After a disappointing 2012 Cleveland Indians season the organization is at a crossroads to decide how to progress with the organization, not just for the 2013 season but several seasons to come. Decisions involve ownerships, the front office, managerial and coaching decisions and the players. For the month of October, we’ll look at the how the Indians ended up in their current predicament, but most importantly, Where Do the Indians Go From Here.
At the end of any season a team is evaluated by their wins and losses, versus the expectations set before the season. In 2012, those expectations were set high and the accomplishments were low. Whenever expectations aren’t met, there is plenty of blame to go around.
A large part of that blame rests directly at the steps Team President Mark Shapiro and General Manager Chris Antonetti. Despite support from ownership—still impressed by their long term accomplishments of building an organization—fans are frustrated with the recent decisions that helped lead to a disappointing 2012.
The 2012 campaign started with promise. The Tribe was an outside shot at the playoffs, especially with the new format of two wild card teams, and the hot start of last season was fresh in the minds of Cleveland fans. This season started off rocky, blowing an Opening Day lead in the ninth inning to the Toronto Blue Jays, but the Indians bounced back to win eleven of their next eighteen games.
On May 1st Cleveland found themselves in a three-way tie for first place in the A.L. Central. At May’s end, a record of 28-23 had them 1.5 games out of first place, trailing only the Chicago White Sox. By the mid point of in the season, the Tribe was two games out of the division lead, and on pace for 84 wins on the year. On July 26th, Cleveland handed a loss to 2011 Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, took two out of three against the rival Tigers, and were 3.5 games from the division lead.
Then began one of the most abysmal ends to a season in recent memory. The month of August was, record wise, the worst in Indians history, and the team ultimately fell to fourth place in the division with a horrendous 68-94 record. Fans of the Cleveland Indians were left with many questions. How did 2012 end so poorly? What happened since the great run of 2007 to get the Indians to this point? How can the Indians find success moving forward?
In 2007, the Indians made a fantastic run to the American League Championship Series. After a sub .500 record in 2006, the Tribe won 96 games in 2007, and took the Boston Red Sox to game seven of the ALCS. That team was very young, featuring seven starters age 26 or younger. The core of that team consisted of some familiar names, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Jhonny Perralta, Cliff Lee, and CC Sabathia. This was supposed to be the building blocks of another stretch of playoff baseball in Cleveland. In the coming years, through trades, drafts, and injuries, the face of the Indians would change considerably, and Cleveland fans would see another rebuilding phase.
Mark Shapiro started his career in 1991 with the Indians in baseball operations. A year later, then General Manager John Hart allowed Shapiro to run the farm system. Shapiro held the title of farm director until 1999 when he was promoted to Assistant General Manager to Hart. After two years as Assistant GM, Shapiro was named General Manager. In November 2001, Shapiro inherited a team that had won six out of seven division titles, and also had a payroll through the roof. Shapiro began a rebuilding process that promised to deliver a winner in 2005.
Through trades, Shapiro began building his team. In 2002, he traded Indians ace Bartolo Colon to the Expos and acquired Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore. That same year, he sent catcher Einar Diaz to Texas for Travis Hafner, and pitcher Chuck Finely to the Cardinals for outfielder Coco Crisp. The young core of the future was beginning to take place. In 2005, the Tribe delivered on their promise winning 93 games. Although they fell short of the playoffs, Cleveland hadn’t seen that many wins since 1999. Two seasons later, they would finish with the best record in baseball, and come one win short of a World Series appearance. Sizemore and Hafner were the heart of a high powered offense that saw five players hit more than 20 home runs. Sabathia won the Cy Young, and Fausto Carmona finished fourth in the voting. Jake Westbrook emerged as a very effective groundball pitcher. The Indians had three All Stars, and things were very reminiscent of the teams of the ‘90’s. Fans that were frustrated with losing young stars to large market teams were thrilled with the resignings the Indians made. They locked up many of their young starts, MVP candidates Sizemore and Hafner would be under contract until 2012; young hurler Cliff Lee until 2009, Westbrook until 2010. Shapiro would win Executive of the Year in 2005 and 2007, and all looked well on the horizon.
