Holding Antonetti Accountable
By Bob Toth
The search for a scapegoat continues in Cleveland, as an intriguing start to the 2012 season was cut short by an eleven-game losing streak that followed an impressive victory over Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers on July 26th.
It is safe to say that everyone, from the top down, is deserving of some further evaluation to determine whether they belong in the long-term plans of the organization or not.
Pitching coach Scott Radinsky took the fall for some of the team’s struggles, as the axe befell him publically on Thursday afternoon.
The same axe has gradually cut away at the team’s current roster, as veteran ballplayers Johnny Damon, Derek Lowe, Jose Lopez, and Jeremy Accardo have all been designated for assignment this week. Lowe has signed on to pitch out of the bullpen for the New York Yankees, while the future for the other three players is still hazy.
The team and its fans continue to look for scapegoats.
Skipper Manny Acta came under fire during the club’s losing streak, but was given a vote of confidence from Indians’ General Manager Chris Antonetti this past Monday, after the team completed their worst nine-game roadtrip in the team’s 111-year history.
It is easy to blame managers. They are often the more visible of the management figures within baseball organizations. But all that managers can do is coach up their team to the best of their respective abilities. They can try to elicit maximum production and find combinations of players that may work better together than others, but they cannot force players to stay healthy, to get out of slumps, or to find the power they once had. They are not fully responsible for the talent that is on the field and can only truly play the cards they have been dealt.
The general manager, however, does have a greater say in which cards wind up in that deck. Over these last few seasons, it would be safe to say that the Indians have hardly played with a stacked deck.
Chris Antonetti has been in the Indians organization since 1999 after a year of work in the front office for the Montreal Expos. His work for the Indians was rewarded in February of 2010, when the club announced that he would take over as the team’s General Manager and Executive Vice President, replacing Mark Shapiro, who would become the team President. The move became official on October 4th, 2010.
Even though Antonetti was not the official General Manager of the club until the end of that season, he had been groomed slowly over the previous months and maybe even years for the role by Shapiro, in much the same way former Indians GM John Hart had done with Shapiro back in 2001.
With Antonetti assisting Shapiro in the transition 2010 season, the team purged five veterans for prospects going into the deadline, as the team on the field stumbled to a disappointing 69-93 record. The roster was decimated by injuries and the team spent just one game above .500 for the season. By the time the fire sale began on June 26th, the club was already 26-47 and 14.5 games out of first place. First baseman Russell Branyan was traded to Seattle for outfielder Ezequiel Carrera and shortstop Juan Diaz. On July 28th, third baseman Jhonny Peralta was dealt with cash to Detroit for Class-A pitcher Giovanni Soto. Outfielder Austin Kearns was expelled two days later to the New York Yankees for a player to be named later who would become Zach McAllister when the deal was completed on August 20th. At the trade deadline, starting pitcher Jake Westbrook was sent to St. Louis in a three-way trade that sent pitcher Corey Kluber to the Indians’ Double-A affiliate, Akron. The Indians also dealt reliever Kerry Wood and cash to the Yankees on the same day, acquiring pitcher Andrew Shive and infielder Matt Cusick, neither whom would play a game in the Indians’ farm system.
It is tough to know which deals over the years Antonetti had involvement in and how much he orchestrated them. With Shapiro no longer involved in the day-to-day aspects of the baseball side of the club, it is easier to hold Antonetti accountable for the deals made under his regime in that time since.
With two offseasons under his belt, Antonetti has made some decisions that have not panned out in the best interest of the organization.
Throughout the 2012 season, the club seemed to lack depth across the roster. The bench was thin. The offense was light hitting. There is the often-discussed and seldomly-fixed debacle that has been left field. The bullpen, after Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, and Joe Smith, was unstable. The rotation was underperforming.
The depth issue continued into the minors. The roster in Columbus was composed of former prospects and players who had not shown an ability to consistently perform at a major league level. Few of these players were youthful, true “prospects” whose ceilings were yet to have been reached. The Triple-A club was suffering the results of several seasons of poor drafting, something that only in the last few years seems to have improved.
What has Antonetti done as GM while firmly holding the reigns of the franchise all on his own?
The short version is to donate $5 million to Grady Sizemore for using their training facilities and doctors for a season, without setting foot on the field for the first four months and counting.
A slightly longer story might detail him cracking open the windows to let some playoff hopes waft through before silently and stealthily closing the 2012 window and disappearing into the night, hoping no one blamed him for the lack of competitive pieces brought on board to help a team that saw themselves in first place for 48 days this season, as many as eight games over .500, and largely overachieving and finding ways to win the close games.
The most recent offseason started unofficially for the team on October 31st, 2011, with the acquisition of the 38-year-old Lowe and cash from the Atlanta Braves for Class-A pitcher Chris Jones. The durable starter was coming off of one of his worst seasons professionally, as his 9-17 record in 34 starts and a 5.05 ERA did not help a Braves team that fell just one game short of the NL wild card spot on the final day of the season.
The team followed the move up three weeks later with the resigning of free agent outfielder Grady Sizemore. A once-promising athlete, Sizemore had only seen struggles with injuries over the three previous seasons, playing in just 106 games in 2009, 33 in 2010, and 71 in 2011. What made the deal so curious was that he was given a $5 million base contract, which seemed a substantial investment in a player who had seen such little action in recent years. Another $4 million was possible for the outfielder through plate appearances in his incentive-laden deal. The oft-injured Sizemore had already made $18 million over the three previous seasons he had partially played.
