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Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: Outside the Box Edition

Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: Outside the Box Edition
June 30, 2012
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The Cleveland Indians have taken a path that has had them balancing precariously on a sharp edge since the beginning of the season. To say that the direction this team has taken in 2012 has been disconcerting would be the understatement of the century. On Saturday, June 23rd, the Cleveland Indians found themselves alone in first place, a half-game ahead of the Chicago White Sox. The Indians were coming off of a four-game win streak, and seemed to be heading in the right direction, even with their severe deficiencies.

A week later, and the Indians find themselves 3 ½ games behind the White Sox after losing six-of-seven ballgames. They lost their last two to the lowly Houston Astros, were swept by the New York Yankees, and have thus far split two games with the Baltimore Orioles.

The Indians have spent their season trying to run away from comparisons to their 2011 season, but the link is certainly going to be there. The team stands at 38-38 (compared to 40-36 a season ago, also in second place), and the prospects for carrying the division seem to be getting slimmer and slimmer as the days go by. Like last year, it appears as though this Cleveland Indians’ team is hanging onto contention by a fingernail.

Where do the Indians go from here? The schedule doesn’t get any easier. They still have two left with the Orioles, who are still in second place in the ultra-competitive AL East. The follow that up with the Los Angeles Angeles back in Cleveland. The Angels are in second place, and have won seven of their past ten games. The Indians then welcome in the Tampa Bay Rays, who are struggling a bit right now, but are still five games over .500, and in third in the East. That will get them to the All-Star break. When they come out of the break, they head to Toronto (last place in the East, but still a half-game better than the Tribe), and Tampa, before returning home to face off against the Orioles and the Tigers.

With the Indians stuck in the middle of their toughest stretch of the 2012 schedules so far and seemingly sinking, it’s not hard to wonder what the Indians management is thinking with only a month left before the trade deadline. Is this team ready to contend, since it is now firmly in the middle of the front office’s prescribed window, or are they simply into another season in which they are nothing more than an entity taking up space in the major league community?

It is interesting that the Indians remain a “surprise” team this year for being in first place, when their surprise year was 2011. I’m not saying that the Indians shouldn’t be considered a surprise to be in contention in 2012 based on their lineup. What I’m saying is that it’s an indication of some serious failures with regards to the Indians front office that they are considered such. I understand that the front office can’t help it if free agents don’t sign with the Indians. I understand that prospects don’t pan out over time. What I don’t understand is how any of that isn’t considered front office failures.

The Indians have struck out on every major-esque free agent they’ve gone after, and their drafting has been suspect for years (although I still evaluate their last two or three fairly high—and sorry…dealing Pomeranz doesn’t mean they drafted poorly, it just means they don’t have Pomeranz any more). The front office has to be blamed for those players not signing, and they have to be blamed for poor drafts. Good organizations can overcome their markets. Why? Because they are good organization. No, Cleveland isn’t South Beach, but if the right ownership group and front office were put together, it wouldn’t matter.

What made Richard Jacobs, John Hart and Mike Hargrove so great were that they thought outside the box as a team. They were ahead of the curve with regards to signing players, finding talent and utilizing that talent. Sure, the 90’s were a different era of baseball, with a different economy, but that shouldn’t give an ownership group a pass. Instead, the Indians need a front office that continues to think outside the box, and continues to be ahead of the curve. Sure, with less fans, less money and less talent, you are most definitely behind the eight ball.

So, who is responsible for less fans and less talent? Can it all be blamed on less money? Sure, some of it can be laid on the ground of the city of Cleveland not being a hot bed of night life and a mecca of good weather. No, it’s not the sexiest of cities for today’s professional athlete to live in. Let’s face it, making the Indians a winner is a complicated matter, of that, there is no doubt. Even with all of that said, at some point, the Dolans, Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonneti, and to some extent, Manny Acta will have to be held accountable. Those that give them a pass because of the market and lack of fans just aren’t being realistic. With solid front office management (or at least that perception) and a bit of creativity, the Indians could likely begin to mend some of the issues that are confronting it going forward.

Am I calling for a complete sweep at the top? I’d love to see a new ownership group take over the team. The Dolans may have been dealt a bad hand over the years after the sale from the Jacobs family, but I’m a firm believer in perception. The Dolans are perceived to be a bad ownership group, and really haven’t garnered anywhere near the respect that Dick Jacobs received throughout his tenure as an owner in Cleveland. Jacobs was well respected among his fellow owners, and was often a part in major baseball decisions. But he always had a plan with the Tribe, and it was trailblazing.

