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Learning from the Past

Learning from the Past

| On 11, Nov 2012

Recently, Pat McManamon of had a conversation with Cleveland Indians’ team president Mark Shapiro, who talked about his challenges and interests in baseball, the recent history of the team, and his vision moving forward. Following will be a series of opinions and insight about Shapiro’s responses and how they apply to where the team was, how the team got to where it is now, and most importantly, Where Do the Indians Go From Here.

This is part three in the series – part one; part two.

By Bob Toth

One of the biggest keys to the Cleveland Indians’ success of the 1990’s was acquiring the right talent, whether it was through the draft, trades, or free agency.

Every team will have its share of misses. They too will have their share of surprise prospects rising through the system and making unexpected contributions to the major league squad.

When you start having repeated failures in any one or more of these areas of your organization, the entire unit becomes unstable.

Fixing the problem is a burdensome and thankless task. Your reputation is forever linked to the mistakes that were made and rarely on the methods used to alleviate the problem. When these problems arise, few are even able to retain their jobs long enough to attempt to right the ship.

The front office team established by team president Mark Shapiro is taking on this task, trying desperately to learn from the past and correct several problems within their system.

“We need to do very well on every side of player acquisition,” said Shapiro. “We can’t do well in two out of three.”

One of the more long-standing deficits in the Indians’ system arose from poor player talent evaluation. The Indians have not reaped positive top-tier talents in their drafts, especially those picks that occurred four or five years ago.

One of the few bright spots that could be rationalized out of losing seasons is having a better draft pick in the first-year player draft the following season. The Indians, though, have successfully squandered many of those picks, causing the significant lack of home-grown talent on the roster today. The only players on the 2012 roster for the entire season who were drafted and developed by the Indians were Vinnie Pestano, Jason Kipnis, and Tony Sipp.

“I think the last three years, our drafts based on the expected value of our picks have been very good,” said Shapiro. “The prior five to six years before that, certainly we did not have good drafts.”

Based on the initial excitement surrounding the draft picks of the last several years, Shapiro may be right, but for now, the jury is still out.

In 2011, the club drafted shortstop Francisco Lindor with the eighth pick in the first round. He has been touted as the shortstop of the future by the organization and has consistently been considered amongst the top prospects in their farm system.

Alex White and Drew Pomeranz were drafted in consecutive years in the first rounds of the 2009 and 2010 drafts. Both starting pitchers will see their opportunities for big league success happen in the Mile High City of Denver, as both top picks were dealt for Ubaldo Jimenez last season.

Between 2004 and 2008, the club drafted Jeremy Sowers (2004), Trevor Crowe (2005), Johnny Drennen (2005), David Huff (2006), Beau Mills (2007), and Lonnie Chisenhall (2008). Sowers is out of baseball. Crowe was released last season and signed with the Los Angeles Angels on a minor league contract. Drennen reached Akron in 2011 but spent 2012 playing in an Independent League. Huff is out of options heading into 2013. Mills was traded midseason to the Cincinnati Reds, where he played 2012 in Double-A. Chisenhall is the potential cream of that crop, with the third base position in Cleveland his to lose.

“I think we’ve made adjustments to the way we draft, the way we strategize. And I think we’ve had more successful drafts the last three years,” said Shapiro. “If our drafts continue to be as successful and productive and we get players from those drafts playing in the big leagues as quick as the guys we have right now contributing, and we continue to do that, then we’ll be in much better shape going forward.”

The talent void created by these bad drafts caused a lack of quality internal prospects. This forced the team to look for their future talent elsewhere in other organizations. The trades that ensued became integral to the restocking of the talent pool, but failing to maximize on the return of some of these trades has handcuffed the team moving forward and left the quality of talent in the organization rather depleted.

“You evaluate our trades compared to other trades, we were very successful in our trades. Among the more successful teams,” said Shapiro.

Despite several trades that appear to have worked out well in the Indians’ favor – including the acquisitions of Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo from Seattle, Carlos Santana from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chris Perez from St. Louis – two large trades have more typically been blamed for the team’s current losing state of affairs.

On July 7, 2008, the Indians dealt free-agent-to-be and reigning Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia to the contending Milwaukee Brewers. When the dust settled from the trade, Cleveland had acquired starting pitcher Zach Jackson, top prospect Matt LaPorta, Double-A outfielder Michael Brantley, and young pitcher Rob Bryson.