The December Winter Meetings came and went with no moves, but lots of discussion and the belief that the Indians were actively talking on the trade market while looking for a right-handed bat. Alas, the only deal the team made in the month was the one for outfielder Aaron Cunningham, acquired for reliever Cory Burns.
Over the next few months, Antonetti would dive headfirst into the clearance section of the Major League Baseball free agent shopping center, attempting to supplement the current, young, optimistic roster with a bevy of low-risk, low-cost options who had some experience at the major league level. Catcher Matt Pagnozzi; infielders Jose Lopez, Andy LaRoche, Gregorio Petit, Ryan Rohlinger, Russ Canzler, Casey Kotchman, and Christian Guzman; outfielders Felix Pie, Fred Lewis, and Ryan Spilborghs; and pitchers Robinson Tejada, Chris Seddon, Chris Ray, Jeremy Accardo, Kevin Slowey, and Dan Wheeler were all brought on board. Just prior to the start of the season, he also purchased Jairo Asencio, a reliever from Atlanta.
Of that list, only Kotchman and Seddon are on the active major league roster, and the latter is a recent call up at that. Wheeler broke camp with the club but was let go and is with the organization in Columbus, playing alongside Pagnozzi, Petit, Canzler, and Slowey. Lopez suffered the same fate as Wheeler in May and again was designated for assignment this week. Asencio, like Wheeler, started the season with the club, but was claimed off of waivers in June by the Chicago Cubs.
After the start of the season and the realization that left field was still a gaping hole, both offensively and defensively, Antonetti added veteran outfielder Johnny Damon on April 17th to attempt to fill the void. The experiment ultimately failed, as Damon hit .222 in 64 games and was released on August 9th.
He purchased the contract of Esmil Rogers from Colorado on June 12th. He has been a pleasant surprise and looks to have needed a change of scenery from the high altitude of Denver. He has provided the Indians a 1-1 record with 23 appearances with 32 strikeouts versus just seven walks and a 2.61 ERA.
The year’s trade deadline saw infielder Brent Lillibridge and Lars Anderson, a 24-year-old left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder from Boston’s Triple-A club, come to the team. The deals disappointed many Cleveland fans who had eagerly waited a move that would show the club as either an active buyer or seller and not a team standing pat.
With the $5 million given to Sizemore and another $3 million to Kotchman, Indians fans have dreamt of the options the team could have considered with that money, instead of acquiring a dinged up outfielder yet to appear in a game and a light-hitting first baseman who at least has made up for his lack of offensive production at the plate with a highlight reel worth of defensive gems at first base.
Obviously, Antonetti missed on Josh Willingham. He has been an offensive juggernaut for Minnesota. Whatever the reasons – injuries, strikeouts, subpar defense, etc. – that the team had in not offering Willingham a third guaranteed year, the front office looks horribly foolish right now and the Cleveland lineup looks notably bare in left field and from the right side of the plate.
The club knew its biggest areas of weakness coming into the season and did little to improve, and that is on Antonetti regardless of how much talking he may have done between the end of last season and this year’s trade deadline.
Antonetti missed on trying to acquire Carlos Lee, both during the season before his move to Miami, and in the off-season, when he was rumored to be on the market during the Winter Meetings. The right-handed hitting first baseman’s power numbers have declined, but he has still hit for a high average.
He missed on Carlos Beltran as well, at the 2011 trade deadline and in the offseason that followed. At the deadline, he was hitting .289 for the New York Mets with 15 home runs and 66 RBI. In his final 44 games for the San Francisco Giants after his trade, he batted .323 with another seven homers and 18 RBI. He cost the Giants a pitcher, Zach Wheeler, their first round pick from the 2009 draft. After signing with the St. Louis Cardinals this past offseason on a two-year, $26 million deal, he made the NL All-Star team while being amongst the league leaders in home runs and RBI.
A general manager’s moves (and non-moves) can and will be second guessed and critiqued over and over again, especially when the talent on the field is not meeting the expectations of a franchise desperate for a winner.
Last season, the Indians started strong but collapsed at the finish, sporting an 80-82 record and a second-place finish. Injuries limited the team on the field, and again, a lack of depth on the roster was to blame. The team had to rely heavily on Triple-A Columbus to supply players, including rookies Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Cord Phelps, and Carrera.
Like this offseason, Antonetti shopped that year from the sales rack, bringing in journeymen ball players like Jack Hannahan, Adam Everett, Travis Buck, Orlando Cabrera, and Chad Durbin to bolster the roster. He added veterans Kosuke Fukudome and Jim Thome in minor trades and Ubaldo Jimenez in a trade that the jury remains out on due to the hefty price tag it came at. The club was 53-52 on the day of the Jimenez trade and just two and one-half games out of first place, but went 27-30 down the stretch, including 2-10 against front-running Detroit.
The city of Cleveland was told that the window of opportunity was now when the team traded away two young pitching prospects to acquire the veteran Jimenez. Since that trade, the team has done little to improve the roster and seems to be banking on the present core of young players to get better and supply the extra punch from within.
Antonetti holds the cards for the team and for the city of Cleveland. He gambled once on the Jimenez trade, but seems unwilling to take another risk. Not making another bold move, especially this winter, should be detrimental to his longevity in his position with the team.
Antonetti cannot be judged just based on the fact that he helped to facilitate deals in the past that worked out well for the Indians. He needs to also be held accountable for the present and the future.
Everybody likes a good sale, and Antonetti has shown that he likes to buy his players in exactly that way.
Sometimes though, you get exactly what you pay for, especially when you keep buying the cheap knockoffs.