The Pittsburgh Pirates have been a mess of a team since going to the NLCS in 1992. The Cleveland Indians have been up and down since the 2000s began. The Tampa Bay Rays have been serious title contenders for about half a decade. Three teams, three similarly small markets, three vastly different levels of success.
How is it that one team that spends $50 million dollars a year can be so much better off than another? Why can the Rays maintain a high level of success while losing big-name free agents to larger markets and the Indians have to keep reloading and the Pirates have not figured it out in 20 years?
The simple answer is scouting and the draft. When you can not pay a free agent $15 – $25 million a year, you have to be able to draft well and have an eye for talent. Having an eye for talent means knowing the free agent bargains that will break out and knowing your own players that should be locked up long term at a young age, before they become overpriced.
Much like the Oakland A’s of the late 90s and early 2000s, Tampa has become the best team in baseball at doing just that. There are few small market teams that could lose the likes of Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett in a two-year time span and make the playoffs like the Rays this year. That shows the strength of Tampa’s organization from top to bottom. Every season, it seems the Rays have one or two rookies step in and become key players. They seem to turn free agent bronze into gold farily regularly and, of course, manager Joe Maddon is among the best in baseball.
The Indians are working hard to build something similar on the shores of Lake Erie.
In his first year as general manager, Chris Antonetti showed in 2011 that the Tribe is much closer to the Rays than the perpetually floundering Pirates. The Indians lost more players to injury this past summer than any team in the majors. Despite that, they remained in contention for the AL Central Division through early September and recorded 80 wins. Players went down and the Tribe plugged holes with players in the minor leagues who were promoted and performed admirably.
Cleveland showed, for a low-spending team, they have depth on the farm system. Guys like Ezequiel Carrera, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Cord Phelps and Matt LaPorta, who saw extended playing time this past year, may or may not even break camp with the team next year if everyone is healthy and a piece or two is added in offseason free agency.
Those are guys who will continue to try and blossom at the minor league level, but can be counted on in a pinch if worse comes to worse. It’s a luxury a lot of teams do not have when they only spend $50 – $70 million a season. The Indians have that. A big part of the reason has been improved scouting and vastly improved drafts in recent years.
The Tribe, ever since the days of John Hart as GM, have always been good at trading for other team’s prospects. Currently key players like Chris Perez, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Masterson were acquired in trades as lesser-known prospects for soon-to-be high-priced free agents. All have blossomed into decent to very good players.
Where Cleveland has really improved it’s standing is in the draft. Through late 1990s and early 2000s, the Tribe could not seem to draft a significant player. Over the last several years, the Indians have hit home runs (or so it seems) in this category. Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, both rookies in 2011, appear to be cornerstones of the future. Outfielder Trevor Crowe could yet make it as a solid utility outfielder. Even highly drafted pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Alex White were traded for potential superstar, Ubaldo Jimenez. The jury is out on the trade, but players the Tribe drafted were coveted by another team – a rarity in recent years.
If the Tribe could figure out how to draft a quality outfielder – the last one to truly make an impact was Brian Giles, ouch! – things could really be looking up for the future in a small market. As it stands, the Indians are a solid organization, with talent at the minor league level and seem to have a keen eye for offseason bargains (see Jack Hannahan). They aren’t quite at the Rays’ championship-caliber yet, but are a lot closer to that than being a yearly bottom dweller like Pittsburgh.
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