All in all, the past week has been a really good time to be a Cleveland sports fan.
The Browns spared us the potential ignominy of a winless season by beating San Diego on Saturday. The Cavs followed that up by a thrilling comeback win on Christmas. While the Indians aren’t on the field currently, they made a move that’s nothing shy of seismic, signing Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal with a potential club option.
Mind you, the standard caveats apply: the team hasn’t officially announced the deal, which is dependent on him passing a physical (unlike near-Indian Jonathan Lucroy, Encarnacion was a free agent, so there’s no no-trade clause to fret about).
But this is exactly the kind of deal Indians fans clamored for and, in a town where it’s become a cottage industry to discuss attendance at Indians games, the kind of deal people will point to as proof that the team is in win-now mode and we should all get season-ticket packages (and in fact, in the day following the Encarnacion news, nearly 200 full-season equivalent packages were sold).
It’s also a sign there’s a new sheriff in town. This is the kind of deal Mark Shapiro wouldn’t have made. In fact, now that Shapiro’s with the Blue Jays, the team Encarnacion’s leaving, it’s the kind of deal he didn’t make.
Everyone who wasn’t alive the last time the Indians won a World Series (and since that was 1948, the number of people who remember it grows smaller by the day) points to the 1990s as the glory days of the franchise. The team won six straight American League Central Division titles (and seven in eight years) and made two World Series appearances, coming within two outs of a championship in 1997. And they did it in front of sellout crowds at a shimmering new stadium.
Shapiro was part of the Indians front office, arriving in 1991, but he became general manager in 2001, the last roundup for those glory years. The Tribe retook the Central from the White Sox and took a 116-win Mariners team to five games in the American League Division Series, but they were running on fumes by then.
Shapiro didn’t have the novelty of a new ballpark or a loaded farm system (in fact, the cupboard was bare, exacerbated by some terrible drafting in the early 2000s). The business of baseball had changed in about a decade – which Shapiro was quick to remind anyone. Six straight years of contention gave way to the idea of windows of opportunity: assembling a team carefully, locking in all the talent with lengthy contracts at essentially below-market value (a tactic Shapiro’s predecessor, John Hart, used with great skill) and theoretically, when the opportunity presented itself, spending money on some key free agent acquisitions to put the team over the top.
I say theoretically because it worked in the mid-1990s (remember: Orel Hershiser and Eddie Murray were major contributors signed as free agents by the Tribe), but the opportunity never presented itself in the 2000s. A team that finished a game out of the playoffs in 2005 stumbled out of the gate the following year, and although the Indians won the division in 2007 and came within one win of the World Series, that was the closing of the window for that era. The rebuild began in earnest the following year with the trade of CC Sabathia, and was in full swing the year after that with trades of Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez. There wasn’t a lot of free agent spending because there was a feeling that it wouldn’t make any difference. Shapiro said it was a way to supplement, but not to build. So when the Indians signed free agents, they were usually one- or two-year contracts for players on the discard pile, playing for a contract and then leaving when someone showed a willingness to pay more (Kevin Millwood and Scott Kazmir come immediately to mind).
Shapiro left last year to take over the Blue Jays, a team in a major market that wasn’t afraid to spend money on free agent signings. His arrival gave Toronto fans pause; would he keep a tighter rein on the purse strings? Encarnacion leaving indicates that might be a possibility, as do the signings of Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce – neither flashy, but likely productive. The team is being reshaped in the mold of the Indians, prudent with its money and willing to spend – but mostly on bargains, and only spending big money when the situation calls for it.
And now, in Cleveland, it does. The Indians again lost a World Series in extra innings in Game 7, and are poised to contend for another trip. This could just be the natural progression, set in motion by Shapiro. The Indians have stocked well, and the Encarnacion signing – like the Andrew Miller trade – could be evidence that the team is pushing all its chips into the middle of the table.
But it’s also a sign of how much things have changed – even in the year since Shapiro left.
Photo: Associated Press