All did not go as planned however, and they would not finish a season with a winning percentage over .500 in the next five years. Sizemore, Hafner, and Westbrook would be plagued by injuries, and, unable to resign some high profile players, they were forced to trade a way some big names. Cy Young winner CC Sabathia was shipped to Milwaukee for Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley. 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee would go to Philadelphia for a slew of prospects, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, Jason Donald, and Lou Marson. Carrasco, with his mid to high 90’s fastball, would make his first start at age 22, the next season, in seven starts, pitched to a 3.83 ERA. At age 24, he won 8 games in 21 starts, and looked like an up and coming top of the rotation pitcher. Then he was sidelined by Tommy John surgery, and looks to be back for 2013. Jason Knapp, a very highly touted prospect, had his career end from injury after injury since the trade. The Indians appeared snake bit, and they would finish a season with a winning percentage over .500 in the next five years.
Shapiro, however, made some other, less known, but extremely productive trades. He sent Ben Broussard to the Mariners for Shin-Soo Choo, Casey Blake to the Dodgers for Carlos Santana, Austin Kearns to the Yankees for Zach McAllister, Mark DeRosa to the Cardinals for Chris Perez, and with another deal to the Mariners, he acquired Asdrubal Cabrera in exchange for back up Eduardo Perez.
The drafts in the early 2000’s however, were quite abysmal. The Indians struggled to get productive players out of those drafts, and that fact is recognized by the front office.
“We’ve certainly had some very poor drafts six, seven, eight years ago.” Shapiro said on Monday.
In the last few seasons however, changes have been made to the way they evaluate players.
“If you look at the production we’ve made over the last three years of our draft,” Shapiro said, “we’ve made changes in the way we’ve slotted players and go through the process.”
The improvements are starting to become apparent.
“Players up here from Lonnie Chisenhall, Vinnie Pestano and Jason Kipnis are guys we’ve drafted and are already here producing.” Shapiro said, “If you look at our club from any of the last three years and compare them to the past, we’ve certainly improved.”
With those improvements came a change in management. At the end of the 2010 season, Former GM Shapiro was promoted to Team President, and his Assistant GM Chris Antonetti was given Shapiro’s old job. Antonetti began his career with the Montreal Expos in 1998. The following year, he was offered a job in the front office of the Cleveland Indians. Shapiro and Antonetti seem strongly connected. Antonetti’s main job with the Tribe was quantitative analysis and contract negotiation. Shapiro leaned on him heavily to work the numbers for the Cleveland Indians. Antonetti was highly sought after for those qualities, nearly leaving the organization for the Cardinals in 2007, and the Mariners in 2008, but he stayed in Cleveland and the Georgetown graduate is now entrusted with management of the organization.
The Tribe was quietly building again for the future. In 2011, all things seemed to point toward success. Cabrera had one of the best seasons of any shortstop in the AL. Santana led the team in home runs, Justin Masterson (acquired in a trade for Martinez) emerged as a staff ace, and young righty Josh Tomlin had a very good rookie season. They spent a large chunk of the season in first place in the AL Central, and were in the playoff hunt into September for the first time since 2007. They seemed to need only a couple pieces to get them over the hump in 2012.
However, 2012 did not produce the results Cleveland fans, or the organization, hoped for. Cabrera failed to display the power he did in 2011, Santana was inept for three months, before actually starting to hit like Carlos Santana after the All Star break. The free agent signing of first baseman Casey Kotchman turned out to be a bust, and the pitching staff that was among the tops in the league in 2011, fell to the bottom in 2012 en route to an extremely disappointing 64-98 record for the Tribe.
One major point of contention was a controversial free agent decision in the Indians outfield. Left field was a gaping hole the organization needed to fill in the winter prior to the 2012 season. Cleveland explored many avenues to fill the gap. They looked at Carlos Beltran, and a few others, but none seemed interested in a season in Cleveland. Then they turned their attention to former Athletics outfielder Josh Willingham. Willingham had shown very good power, and excellent plate discipline. The Tribe wanted him in their outfield. The problem was, Willingham was being persuaded by the Minnesota Twins, and the Twins were willing to give him a three year contract. The money per season was equal, but the extra year was too enticing, and Willingham chose the Twins. Not offering the third year became a mistake that symbolized the 2012 season.
From a management perspective, the extra year of the contract was very risky. Willingham would be 33 years old entering 2012, approaching the point where players begin to decline. By the end of a three year contract, Willingham would be 35, and no guarantee that he would still be healthy and productive. The Indians instead gave a one year deal to the oft-injured Sizemore. This one year deal was much less risky in the long term, since the Indians could be out form under that contract in a season if it didn’t work. For the short-term, the deal was a disaster, as Sizemore would not play a single game for the Indians, and Willingham would go on to hit 35 home runs with a .366 on base average for the Twins. The failure to sign Willingham would be another black mark for 2012.
There were a few bright spots to take from the 2012 campaign, 2009 second round draft pick Jason Kipnis played very well in his first full season, racking up 86 runs on 152 hits, while hitting 14 home runs and stealing 31 bases, and tying for the team lead in runs batted in. Outfielder Michael Brantley led the team with a .288 batting average. Choo rebounded from an injury plagued 2011 season to hit 43 doubles. Santana again lead the team in home runs. Youngsters Lonnie Chisenhall and Russ Canzler had good showings, making bids for line up spots in 2013. Rookie Zach McAllister proved he could pitch at the Major League level by leading Indians starters with a 4.24 ERA, and the bull pen once again had a very solid season.
Antonetti will look to build a better team around this young core of players.
“We have to examine what’s transpired,” Antonetti said on Thursday, “not just this year, but where we are organizationally moving forward because the mix we had wasn’t working. We need to figure out ways to be better. I still continue to feel strong about the nucleus we have in place.”
The Indians still have major holes in the starting rotation. If Carlos Carrasco can come back healthy and build off his 2011 season, he will be a solid back of the rotation guy. The free agent list for starting pitchers looks to include Erik Bedard, Joe Blanton, Zach Greinke, Jeremy Guthrie, Rich Harden, and Brandon McCarthy, among others. Whatever road the Indians chose to go down, the rotation will be a major priority in this coming off season.
“It’s going to take starting pitching. Certainly we have the makings of a good bullpen.” Shapiro said, “We’ve got the pieces—obviously we need some more pieces—but it all comes down to starting pitching to go around those guys.”
Another major hole is left field. Canzler made his case, and will certainly get a shot at an outfield spot in spring training, but there are a few interesting free agents out there, and with Hafner’s $13 million contract coming off the boards, the Tribe will have a little room to play with. Carlos Lee will likely see free agency, as well as Cody Ross, Michael Bourn, Delmon Young, and BJ Upton and a slew of others.
At first base, the Indians again have Canzler as an option there too, but there will be candidates on the open market in 2013. Among those are Lance Berkman, Mike Napoli, Carlos Pena, and James Loney. Pena spurned the Tribe last winter before signing in Tampa Bay.
The Indians don’t seem too excited about this season’s free agent class though and may look more towards the trade market for the right pieces.
“There are going to be more opportunities via trade than free agency just because of the nature of the guys available, but that may change as we go through the offseason,” Antonetti said.
If that is the case, one of the two most likely names to arise, is Shin-Soo Choo. He has a great deal of value on the trade market, and could bring in an experienced Major League player. His contract also expires at the end of next season, so a trade is practical if they are unable to reach a contract extension.
“We’ve engaged in those conversations in the past and have looked at different times to extend [Choo’s] contract past next year but we haven’t been able to do that to this point.” Antonetti said. “It doesn’t mean we won’t be able to moving forward, but at this point he is under control for next year.”
The other likely trade candidate is closer Chris Perez. The Indians have a very strong bullpen, and set-up man Vinny Pestano can slip into the closers role quite easily. Strong performances form Cody Allen, Joe Smith, and Esmil Rogers, give the team many options in the seventh and eighth inning if Pestano does take over for Perez. A trade may be prudent at this point as his value is high after two strong seasons in the closers role.
However the Indians proceed from here, Shapiro and Antonetti will steer the organization. Owners Larry and Paul Dolan have again given their vote of confidence to each and expect the tandem to use their long term success to fix their own short term mistakes.
Photo: Kyle Terada/US Presswire