Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Road From Perdition

For a season with so little to celebrate, Indians’ fans can be grateful for one thing. The front office is on message.

As the losses mount, Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge takes the occasional post-game detour to remind the great unwashed how truly hard of a game baseball is to play at the major league level. Mostly he does this as a way of protecting his players from otherwise getting the harsh criticism they probably deserve for their repeated failures.

To the extent that Indians general manager Mark Shapiro has spoken at all publicly and substantively about the disaster that this season has become it’s been to express frustration over several players not playing to his expectations. He may not be couching it in terms of the game’s inherent difficulties, but the underlying message is consistent: it’s the players, stupid.

Don’t get confused. Shapiro isn’t admitting that the team has the wrong players and Wedge isn’t admitting that he has failed to push the right buttons to cajole a higher level of performance. It’s just that this incredibly difficult game has caused this lovable bunch of talented mugs to be mired in a big ol’ collective slump. Oh, and don’t forget about the injuries. And, oh yea, there’s been a lot of rain. And, by the way, gas is $4.00 a gallon. And there might be an actor’s strike.

Though the message is clear that the fault lies not with management, if that’s placating anyone other than the most casual of fan whose awareness comes from failing to change the channel quick enough before accidentally hearing last night’s score, I’d be shocked. The Indians have fallen so hard and so fast, the answer can’t be that simple. And it isn’t.

But don’t think you’re going to get any truly candid response or a coherent and far reaching solution. Self-critical analysis isn’t exactly this team management’s strength.

Consider, for example, the last few games. If you had the misfortune of watching the recently completed Cincinnati series, particularly on Saturday and Sunday, or Monday’s loss to the Chicago White Sox and then listened to Wedge’s post-game comments, you would have thought that these were hard-fought games that could have gone either way and hey, it’s just been that kind of season. Wedge even told the media after Monday’s loss, for example, that at least the team didn’t shut down after being down 8-1.

If that’s true it’s only because it never turned on in the first place. What actually was painfully apparent was that in losing each game, this was a team essentially going through the motions—in June. For either Wedge or Shapiro to acknowledge as much would be tantamount to acknowledging institutional failure. To be as candid as they haven’t, that acknowledgement would be a good start on the road back from perdition.

This lack of enthusiasm, this lethargy on the field is a poor reflection on Wedge. The inability to perform any better in the first place is a reflection on Shapiro. One has a questionable eye for talent and the other has a questionable ability to develop it. Roll these concepts around in your head for awhile as you consider whether or not you really want the Indians to trade pitcher C. C. Sabathia.

Signing Sabathia seems off the table. Indeed, even if it wasn’t from the Indians’ standpoint, Sabathia, far closer to the situation than any fan, can look at the landscape and see one of the more miserable lineups in recent memory and accurately discern that Shapiro and owners Larry and Paul Dolan don’t have the wherewithal to sign him and make the moves necessary to really improve the team.

But even with the Sabathia situation begging for obvious resolution via a trade, the far more pertinent questions revolve around whether anyone trusts Shapiro to make the right kind of trade or trusts Wedge to make the most of whatever “talent” Shapiro acquires. Take all the time you need at arriving at the answers. Time’s up.

Put as fine a point on it as you’d like or be satisfied with the broad strokes. Either paints an easily discernable picture. Shapiro for all his supposed statistical wizardry is far too accommodating to reclamation projects and utility players as a way of completing a roster. His decision-making comfort zone occupies the space between A and B in the alphabet. He’s got the same risk profile as the person who puts his money in mason jars because the banks are run by some shadowy Tri-Lateral Commission.

Wedge, for all his patience, has trouble motivating his players and constructing a batting order. Three seasons into the Jhonny Peralta experiment and Wedge still hasn’t found a way to get solid performances from him in two straight games. A team with the worst batting average in the American League and close to the worst average in the major leagues, and Wedge still has Grady Sizemore batting leadoff.

And neither Wedge nor Shapiro has given anyone reason to think that any of this will change anytime soon or ever.

That’s why the thought of Shapiro making another “signature” trade is every bit as scary as the Indians’ next road trip, or the one after that. Granted, keeping Sabathia around until the season ends isn’t much of an option either. After all, if Sabathia stays it likely will be the same cast of characters that would have to somehow do something with the two extra draft picks the team would get as compensation. Different problem for a different day.

Neither alternative offers much comfort to the fans that have been so let down by the endless string of front office and on field bungling, but all a trade, any trade, now would do is buy Shapiro a few more years to see if this week’s version of the grand experiment can gel, or congeal as the case may be. It’s time he hasn’t quite earned.

Though the Dolans seem blissfully ignorant of Shapiro’s shortcomings, plunging attendance and a roster in complete disarray should be enough to at least give them some pause before allowing Shapiro to pull the trigger on what is sure to be a desperately conceived quick-fix trade that will only yield more white noise and a bench full of reclamation projects and utility players.

It’s barely July, but the best way to get the fans back in the fold is for the Dolans to declare fan appreciation days early and send Shapiro to Tierra del Fuego until at least August and cut off his cell phone. We all could use the vacation.

1 comment:

marny said...

I like your writing edgy.