A Thirst Never Quenched
Recently, Pat McManamon of FOXSportsOhio.com 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.
By Bob Toth
What on earth happened to the Cleveland Indians in 2012?
Last season will be one of those years that leaves a bitter, unfulfilled taste in fans’ mouths and the question of “what if?” the season had lived up to the expectations that so many people had for the team prior to its start.
That which could go wrong did go wrong for the team. The moves the team made did not work out. The moves the team did not make did not work out. The team was constructed in a manner in which they needed maximum effort from all of their players for 162 games, and any injuries, slumps, or identity crises were going to severely endanger the team’s postseason chances.
When trying to come up with positives about the season, it has been extremely difficult to come up with definitive examples.
The team spent a portion of the first half in first place. Forty-eight days in fact, and as late as June 23rd.
Jason Kipnis had a first half worthy of All-Star consideration. He posted a .277 batting average with eleven home runs and 49 runs batted in through the season’s first few months. Double play tandem teammate Asdrubal Cabrera was an All-Star reserve.
Michael Brantley established himself as a versatile hitter and solidified his role as one of the core players on the roster moving forward. He was good with the bat (.288 batting average, .348 on-base, 60 RBI mainly from the top half of the batting order) and even better with the glove (.997 fielding percentage with just one error).
Rookie Zach McAllister filled a consistent hole in the rotation. Among the regular starters on the team, he led the rotation with a 4.24 ERA, but was victimized by 19 long balls, second-most on the pitching staff.
The backend of the bullpen, made up of All-Star Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, and Joe Smith, was a force to be dealt with, when the team could hand them the ball late in the game. Esmil Rogers, acquired from Colorado during the season, turned his season around away from the high altitudes of Coors Field. Rookie reliever Cody Allen, a 2011 draft pick, made a meteoric rise from single-A Carolina to the big leagues and provided the team with a solid showing.
That may very well wrap up the positives from a 68-94 season that saw the Indians 12 games worse than the previous season.
And then some bad:
Veteran starting pitcher Fausto Carmona never took the mound in 2012. He instead was busted in the offseason in the Dominican Republic for using a false identity to try to obtain a visa. He returned in July three years older as Roberto Hernandez Heredia.
The Hernandez that returned served a three-week suspension before returning to the Indians. He was shelled in three losing outings, lasting just 14 1/3 innings and giving up 12 earned runs (7.53 ERA).
Travis Hafner got hurt. Again.
Carlos Santana struggled throughout the first half with mediocre at best offensive production. He batted .221 in the first half with just five home runs and 30 RBI.
Kipnis’s slight from the All-Star roster seemed to affect him through the remainder of the season. After a strong first half, he batted .233 down the stretch and had just three homers and 27 RBI. He batted just .215 against lefties for the year.
Left field became a puzzle with no solution. Grady Sizemore’s body continued to wage a war against itself, refusing to allow him to find the field after signing an incentive-laden one-year, $5 million contract in the offseason. After Shelley Duncan and Aaron Cunningham failed to secure the position with even a shred of offensive consistency, veteran Johnny Damon was brought in to solve the problem. Instead, Damon was subjected to the same infectious inconsistencies as his predecessors, with suspect defensive range, one of the weaker arms in the league, and a .222 batting average in 64 games that marked the worst offensive effort of his 18-year major league career.
Making the entire left field dilemma worse was the fact that Josh Willingham, the power-hitting, right-handed swinging left fielder the team coveted in the offseason, was spraying home runs all over ballparks around the country.
“We offered him more than he signed for. We just didn’t offer three years,” said Indians’ team president Mark Shapiro about their pursuit of Willingham. “He had the best year of his career, so he over-performed what anyone expected him to do this year (2012).”
Willingham ultimately signed a three-year, $21 million dollar deal with the division-rival Minnesota Twins. He made it difficult to ignore how much his bat could have benefitted the Indians’ lineup, batting .273 with four home runs and 19 RBI against Cleveland, easily his highest run production versus any single team in 2012.
Shapiro indicated that the team’s “adversity to risk” and their “understanding of what a poor performing contract can do to [their] ability to operate and maneuver” made the team hesitant to offer Willingham a contract longer than two years.
The hole in left field remains.