He immediately went after a new ballpark after he bought the team in 1987. Think about it. If the Indians aren’t a baseball town now, were they moreso in 1987? The Browns were in the midst of a renaissance with homegrown Bernie Kosar as their quarterback. They were winning football games at an incredible rate with Marty Schottenheimer as their coach, and Art Modell was the owner of Municipal Stadium, thus seemingly controlling the fans of the area, and where the Indians would play.

Jacobs knew what he was up against as the owner of the Indians, a perennial cellar dweller since the early 60’s, but that certainly didn’t stop him from going after something that many thought would never happen. He convinced Cleveland to fund the Gateway project, and built a baseball-only stadium right under Modell and the Browns’ noses. The stubborn Modell refused to become a tenant and have a new football stadium built, which ultimately led him to take his football team elsewhere.

In a football town, Jacobs had a baseball stadium built, so he ultimately ran off the Browns. He moved the Indians to the always winnable A.L. Central, a move that may have been the most brilliant of them all, but is often overlooked. The Indians became the first publicly sold major league baseball team, and he sold the team at their Apex.

The Dolans aren’t Dick Jacobs. That’s not their fault. They are home grown millionaires who grew up Indians’ fans just like you did. They spent way too much for a club that certainly had reached their apex in growth. The Indians became their #1 take in revenue. In other words, the Indians are a toy for them to play with. In today’s sporting universe, that’s not the way to go in a major market, let alone a market like the Indians.

Under the Dolans, Mark Shapiro became the general manager, and Eric Wedge became the manager. The team became middling, and the money got worse. The fans stopped coming again because as we all know too well, good things must come to an end, before they can begin again.

Folks…that was ten years ago.

The Dolans are still operating the team as a way to make money as a family business. Shapiro is now running the team as the president of the team. Chris Antonetti, his protégé, is now the general manager. The Indians have had some good seasons, and some bad. The economy stinks, and so does attendance, but gone is the type of thinking that could make the Indians great again.

I know that it’s much more complicated a matter. No, it’s not easy to own the Indians, and it’s not easy to run the club. It’s not easy to be the GM, and it’s definitely not easy to be the manager with players that aren’t as good as some other teams.

So what.

Cleveland needs an owner with extra money to spend, and will spend it. Cleveland needs a front office that can talk players into coming into town, and back it up by being the type of organization that can develop and bring in the right talent. Cleveland needs a manager that understands the city, and can out-think other managers. It’s not complicated.

No, Cleveland isn’t a baseball town, but it could be, and right or wrong, it starts with management.

So much for the talk of the Cleveland Indians offense. The Indians had 10 hits in a 6-4 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday, eight hits in a 5-4 loss against the Yankees on Wednesday, nine hits in a 7-2 in against the Orioles on Thursday, and 16 hits in a 9-8 loss to the Orioles on Friday night. They currently have 16 hits in the bottom of the seventh of Saturday’s game with the Orioles, and are currently leading 10-5. This offense isn’t perfect, and it’s laden with left-handed bats…and there’s no power anywhere, and we all get it. But, it’s not as bad as some folks make it out to be. No, it’s not consistent. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, it needs a new player or two to maximize the talent, but there are some good sticks in there. Any team that has left-handed dominant starters and relievers will absolutely dominate them most nights, but again, there have been much worse offenses in Progressive Field over the years.

Next week, I’m planning on turning the focus to what the Indians will likely do over the next month. There’s a lot of stupidity being spewed out there with regards to what the Indians can and can’t do. I got an e-mail on Monday from some idiot talking about how the Indians couldn’t trade for anyone worthwhile because nobody wants to come to Cleveland. I couldn’t even reply to it because, well, unless there’s a no-trade clause, the player really doesn’t have a choice at who they are traded to. I’ve watched the twitter comments on how the team never…EVER…goes after players, less than a year after the Indians dealt for arguably the best starting pitcher available at the deadline (I’m not a fan of Jimenez, but he definitely was the big name out there).

When the White Sox made the move to trade for Kevin Youkilis, the Greek God of Walks, there was the immediate twitter-splosion about how the Indians were once again caught with their pants down, being outthought by the White Sox because the White Sox didn’t give up much to get Youkilis, and he would have been a huge upgrade for the Indians. All of that is utterly ridiculous.

