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.

1 comment:

marny said...

Well stated as always. I can see where mistakes gain momentum in your "snowball" effect. In this scenerio decisions are written in stone--and buried under the snowball. I like to think there is always another choice to move on to-another opportunity for success or redemption.[exceptions, ofcourse].But this is naive in the world of sports where every move has repercussions, both immediate and down the road.The movers and shakers could benefit from your insight.And for my 2 cents--finesse is over-rated--courage is not. And yes, audacity is crucial. But I'm an iconoclast. And I would choose failure in pursuit of the sublime over mediocrity every time.The burning question of the day is: Will the Cavs' movers and shakers give LeBron something to smile about tonight?