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
Nobody enjoys losing.
When a team like the Cleveland Indians has squandered multiple opportunities in a several year span, it is difficult to not question the integrity of the system in place and the intentions and motivation of the team, its front office, and ownership.
Indians’ team president Mark Shapiro understands that with mounting losses comes room for plenty of criticism.
“First of all, some of them are just warranted,” said Shapiro. “So we accept accountability. Some are, you know, could be explained if we took the time, if people wanted a more objective, intellectual business explanation they could be explained.
“But would that make them feel any better? No.”
The 2012 season is a year that got away from the Indians. The front office understood that there were deficiencies with the roster, especially in left field and in the starting rotation, but they did not forecast the storm that struck in July.
The improvements the team showed over the 2011 season and the experience it provided a very young team gave the club reason to believe 2012 could be something special.
The team was unforgettable, there is no denying that, but it was for all of the wrong reasons.
When the front office began rebuilding the team with the trades of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and others, it hoped to create a similar four- to five-year window of success, similar to the design used from 2005 through 2008. That time frame saw the team in contention in the final week of the 2005 season and just one game short of the World Series in 2007. They had just one injury-plagued season (2006) below .500 during that four-year window.
“I think that the period that we look to build for, and, hopefully, we go a little further,” said Shapiro, “is like that ‘05, ‘06, ‘07 and ‘08 (seasons) . . . that’s what we have to look to build for. A window like that. Because we were very unlucky within that window, too.”
When the Indians have struggled on the field, there has been a strong correlation on the numbers streaming through the turnstiles. There is an obvious impact on the overall profit generated for the club – fewer fans in attendance means fewer concessions bought, fewer pieces of memorabilia purchased, and millions and millions of dollars lost in overall ticket sales.
While that hurts the organization as a whole, it does not necessarily affect the players that compose the roster. Regardless, Shapiro knows to boost the bottom line, the product on the field needs to do one thing.
“I think more people will come,” said Shapiro. “But the challenge is 2.2 million instead of 1.6 million doesn’t change the way we operate. Even that extra 500,000, 600,000 people, even if that’s $10-to-15 more million in revenue a year … one win in free agency is $9 million. So you’re not going to change the context.
“That revenue swing between 1.5 million in attendance and 2.2 million in attendance … meaningful dollars but not dollars that will have us plan dramatically different. It would change the amount spent to 15 million dollars a year. What does that buy you in free agency? Very little. One and a half wins.”
With that in mind, Shapiro continues to work on improving the fans’ overall experience at the ball game and trying to improve the roster as best he can within the confines of their spending limits.
What makes that process easier is that there is an established core of young players on the roster. The team has been competitive for each of the last several seasons before losing their footing halfway through the year. The culprit for the struggles was difficult to determine. Injuries and slumps could account for some of the problems, but could not be blamed for the entire collapse. After careful deliberation, the team made a difficult decision near the end of the 2012 season.
“We fired a manager who we respected, cared about and liked,” said Shapiro regarding former Indians’ manager Manny Acta.
Acta led the team to a 69-93 finish in 2010. Immense strides were made as they improved to an 80-82 second place finish in 2011 and looked to be a threat moving forward. A gigantic leap backwards showed Acta the door, as the team went 65-91 under his leadership on the way to a 68-94 finish.
Acta was never known as an in-your-face, animated, base-chucking kind of manager. He was thought of as a players’ manager, one who was respectful and calm and a teacher.
Somewhere during the course of the 2012 season, he lost either the control of, or the respect of, the clubhouse. When the ship began to sail off course, no one appeared at the helm to guide it back to its previously determined course.
Terry Francona assumes the wheel into 2013. Francona, very familiar with the Cleveland organization from his playing days, his father’s playing days, and his previous experiences in the team’s front office, undertakes the task of returning the Indians to a team of prominence.
Will Francona provide a substantial and notable difference to the team in 2013 and the years that follow?
“It’s a difficult thing to measure,” said Shapiro. “But I think a manager can contribute to a culture, can contribute toward the development of players. An attitude. Those are all intangibles. Then, obviously, a manager can impact from the way he manages the game strategically, as well.
“I think the easiest way to look at that in a very crude way is the expected wins for a team in a year and who outperforms. Or what manager outperforms run differential. Are there managers who outperform run differential year after year? Run differential creates an expected number of wins. Go back and look for the manager that hold jobs for a long period of time, like Tony LaRussa, Mike Scioscia. Those guys consistently outperform the run differential for their team. I’m not saying it’s just the manager, but you got to believe the manager is playing some role in that.”