LaPorta was thought to be the prize acquisition, a power-hitting right-handed first baseman that the lineup desperately needed. Instead, the star power of LaPorta has failed to materialize, to put it nicely. Brantley turned out to be the surprise piece gained in the trade and the only player saving the trade from being an epic loss. Bryson has spent his time working his way up through the farm system, reaching Double-A Akron in 2012, while Jackson never figured largely into the Indians’ future.

“CC brought a much better return than if we had let him go to free agency,” said Shapiro. “And the fact that we’ve got one player who’s a core player on our team (Brantley) contributing from that and another guy (LaPorta) who’s been obviously somewhat of a disappointment, that’s better than a lot of trades.”

Cliff Lee met a similar fate on July 29, 2009. His departure netted a similarly disappointing allotment of players. Jason Donald and Lou Marson have been career backups thus far. Starter Carlos Carrasco is set to return to the mound from Tommy John surgery ready for 2013, and Jason Knapp, believed to be a key part of the trade, was never able to overcome the injuries he came to the organization already suffering from.

“The Cliff decision was again, you’re looking at the different junctures you could potentially trade him. You’re looking at the history of trades that were made with a guy like him and saying that the return we got was as good as we were going to get, and better than we were going to get at any juncture in time,” said Shapiro.

“Obviously, the guy with the biggest upside (Knapp) got injured and never came back again. I don’t view injuries to be just chance; it means we did a bad job. We identified a guy who was a high-risk guy in Knapp. Carrasco, we have to wait and see. That’s why you can’t evaluate the end of that trade yet. Jason Donald, it still remains to be seen what he is, whether he’s a utility guy. He’s certainly a big leaguer, without a doubt. And Lou Marson, again probably a backup catcher, but maybe a starting catcher.”

Fans have deemed the trades an unacceptable swap for two reigning Cy Young Award winners. Others in Major League Baseball may too feel the same. Shapiro has a slightly different take.

“There is a reality that when you trade for players you should be better than when you draft because you’re going to have more information on a guy. But still you’re not going to hit on everything,” said Shapiro. “Would you like to have more? I have a hard time saying the draft picks we’d have got for him would be better than those three guys.”

“We clearly have three major leaguers out of the deal in Carrasco, Marson and Donald.”

Nobody can deny that the haul for both of the Indians’ star pitchers fell short of being enough to adequately restock the farm system.  Sometimes, getting something is better than nothing though.

“We’re not going to be able to sign these guys to extensions. We’re not trying to hide from that,” said Shapiro. “That creates circumstances where we have to make decisions about when the right juncture is to either let them walk away or to trade them. It doesn’t mean we won’t continue to try to sign guys. Periodically it doesn’t mean that occasionally we won’t be able to do it. It’s going to take always some sharing of the risk and some desire for a guy to want to be here and placing a premium on that. If a guy places a premium on wanting to be here and we feel it’s the right kind of guy, it’s still a possibility. But as a general premise when guys reach free agent years it’s going to be a challenge. We’re not running from that. We’re going to have him for six years at a minimum, maybe longer, and we have to have more talent coming up.”

Knowing full well the health and financial risks associated with signing Sabathia or Lee long-term, the club in 2007 instead extended the contracts of Travis Hafner (four-year, $57 million) and Jake Westbrook (three-year, $33 million). Hafner was coming off of a career-best year in 2006 in most offensive statistical categories, including his 42 home runs, 117 RBI, .439 on-base percentage, and .659 slugging percentage. Westbrook had just finished off his third straight season in double digit wins.

“We had three free agents that year,” Shapiro said. “We had Hafner, Westbrook and CC. We signed two out of three. And the two we signed got hurt. People didn’t applaud us signing those two guys.”

Baseball is an unpredictable sport. A good free agent signing or a beneficial trade can quickly turn sour if the players fail to play to or reach their potential. Injuries can happen at any time. Mechanics in a throwing motion or a swing can quickly fall apart. An average prospect might develop into an everyday ball player, while All-Stars may fail to return to that same form again. Slumps will come and go throughout a season. No matter how much studying and research goes into developing a successful organization, a fair amount of luck comes into play as well.

As the Cleveland Indians look at the decisions that led to the failure of 2012 and how to start a new chapter for 2013 and beyond, their potential success will revolve around the acquisitions the team makes through free agency, trades, and continuing to scout and draft the best players possible when their drafting slot comes. They have to get as much talent as possible from the players that join the ball club.

Because in the end, it all comes down to one thing:

“You got to win,” said Shapiro. “You got to figure out a way to win. And if you don’t win people are going to criticize everything you do, and if you do win people are going to applaud everything you do, even the things you just got lucky on.”

Next time: Shapiro’s analysis on some of the problems that plagued the 2012 Cleveland Indians’ season.

Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images

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