Over the last 28 days, Kevin Youkilis, with Boston and the White Sox is hitting a whopping .212 in 19 ballgames, with four runs, 14 hits, four doubles, a triple and five RBI. He’s struck out 12 times. He’s hitting .250 against lefties, and .231 against righties this year. Casey Kotchman is hitting .271 over his last 28 days over 22 games. He has eight runs, 19 hits, a double, three homers and ten RBI. He’s struck out 13 times. Overall, he’s hitting .222 against lefties, and yes, .231 against righties. So, Youkilis is an upgrade? C’mon, this isn’t 2005, 2008 or even 2011, and you don’t give up anything for a guy like Youkilis at this stage of his career.

Who should the Indians go after, and what should they give up to get him? I don’t know, but not getting Youkilis isn’t the end of the world. Now, if the Indians don’t get anyone by the deadline, we’ll talk. Until then, let’s see what happens.

Chris Antonneti alluded to the fact that the Indians would likely be counting on internal moves more than external over the next month. First off, I don’t believe that for a second. Second off, I’m not sure that the internal options will be a big factor at all. Do you think that Grady Sizemore is going to be effective this year? Do you think that Roberto Hernandez will come to Cleveland and return to the 2007 form…or even any kind of form that will be helpful in 2012? I sure don’t. If they do, it will be a miracle.

Past some solid relievers and bit players, there really isn’t much help with regards to rookies going forward either. If the Indians don’t make any moves, and if this team makes the playoffs, Manny Acta will have to win some sort of miracle award. How many miracles are needed to be made a saint? If the Indians make the playoffs with this current roster, then I’m sure he’ll be in contention.

With Lonnie Chisenhall going on the DL, there was some speculation that perhaps Matt LaPorta would get called up to take his roster spot. Well, I don’t know when the speculation will end for LaPorta, but that just doesn’t make any sense at this point. If Matt LaPorta is on this team at the start of next year, I’ll be shocked. I’ll make the call right now. Matt LaPorta will be thrown into a deal made between now and July 31st. He won’t be an important piece of that deal at all. Those of you that think the Indians will make a deal for a major piece and they’ll ask for a guy like LaPorta as a major piece back are just kidding yourself. At this point, LaPorta isn’t even Ryan Garko. If they get anything for LaPorta, Antonetti should be given a raise…well…not a raise…but a pat on the back.

LaPorta isn’t a major piece of the puzzle. It’s clear that’s what management thinks at this point. Jason Donald was called up to take Chisenhall’s place, and that was the right move. I’ve always thought that Donald was a piece of the big pie for the Tribe. No, not as a starter, but Donald can play any infield position, and I’ve always thought that if he could play four times a week, he could find a niche with the team. No, I don’t think Donald is anything special, but he’s definitely the type of scrappy player that can be the difference on a playoff team. He is a Kipnis type of player, without as much talent.

Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall are all batting between .278 and .292. That all sounds about right. Imagine if this team had just one guy, preferably a right-handed bat, that was hitting in the .300 range, preferably from the right side of the plate, and had some power. Imagine if the Indians had signed a guy like Carlos Beltran, with his .310 average, and his 20 homers.

There really isn’t a guy like that available, but there certainly are some names to be had. Josh Willingham comes to mind, hitting .271 right now, with 16 homers. He’s got to be at his Apex, but would certainly be a player to pursue. Alfonso Soriano comes with a high price tag, but he’s also got 15 homers and is hitting .273. I don’t want to get too much into all this, but the Indians are a couple players away, and I don’t know that they’ll be able to get it done during the deadline. There’s going to be a feeding frenzy, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

That said, I think the Indians will make their moves in August.

Lou Marson had a chance for a cycle today with a home run…heaven help us all…

It’s a beautiful weekend for baseball…everybody…

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

User Comments

Jim
July 3, 2012 - 7:15 AM EDT
Again Tony, while I believe it's perception, I don't believe it's a losing proposition at all. The Indians, if sold, likely wouldn't go for more than $350 million, which was a horrid investment for the Dolans, but such is life. Cuban, who was shot down in his previous baseball ventures, including Chicago, Texas and the Dodgers, wants a baseball team. His preference is the Pirates, his home town team, but he's stated many times after all three high-profile losses with regards to the Cubs, Rangers and Dodgers that he'll likely have to make a deal for a team that doesn't have a competitive market. Here's a quote from a well written piece about Cuban and his purchasing of a baseball team:

"it's clearly going to be on his own financial terms and with a team that isn't drawing much additional interest from other ownership groups. Maybe that kind of opportunity doesn't come along often in baseball — and maybe it never will — but Cuban seems perfectly willing to wait for the perfect situation."