That said, Francona cannot do it alone. Francona needs the best efforts from those evaluating talent in the game of baseball today, whether it be within the organization or outside of it.
Shapiro and his staff are the key to providing Francona with the weapons he needs. Shapiro has been long known as a sabermetrics guy, linked to using a deeper level of statistical analysis to compose his rosters and the style of play utilized on the field. Despite his strong association with statistics, Shapiro shared that more than numbers make up his process for information gathering.
“When we think about the information that makes up the variables to decision making, we want the best of all information,” said Shapiro. “We want the best analytical information out there. So we have people who are highly intelligent mathematicians and analysts in our office giving us that. We want the best subjective info. So we’re always looking to get better from a scouting standpoint. We want the best medical information, the best personality and character information. The best financial analysis.”
After combining all of these pieces of objective information, the team is then in a position to make a determination on a player’s ability to provide for the club. Many factors are difficult to quantify, and those subjective pieces are considered as well.
“There are certain subjective roles to what certain guys bring to the table beyond just the objective analysis of ‘this is what their added value is.’ But you have to find some way to place a value on what guys bring to the table,” said Shapiro. “We don’t use those conventional stats. We use our own methodology. It does factor subjective and scouting information and makeup and personality and character and all those things in. In the end you’re adding up and trying to determine how many wins that player impacts when you bring him on board. That’s what you’re trying to figure out.”
Thus far, the Indians have been largely quiet in the offseason in their pursuit to provide Francona with the assets to move the team forward. Reliever Esmil Rogers was flipped to Toronto for Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes. Trade rumors abound regarding shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, and starter Justin Masterson. Speculation continues about the status of closer Chris Perez. Whispers of possible trade scenarios with multiple teams, all resting on Chris Antonetti’s desk, float through Progressive Field.
The Indians have been linked to minor free agents at best, which should be no surprise to even the most casual of fans of the team. Top free agents commanding annual contracts in the double-digit millions for upwards of a half-dozen years do not have a place on this city’s roster.
“Our analysts can put a value on what it costs in free agency to sign a player and what that means in Wins Above Replacement and what those players end up costing in free agency and that changes every year,” said Shapiro. “They measure all the players signed in free agency and what their history has been and what they offer going forward and they place a value. The challenge in free agency is you’re often paying for that in the first year of a contract, and in the out years of a contract the player’s WAR usually goes down because he’s usually past his prime. So it becomes a less efficient contract over time.
“That’s why free agency is never the best way to build. It’s a good way to supplement but not build.”
Holding your breath for Josh Hamilton may prove fatal.
While the team looks to improve the roster and some of the depth in the minor league system this offseason, a big question looms over Choo. A client of Scott Boras, the notoriously difficult to deal with agent, Choo is in the final year of his contract. The team has a decision to make with him, especially if they feel there is no chance that he is willing to resign a new contract with the team.
The team can try to trade him in the offseason to a club looking to fill a roster hole temporarily for a year or to a team hoping to resign him during or after the season. The team could sit idle and do nothing and let him potentially walk away for nothing at the end of the contract after the 2013 season. Or, the club can do as they did with Sabathia and Lee.
“If we have a player and we’re winning, we’re not going to trade that guy because we’re going to lose him at the end of the year. We will ride him out,” said Shapiro. “We planned to ride CC out to the end of the year knowing we were going to lose him at the end of the year because we thought we were going to be a winning team.
“We’re not going to be able to sign these guys (Sabathia, Lee) to extensions. We’re not trying to hide from that. 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.”
Signing players to the types of long-term contracts that have become so commonplace in baseball has the potential to inhibit everything that the ballclub attempts to do moving forward. One bad contract that fails to deliver on its expectations can handcuff the team, especially a small- to middle-market club. Multiple contracts of this caliber (Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, etc) could decimate a team for years.
In the end, the team is trying to sustain a long period of success, not just one flash-in-the-pan season where the team was lucky or found the perfect storm. It is going to take a concerted effort across the board – from the players at all levels, coaches, scouts, and the front office – to be able to achieve the sustained success. They have to learn from the failures of the past, but to be able to turn the page.
“I understand and appreciate some of the negative thoughts. I feel like we need to be better,” said Shapiro. “All I can tell you is that we are driven to do that. There are a bunch of people in here who are sleeping five hours a night who are working 80 hours a week who care, who want the same thing the fans want, who are working tirelessly to make sure that happens. Who take accountability for our mistakes but also ensure that we are learning from them and that we’ll get better as we go forward.”
Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images