The club had hoped some of their offensive woes could be solved with the recall of Lonnie Chisenhall from Columbus in late May. Instead, Chisenhall was lost to a broken arm at the end of June after being hit by a pitch in Baltimore, just as the young third baseman was beginning to show signs that he could be a legitimate weapon in the lineup. Pre-injury, he had just 8 strikeouts in 24 games. After his return in September, he averaged exactly one strikeout per game.
“I would say for us at third base I feel good about Chisenhall,” said Shapiro. “We’re excited about what his pedigree is, what he showed in the minor leagues and what he showed here at the end of the year and how he finished. We thought there was development left for Lonnie. If we didn’t have any expectations to win last year at all, if this was a pure development year for us as a team, you throw Lonnie out there, you take your lumps and you say at the end of the year you’re going to be in a better place. ”
And then there was the ugly:
Perez called out the Cleveland fans. And the Oakland fans. And the Dolans.
The starting pitching was awful. There is no nicer way to put it.
“The starting pitching fell apart,” said Shapiro. “Everything else kind of went with it, but the starting pitching is what happened.”
The starting pitching was able to keep the Indians in contention through the first half. But after a win at home against Detroit’s Justin Verlander on July 26th, the hopes and dreams of the season collapsed in one of the more catastrophic months of August (5-24) in the history of baseball.
“I never felt that confident, that comfortable with the way we were winning,” said Shapiro. “None of us did going in. But none of us foresaw a collapse of that magnitude either.”
Jeanmar Gomez (5-8) was inconsistent after making the rotation out of spring training and eventually demoted. Josh Tomlin (5-8) was lost in the second half and likely for all of 2013 after Tommy John surgery. Derek Lowe (8-10) started strong out of the gate, but eventually crumbled and was ultimately designated for assignment, joining the New York Yankees and working out of the bullpen.
Staff ace Justin Masterson went 11-15 with a 4.93 ERA in logging over 200 innings of work. He won back-to-back appearances just twice in 34 starts. He did, however, get credit for the win in three of the team’s five August victories.
Number two starter Ubaldo Jimenez did the opposite, losing four of six August starts on his way to a 9-17 season. A team-high 25 home runs allowed helped to contribute to his 5.40 ERA. His 16 wild pitches led the American League. His 1.61 WHIP did not help his cause any. His first half effort (17 starts, 8-7, 4.50 ERA, .247 batting average against) look Cy Young Award worthy after being compared to his second half demise (14 starts, 1-10, 6.63 ERA, .304).
“It’s a funny game. Where you end up, where we ended up is disappointing. And only a little below the realm of ranges we thought we might end up. We hoped for better, but we also were cognizant of what our holes were.”
The losing was tough on the fans, the players, and on organization as a whole. It ultimately cost manager Manny Acta his job.
“It was tough,” said Shapiro. “To go through that level of losing, the toll that takes on everyone, on the players and everyone around the team — fans, front office, coaching staff, players — that type of losing for that extended period of time takes a toll. On all of us.”
“We took one of the biggest levers out there. We fired a manger who we respected, cared about and liked. But I don’t believe in making moves just to feed that monster. If you start making moves just to feed that need for blood, that thirst for blood, that thirst is never quenched. Never.”
The 2012 season is now well over a month in the history books for the Indians. The team’s biggest move so far in the offseason has been to hire Terry Francona as manager. The team did swing a trade, dealing reliever Rogers to the Toronto Blue Jays for infielder Mike Aviles and catcher Yan Gomes. They have been linked to several free agent names, including Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay, but no signings have been made so far.
Reckless and ineffective spending has no place in small to mid-market baseball. The team has learned from contracts given to Jake Westbrook, Hafner, and Sizemore that did not pay the dividends expected. Those underperforming contracts scared them away from Willingham.
The front office looks to spend cautiously and to spend wisely, doing best to not handcuff their future on a risky acquisition now.
“You can read the comments from every single team out there. And that never ends,” said Shapiro. “If you start feeding that and making moves based upon that need . . . your moves should be predicated on you thinking it should contribute to you winning. That’s what you’ve got to believe in your heart. You have to separate out the emotion, and the momentum that comes from a good place in your fan base and not start feeding that. If you start feeding that, it’s a never ending cycle.”
With the managerial search over and the coaching staff established, the team is now focused on player evaluation for the 2013 roster. Despite the team looking ahead, it is hard to forget about the 2012 season that could have been.
“It was, like I said, very tough,” said Shapiro, “but we’re turning the page on that and moving forward.”
Next time: the series concludes with Shapiro’s thoughts moving into the 2013 campaign.
Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images