Like I have always said, the new ownership would be a piece. Like I said before, outside the box thinking works in Cleveland. The Jacobs did it, and literally ran the Browns out of town (not on purpose, but there's no doubt Gateway was the start, and the Jacobs were the engine behind it). This city is a football town, but it can have pockets of baseball for sure...no doubt about it...and in this economy as well. You start with the ownership group, and listen, Cuban would be smart to come in WITH Gilbert, and go from there.

Do I think it would immediately get guys to sign here? Nope, but you can't tell me having the ability to sweeten the pot two or three million (or more) for one big signing wouldn't make a difference...or better yet...make a guy with a "no trade" say yes. I absolutely believe that would change.

New ownership...new perception...

Past that, you'd need to see many other things happen, but it would happen. We'll see...I think we're within a five year window when the Indians will get sold.
Tony
July 2, 2012 - 10:29 AM EDT
Good stuff hear and lots of good discussion too. One note, though, is that I do not believe a CUban, Gilbert, or even Steinbrenner if he were still alive would change the financial aspects of this team. They still wouldn't be able to sign top free agents or keep mega free agents to be. It does not matter how deep the owner's pockets are if the fan support is poor. Even with an owner that is viewed much better by the fans, this is still a town with a poor baseball fanbase, and that is what determines an owner's willingness to spend and possibility to lose money if you ask me. Without support, you won't get a Cuban or someone of his ilk to come in here anyway. They are good businessmen and know it is a losing proposition. The only owner that I think would make any sense is Gilbert.....though even he would be limited by what he can do. Bottom line, I agree that the Indians probably need a new ownership to change their perception, but do not know how much if at all it changes things.
Jim
July 1, 2012 - 2:34 PM EDT
Thanks everyone...for posting...keep it coming...

As per one player Rod...while I agree with you...the RIGHT starter...and the right right-handed bat would go a long way to righting the ship in this flawed division.

Totally agree that one guy isn't going to get the job done...
Jim
July 1, 2012 - 2:33 PM EDT
And to be honest Rod...I want a world series before I die...and I'll take any World Series that has the Indians winning at the end...

Jim
July 1, 2012 - 2:32 PM EDT
No Rod...my way is not to buy free agents. My way is to have an owner that could if he needed to. Again, it's about perception. I'm talking about ownership perception being a beginning step in improved attendance.

You renew interest, get a respected front office that can attract free agents (not a whole team, but a piece here and there, like every team needs), and I've always said this team has failed at the draft, other than perhaps the past two to three seasons, and that still remains to be seen.

Again, I respect the Dolans as fans of the team, running the team as a business because it's really their central way to make money (well...other than the family trust)...but they AREN'T SUCCESSFUL...and as I said, it's more than that, including the front office failures, the marketing failures...so on and so forth.

They need out of the box thinking (hence the name of the article) like they had in the 90's, not BUY the box...

It's time for a change, and I'm a rare fan that supports the fans that own the team...
Rod
July 1, 2012 - 1:36 PM EDT
I take it your way of building a team is a big bucks owner buying FA. Do not like that way. Shapiro/Dolan, imo, did it the right way except for one big omission. The draft. Just a miserable idea for running their draft.
Mike
July 1, 2012 - 9:30 AM EDT
Jim, one major piece is not going to change the landscape of this team going forward. That would almost be like making a move just to make a move. To prove to people that you are still in this thing.

They'd be better off selling some pieces that they know they won't be able to retain in the next two years for some major league ready talent with with some upside.
Jim
July 1, 2012 - 8:41 AM EDT
Thanks DBW...I actually meant for the piece to be about the trade deadline, then got stuck on management. It's funny, I get the Dolans. We are all fans, and so are they. They purchased the team as excited fans as they "Tribe heydey" was coming to an end. Of course, we have the wrong, non-billionaire brother owning the team, which makes it difficult. I mean, the guy isn't poor, but he's running this team as a business. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying folks should buy teams to lose money, but...well...maybe I am. Anyways, I get why they bought the team, and I get why they do the things they do.

In the 90's this team was outside the box...then the rest of the league hired away their entire front office support and caught up with them. Now, they are inside the box, and need to find the NEXT way to get ahead. This isn't the group to do it...with the exception of Acta...

I think the only way the Indians spend, is when they see a potential benefit, but running the Indians like a business, even as HUGE Indians fans, will never get the fans into the ballpark.

It's funny, but had the Dolans MARKETED THEMSELVES AS FANS when they bought the team...I mean...really marketed that piece...things could have been different. Now it's time to get a deal done with another owner. Be the good fans, and get this team to someone with a bunch of capital...like Gilbert, or Cuban...
Willie
July 1, 2012 - 6:50 AM EDT
@LKD actually yes I do realize Damon 'got hot' during the month of June. Was merely saying the combo of Damon, Duncan and Cunningham was embarrassing.
I have had no problem with the Tribe trying to improve this team in signing Damon. I find it a creative and thoughtful way to add to the team. That said, the combo if the 3 has been dreadful. I would actually dump Cunningham and Duncan now, and run Crowe, Neal, Goedert, Federoff, and LaPorta out there...to see if any of these guys defy the odds.

Personally, I believe we may see the Tribe be both buyers and sellers. I know the likes of Lopez, Duncan, Lowe, Kotchman are bit players but the Tribe has succeeded recently in dumping guys and getting a solid prospect in return.
Austin Kearns for Zach McAllister.
Eduardo Perez for Asdrubal Cabrera.
Casey Blake for Carlos Santana.
I would seriously consider moving Choo and Hannahan too if their were ML ready / now players coming back. Only if the team falls out of contention for the Central.
DBW
July 1, 2012 - 4:03 AM EDT
Thoughtful article.

I think much depends on what this organization defines as contention as the deadline approaches. Does it mean hovering within two or three games of .500, with some modest hope of finishing just above that level at 84-78/85-77?

Or does it mean, as I think it should, a team capable of winning 87-91 games, which would either win the division or be close enough to the top to convince fans and potential free agents that Cleveland has an exciting immediate future?

The latter seems far less likely, unless lightning strikes in a bottle and Hafner returns to something like his best, Lowe and Tomlin find it, Santana stops overswinging, Hernandez/Carmona reappears, and several other optimum scenarios present themselves.

You do raise a crucial point with regard to the need to add salary to acquire the right talent. Leaving aside the fact that the Indians no longer have minor league prospects to spare from such a depleted system, adding payroll in a deal might allow them to keep the Steven Wrights, Chens and Lindors while sending the fan base a signal that ownership will spend, at the major league level, finally.
Jim
July 1, 2012 - 12:47 AM EDT
Willie and LKD...thanks for the input, as always. I love the banter of any baseball discussion.

Willie-I do believe that Manny Acta is a good manager. He's so much different than Eric Wedge, and actually has many of the traits that Wedge didn't...and has a good balance of feel and numbers, which is very important to be a good manager. All numbers guys, and all feel guys never seem to maximize their talent.

I do believe that the Indians have the prospects to add a major piece. They can add ONE major piece at the deadline, so if they go that route, they have to make it count. This system looks for players that are more than rentals...so it would likely be a guy that's signed for more than a year, or still has some arbitration years left. Right now, there aren't many guys like that, but I could see some cropping up as the year progresses.

Now, if the Indians become a seller, they would likely be looking at the bit players like Kotchman, Duncan, Lowe, Hannahan, Lopez and Duncan. The big fish would be Choo though, who the Indians have no chance in signing after next year because of Boras. It's possible that the Indians could sell a couple of pieces, and buy some as well. This is a really, really interesting season...with not a lot of sellers, and a ton of buyers.

I'd take anyone in Columbus over Cunningham...and Duncan as well.
LKD
June 30, 2012 - 11:11 PM EDT
You do realize tha Damon is the third best hitter on the team in June in terms of wOBA., right? Not time to jettison him yet. Cunningham and Duncan? Hell yes.
Willie
June 30, 2012 - 9:25 PM EDT
Good article Jim,
I dont entirely, blame Acta and CA for the product on field. Truth is their hands are tied with budget constraints and I'm not sure that gets better unless we fans show up.
That said they must work with what they have and carrying Duncan, Damon and Cunningham much longer is simply embarrassing. I guess that goes back to the FO.
The simple truth is that the Tribe could very well end up being sellers at the deadline.
Personally, I'd rather see the Tribe move a couple guys and add some depth than add a few pieces and than fall short. I do believe this team can contend and in order to do so must do the small things right and get solid pitching.
I do believe that if this team can remain in contention that the Tribe will be willing to add salary in order to add the right pieces. There is really no other way to add talent to the team than to eat the salary of the player(s) added, the Tribe simply lacks the quality prospects to acq. talent.

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