Where Do the Indians Go From Here?
By Mike Brandyberry
Well, that didn’t go as planned.
When the Cleveland Indians left Goodyear, Ariz., at the end of March, expectations were high. The team was coming off an 80-82 season in 2011 that could have been much better had injuries in the second half of the season not taken their toll. Now, with a healthy team in place and a young group of players with a season of contention under their belts, 2012 was supposed to be a season to compete for the playoffs.
Six months later, those predictions of playoff baseball all seem foolish now.
After a good start, the Indians found themselves 37-33 after 70 games and a half game in first place. The plan seemed to be working.
But 71 games later, the plan had been exposed, the wheels had fallen off the tracks and the Indians were in last place. It’s one of the fastest falls from the top spot to the bottom in baseball history. At 68-94, the Indians narrowly missed being only the third team in baseball history to finish in last place after leading the division at the 70-game mark.
Chris Antonetti’s plan to resign Grady Sizemore, sign Casey Kotchman and entrust left field, third base and first base to a collection of veteran journeymen or stars past their prime didn’t work. The offense faltered, most notably against left-handed pitching. The team hit .235 against southpaws for the season and was only 18-36 when a lefty started against them.
“I can tell you I’m accountable for those decisions,” Antonetti said last Thursday. “Certainly many of the decisions we made haven’t worked out as well as we hoped.”
Manager Manny Acta later seemed to realize the left-handed hitting Indians’ couldn’t platoon their way to a division crown. When David Huff made his first start of the season for Cleveland on Sept. 18, Acta explained the benefit of having a left-hander in your rotation.
“It helps to have a lefty because a lot of times teams change their lineups based on who is pitching,” Acta said. “Regardless of who you play off the bench, it’s never going to be better than your everyday guys.”
Acta was right; bench platoons with Aaron Cunningham, Shelley Duncan, Jose Lopez and Lou Marson didn’t give the team a chance to win. Had Acta and Antonetti applied this strategy last winter, they might not have built an offense with nine left-handed or switch-hitting starters.
Meanwhile, the starting pitching that held the Indians in games in the first half fell apart in the second half. After Derek Lowe’s 6-2 start, he fell off the map. Josh Tomlin lost velocity and control, and eventually was shut down, being forced to have Tommy John surgery and most likely miss all of 2013. Ubaldo Jimenez continued to battle to right his mechanics in the first half of the season, but seemed to lose any touch in the second half. He didn’t win a game after Aug. 9, and led the American League in wild pitches.
“The bad baseball started because of our pitching,” Chris Perez said on Tuesday. “Then we started overhauling everything. Getting rid of Lowe and Tomlin went down. We started to get the new guys up from Triple-A. It was a vicious cycle. It was kind of like a cancer that kind of hit the team — come to the ballpark expecting to lose.”
Once the starting rotation fell apart, the weak underbelly of the bullpen was exposed and the free-fall was in full effect. The loss of Rafael Perez from the left side of the bullpen combined with a poor season from Tony Sipp made for match up problems. Nick Hagadone and Scott Barnes could not fill the void, and veterans Dan Wheeler and Jairo Asencio couldn’t be long-men. If Acta didn’t go to Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano or Perez, the bullpen, too, was weak.
When it all snowballed in the second half, the Tribe had losing streaks of 11 and nine in August, and eventually it cost Acta his job. Cleveland was 5-24 in August, the worst month in franchise history. The window Antonetti thought he opened when he traded for Jimenez in July 2011 has slammed shut — if it was ever really open.
As the team is currently constructed, it can’t compete in the American League Central Division. Its left-handed heavy lineup doesn’t work, its starting rotation is too inconsistent and its bullpen was too overused to be successful. Acta took the fall, but there is plenty of blame to go around.
“When you make a managerial change, you realize that he isn’t the sole reason,” team President Mark Shapiro said. “We’re partly responsible, through drafting, trades and free agent signings, but it is certainly one of the largest strings you can pull.”
It isn’t a pretty scene through Shapiro’s and Antonetti’s window this fall.
“I continue to believe in the talent we have on this roster,” Antonetti said. “I’m hopeful that the group of guys we have here will do better.”
The most immediate void is filling Acta’s spot as manager. Sandy Alomar will interview today, with Terry Francona following on Friday. It appears to be a two-horse race for the job, with a decision coming some time next week, but what will either candidate inherit?
It’s not an easy answer. The top half of the farm system is very weak. This season’s Triple-A team has very little to contribute to the future. Most of this season’s Columbus stars earned their chances at big league opportunity in the second half after the slide began. Only Russ Canzler has impressed. Most of the Indians’ prospects with serious Major League potential will start 2013 at Double-A Akron.
To make matters worse, Shin-Soo Choo, Justin Masterson and Chris Perez are headed back to arbitration for large paydays. Choo had a good rebound season in 2012 after a broken hand plagued his 2011. Choo is a free agent after next season and has not been interested in negotiating a long-term deal with the team. Is it time to trade him to a contender for young players?
Has the outspoken Perez worn out his welcome with Cleveland fans and the front office? In May, he called out the fans for not supporting the team when they were in first place. In August, he said ownership and the front office were to blame for the roster construction and struggles. This week, he blamed Acta for the second-half slide.
Perez might be the best player on the team, but a closer on a team with little to close doesn’t seem worth an $8 million salary arbitration price tag. Is he more valuable via trade?
“I’m here. I’m here for at least two more years,” Perez said. “I have no basis to stand up and ask for a trade or anything. They can do whatever they want with me, they control me for two more years at least.”
What does Antonetti do with team options on Roberto Hernandez, Travis Hafner and Jimenez? Can Jimenez be salvaged? Has Hernandez aged enough to wear out his welcome? Would the Indians consider a restructured deal for Hafner? Could he stay healthy enough to warrant the roster spot?
After the most disappointing year of Sizemore’s career — and possibly the worst decision Antonetti made in assembling the 2012 roster — could the franchise bring him back yet again for 2013?
“There’s definitely a possibility,” Shapiro said on Monday in regards to Hafner and Sizemore. “We wouldn’t close the door on either one of those guys. When both are healthy, they’ve been contributing guys to this team over the years.”
And what does the organization do with six players who are out of options and can’t return to the minor leagues without clearing waivers? There isn’t room to keep Ezequiel Carrera, Matt LaPorta, Jason Donald, Brent Lillibridge, Huff and Jeanmar Gomez on the 25-man roster and have any flexibility. Do they have any value to the team, or any other team? What roles could they fill?
This isn’t the offseason owner Paul Dolan, Shapiro or Antonetti thought they would have when they left Goodyear in March. This was supposed to be a successful year of contention, followed by another in 2013. Instead the front office stands at a crossroads of how to rebuild a team they thought was already constructed.
Can the front office keep the current nucleus together and put better parts around them to win? They aren’t a player or two away, and this winter’s free agent class is one of the worst in years, even if the team had the funds to shop the free agent market.
Can the Indians afford the negative fan backlash of another rebuild? They already have an image problem in the public eye.
A year ago, we spent October evaluating players and giving grades to their 2011, but this year there are too many F’s to go around. Over the next month, we’ll still break down players, but more importantly, try to explain and answer each of the questions facing the Indians brass this winter, including the biggest one facing the team.
Where do we go from here?
Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan