Indians Can Provide Valuable Lessons for Pirates Shopping McCutchen
Vince Guerrieri | On 07, Dec 2016
One of the first pieces I wrote for this website was about the Pirates turning the corner after 18 years of futility and doing it in a way that’s very familiar to Indians fans, with a general manager, Neal Huntington, hired from Cleveland.
I ended with this:
“Huntington made some moves that appeared unpopular but turned out to reap dividends – sound familiar?”
The Pirates might be on the verge of another unpopular move, and the question now becomes what damage it might do to a distrustful fan base – something else Indians fans know all too well.
The Pirates signed Andrew McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million deal in 2012, and it appeared to pay off as he had an MVP season the following year as the Pirates not only broke a string of 20 straight losing seasons, but made a playoff appearance, the first of three straight wild card berths (and the only Wild Card game they won).
But the Pirates couldn’t break through in the National League Central Division, usually trailing the Cardinals. The final ignominy came in 2015, when the Pirates won 98 games, second-most in the majors … and still had to play in the Wild Card game because the Cardinals had won 100. The Pirates were blanked by Jake Arrieta and the Cubs, and now with the Cubs ascending, the Pirates appear to be the living embodiment of Lewis Grizzard’s maxim that life’s like being on a dogsled team: If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery doesn’t change.
So Huntington and the Pirates are shopping McCutchen around – coincidentally, after his worst season in the Majors. It’s easy to say his trade value will get lower from here on out (he’s 30) and the Pirates have plenty of prospects to put in the outfield in his place. And as an Indians fan, who wouldn’t want a player under team control for another two seasons that provides that right-handed power bat the team’s been looking for for years.
Yes, it all makes sense. But there’s a reason sports fans are called fans – short for fanatic. It’s a move that will automatically enrage a lot of people in Southwestern Pennsylvania. In the words of my friend and former colleague at the Pittsburgh Trib Kevin Gorman, it’s a betrayal. He’s supposed to be the face of the franchise.
It’s become trendy in the past few years to gripe about Indians attendance. Me, I recall the words of Yogi Berra: “If fans don’t want to go, you can’t stop them.” But I also know that when you’re selling an experience and not a product, you’re reliant on the good will of the customers – which hasn’t always been forthcoming in Cleveland.
When Larry Dolan bought the Indians from Dick Jacobs after the 1999 season, the team was still riding relatively high, just two years removed from a World Series appearance and five-time defending American League Central champions.
But after Dolan’s first season as owner, Manny Ramirez left as a free agent. Two years later, Jim Thome left. Both of them chased the money, and it was their decision to leave – but both departures were instrumental in creating an impression that Dolan, unlike his predecessor, was cheap.
The Indians appeared to put together a couple good seasons, playing .700 ball after the 2005 All-Star break and just missing a playoff appearance, and falling one win shy of the World Series two years later. But a stumble out of the gate in 2008 left them out of contention early, and the Indians – always willing to try to get something in return instead of letting free agents walk out the door after Albert Belle, Ramirez and Thome did just that – were ready to deal. C.C. Sabathia, the previous year’s Cy Young Award winner, went to the Brewers. A year later, in separate trades, the Indians traded Cliff Lee (another defending Cy Young Award winner) and Victor Martinez (who cried when he got the news).
The deals looked like abject failures at first. The centerpiece in the deal for Sabathia was Matt LaPorta, a slugger who turned out to be a Quadruple-A player. The centerpiece in the Lee deal, Jason Knapp, never even played in the Majors. The Indians got several serviceable years out of Justin Masterson, but really didn’t get a whole lot of useful pieces in the Martinez trade.
Eventually, the Sabathia and Lee trades bore fruit. After Tommy John surgery, Carlos Carrasco has become one of the mainstays of the Indians rotation and Michael Brantley, this year aside, is an everyday outfielder.
There are a lot of ways to spend your entertainment dollars in Northeast Ohio, and the Indians are just one of them. But are people more willing to go to Tribe games when they see management taking steps to win now, rather than five years from now?
Well, we’ll find out for sure next year – and it’s a lesson the Pirates might have to learn the hard way.
Photo: Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports