies will be sporadic and sustained win streaks will be rare, an apt description actually of the 2008 season. It would be nice to think that Wedge could fix this by getting more emotional, but he knows full well by now that you can’t yell someone into competence.

Though the injuries haven’t defined the season any more than they have defined the Angels’ season, what they have done is unsettled the one strength of the team—pitching. A team that now seems bound to have struggled anyway wasn’t good enough to overcome weakness elsewhere. Closer Joe Borowski’s injury early in the season appears to have been another injury of convenience much the same as Hafner’s. What’s apparent is that Borowski simply wasn’t ready to start the season, a lack of arm strength seemingly brought on by a lack of preparation.

But the domino effect of Borowski’s “injury” early in the season was to expose a bullpen that wasn’t quite capable of producing at last year’s level. Given slightly different roles for a limited period of time, virtually no one in that bullpen could make the adjustment. Returned to their traditional roles, the bullpen still is struggling, either because of that early season jolt or because they are, well, bullpen pitchers. In the end, what you have is a bullpen with the highest ERA in the majors (4.90) and 10 blown saves and with Rafael Betancourt serving as its poster child.

The injuries to Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook haven’t quite ravaged the starting pitching rotation in the same way, but those injuries are making it abundantly clear that the real advantage depth gives a team is in its ability to withstand just these sorts of challenges. You could look at Jeremy Sowers’ start Sunday against Detroit and conclude it wasn’t all that successful. But ask yourself what will have a longer term negative impact on the team: one ineffective start by Sowers or Jhonny Peralta’s strike out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning?

Sowers had trouble finishing off hitters Sunday and it cost the team five runs. Peralta had a chance to be the Edgar Renteria of Sunday and failed, again. It may have been too much to ask of Peralta for him to hit a grand slam like Renteria did on Saturday, but it’s not too much to note that the next meaningful run Peralta drives in will surely be his first.

It may be that a loss is a loss, but not all of them are created equally. The losses attributable to the unsettled starting rotation should end relatively soon as that situation stabilizes. Carmona will return, C.C. Sabathia will pitch better and Aaron Laffey and/or Sowers will settle in. Far more concerning are the losses attributable to the rest of the team’s failures. You could stick Scioscia in for Wedge and it wouldn’t make a difference, unless Scoscia also brings a large part of his roster with him. What troubles this team looks to stick around for awhile, like an obnoxious dinner party guest who doesn’t have to work tomorrow, an apt description actually of the 2008 season.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

1968, Revisited

With another lost weekend under their belt, you can almost feel the last ounce of optimism dripping from the entire Cleveland Indians organization. In a season of dispiriting losses, these were just a few more. But given that the Royals were on a bit of a tear themselves, 12 straight losses and counting, possibly the only positive from the Indians’ trip into Kansas City was that this team might finally have reached rock bottom. If not, then hide the children.

The Indians may not be the most disappointing team in the major leagues this year, but they are on a fast track to the top two. Laying waste to exceptional starting pitching with impunity, the team that was one game from the World Series last year right now can’t beat Kansas City. Baseball fortunes can certainly turn quickly and teams can get hot, but seriously does anyone see that in the near term for this team, particularly as presently constituted?

The most frustrating aspect about Version 2008 of the Indians is the unrealized promise of its starting pitching. Done in mostly by a lack of offense this year’s Indians ought to be clothed in the vintage uniforms of their 1960s predecessors. In fact, if you want to throw darts and pick a year, the summer of 2008 is taking on the look and feel of the summer of 1968, meaning all pitch and no hit.

Baseball is far different today than in 1968. Most notably, pitching dominated in a way it hasn’t since. The mound was higher, there were fewer teams. There was no designated hitter. Ball clubs had to be built to withstand a 10-team race. Before the march to expansion and ultimately three divisions in each league, baseball in 1968 has the American League and the National League. No wild cards, no ALDS, no ALCS.

In 1968, the Indians had one of the better pitching staffs in the league, most of which was a holdover from the previous year. Alvin Dark was in his first full season as the Indians’ manager, which was not surprising given that the team was coming off what can only be characterized as a miserable season the year before. Despite a pitching rotation that in 1967 featured Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Steve Hargan and Sonny Siebert, the Indians finished eighth in the American League at 75-87. The team ERA was 3.25, a figure that would be leading the major leagues right now but was only fifth best in the league then. The far bigger problem is that the Indians couldn’t score runs. That didn’t change much in 1968.

On the surface, things did seem much better when compared to 1967. The 1968 Indians finished third in the American League with a 86-75 record. By 1960s Indians standards, that’s a pretty good record. In fact, it was only the second time since 1959 that the team finished above .500. Unfortunately, the Indians will still a far, far cry from first place, finishing 16.5 games behind Detroit and Denny McLain, who led the league with a 31-6 record and 1.66 ERA. Though McLain had one of the great pitching seasons of all time in 1968, the Indians were still a disappointment. They could have made a much better run at the Tigers if they simply could have hit.

On the mound and despite McLain, the Indians had the best pitching staff, finishing first in ERA with an amazing 2.66. They yielded the third fewest home runs and had the most strike outs. Four of the five starters had at least 12 wins. Luis Tiant had an amazing nine shutouts and 19 complete games.

Offensively, though, was a different story. The Indians were eighth in runs scored, averaging just over three runs a game, nearly a full run per game behind Detroit. They had little power, finishing ninth in home runs, and their on-base percentage was only sixth. Lee Maye hit .281and catcher Joe Azcue hit .280. Unfortunately, Jose Cardenal was next best, but at .257 was 24 points behind Maye. Hurting the Indians even more were the disappointing seasons of both Tony Horton and Max Alvis. Horton had hit .281 in 106 games in 1967 but dipped to .249 in 1968. Alvis’ drop was similar, hitting .256 in 1967 but dropping to .223 in 1968.

Go up and down the 1968 lineup and you will find a team that, offensively, begins to resemble the 2008 Indians, and not just because one of the leading hitters was again a catcher and one of the biggest disappointments was a first baseman (or former first baseman in the case of Travis Hafner). More to the point, despite its relative success to its previous seasons the 1968 team underperformed. Starting to sound familiar?

Fast forward 40 years and you see a pitching rich team that still can’t hit. Consequently, it’s crashing to the ground as if it were dropped by Ted Stepien from the top of the Terminal Tower. The players keep saying they are looking for a spark, well into denial that they lack the basic chemistry to sustain any sort of fire in the first place.

If you were building a team, starting pitching is where you’d start and the Indians have it in spades. The fact that Paul Byrd, the team’s fifth starter, pitched like a fifth starter on Sunday is so far down on the list of concerns with this team as to be almost meaningless. If Byrd ultimately fails, there are plenty of others to take his place in the rotation. There is every chance, by the way, that any of those others would be an upgrade over Byrd anyway. Still, as we learned in 1968, pitching may be most things but it’s not everything.

Though the bullpen has been closer to awful than good, mostly, though, and without much further comment, the problem with this team has been the hitting. A lack of power, diminishing skills and misguided hope are to blame.

The question facing Indians general manager Mark Shapiro is really the same one facing White Sox general manager Ken Williams. How do you improve a team’s offense in June? White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen went on one of his trademark expletive-filled tirades on Sunday, this one aimed at Williams and the lack of improvement in the team’s offense. Williams responded the same way as Shapiro, by channeling Kevin Bacon: “remain calm. All is well.” That’s probably going over as well with Guillen and Chicago fans as it has with Indians manager Eric Wedge and Cleveland fans.

It’s hard to tell whether Williams and Shapiro really are in a state of denial as they watch their best offseason intentions lay waste to expectations. But the reality is that the economic structure of baseball these days makes meaningful trades in June nearly impossible. Teams on the bottom run economically are never looking to take on salary or part with cheap young talent. Teams in the top tier always think they can compete and, while not as reluctant to take on veteran salaries, usually aren’t willing to part with major league talent in return. With a trading deadline almost two months away, there is no pressure on any team, really, to act any differently.

The crushing reality is that organic improvement is the only real option at this point. For Chicago, that means their trio of underperformers, Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, and Paul Konerko, have to start hitting. For Cleveland, with Hafner shelved indefinitely, that means that their remaining trio, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, and Jhonny Peralta must do likewise. And if organic improvement doesn’t come to fruition, then head to the thrift store and buy a Nehru jacket, some love beads and alava lamp, it’s 1968 all over again.