Thursday, August 3, 2006

73. Wait until next year, again

I was very concerned last season when the Cleveland Indians let a golden opportunity to make the playoffs get away. They boasted the league's best pitching and were fourth in runs scored, yet faltered, or I would say choked, down the stretch and missed the playoffs. I also vented in this column at the nonchalant attitude of the Indians front office and the media, both of which seemed quite content to concede it as part of the building process. I felt such a concession was inappropriate, dangerously generous and presumptuous.

Last year's optimism has turned into this year's disaster. Currently, the team has the third worst record in the American League as it creatively finds a way to lose on a regular basis. They are still scoring runs, but the pitching has dropped from tops in the league to eleventh. The organization itself gave up a couple of months ago and went from a team that many analysts picked to make the playoff to a team that is barely recognizable.

When things are going poorly, there is enough blame to spread around. I think it began last year, again, when the team did not make the playoffs. Besides the fact they tore apart the leagues best pitching staff, mostly in an effort to save money, they seemed to become overconfident in their baseball judgment. The front office, after last year's success, felt as though they had figured out how to play competitively on a modest budget. While they did sign some young players to long-term contracts, they easily dismissed expensive veterans in favor of less-experienced alternatives. Almost immediately, one year after winning 93 games, they have again begun to rebuild. General Manager Mark Shapiro is accumulating young talent at an alarming rate- alarming in that it is almost like they throwing mud against the wall to see what will stick. The Indians chose not to resign or traded a significant number of players from last year's campaign, including Kevin Millwood, Coco Crisp, Ben Broussard, Arthur Rhodes, Bob Howry, Bob Wickman, and Rafael Belliard. In return, they have received potential.

Manager Eric Wedge has not deviated from what cost him a chance as the playoffs last year, that is, his refusal to manufacture runs and the team's inability to win close games. In addition, team fundamentals seem to be lacking this year, most notably a defense which has performed dismally. Finally, and partly as a result, the team lacks excitement. They do not steal, hit and run, bunt or create any type of offensive pressure. Long gone are the days of Kenny Lofton, Omar Visquel and Roberto Alomar tormenting opposing defenses with their speed and versatility. Long gone is the intimidation of Albert Belle, Jim Thome, David Justice and Manny Ramirez in the middle of their lineup. Although scoring runs, in total, has not necessarily been the problem, the team lacks the intensity essential to win close games late.

After the excitement that began to resurface the last year, this is major setback to an organization trying to return to the success it achieved the second half of the 1990s. Those teams did it with an electrifying, young foundation, but also brought in veterans like Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Roberto Alomar and Eddie Murray. They had the diversity and charisma of a champion- determined, passionate and a bit arrogant. This team, even with their young potential, has yet to bond with the fans. Their best player is a designated hitter, who leaves the dugout only four to five times a game and the only player that brings any enthusiasm is Grady Sizemore. And, since they have revamped their lineup- with several players we know very little about- there is no fan connection to this team.

As for the future, there remains some optimism in that they have signed a number of players to long-term deals and the young players they acquired have added some athleticism. In addition, they have three left-handed starters, which, along with Jake Westbrook, form a decent pitching staff. I would love to see this team go out and add a couple of star players to their foundation- players that would add experience and excitement. I also think that a couple of star players would both raise the interest of fans and show the fans that this ownership is serious about winning. I am not saying they need to spend like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox, which they cannot do in this market, but that they made a big mistake in not signing someone like Kevin Millwood, who lead the league in ERA last year- and was replaced by a couple of journeyman. And, of course, it is a matter of perception, because even if his replacements outperform him, the organization let the fans know that they were not willing to pay the price of success.

Wining is not easy, just ask the Chicago White Sox. They were a team that dominated both the regular season and the postseason last year- losing just one postseason game on the way to their World Series championship. In their off season, they not only resigned their star player, Paul Konerko, but also went out and acquired one like Jim Thome. Now, because of the red-hot Detroit Tigers, the resurgent Minnesota Twins and a competitive American League, they are fighting to just make the playoffs. They did the right thing however; they did not take anything for granted. Even with their success, they aggressively tried to improve their team.

I think the Indians took the opposite route. They took for granted the success of last season, feeling that their improvement and achievement was a natural progression. Even though owner Larry Dolan promised to open up his checkbook when the team was close to winning the World Series, apparently 93 wins is not close enough- as the Indians came out of the winter meetings and entire off-season without a significant free agent signing. They seemed to overlook the fragility of many of the factors that led to their success last season. And, worse of all, they seemed content with not making the playoffs- a fact that concerned me last year and has proven prophetic this year.

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