Tribe Happenings: Back-and-Forth-and-Back Again
Having to write a column about the Cleveland Indians these days really isn’t all that fun to do. Having to write back-to-back columns on the Cleveland Indians these days is virtually impossible. With Tony on location in Frederick, Virginia watching the Carolina Mudcats close out their season (a much more enviable task than me sitting here covering for him at Tribe Happenings), this is the position I find myself in. What misery do I choose to write about? Having already tackled their historically bad month of August yesterday in Corner of Carnegie, and waltzing across several other issues over the past month, I find myself sitting here, utterly speechless (as IPI Nation applauds).
I find myself looking backwards over the past year, starting July 30th, 2011, turned into such a mess. I’ve thought a bunch about the 2011 season recently. The Indians weren’t expected to contend, and somehow managed to do it. Manny Acta did a tremendous job getting a team of, quite frankly, nobodies to first place for nearly the entire first half of baseball. Sure, it was the AL Central, and sure, there were teams underperforming, but if you take it at face value, it was an incredible run by a team that shouldn’t have been anywhere near there. Ironically enough, it was that push that likely sent the Indians into their current tailspin. I'll get to that in a second.
Manny Acta was at the forefront, doing a fairly masterful job of handling his players and his staff, and getting the most out of what was given to him. You can, of course, debate that, but that's not what this column is about. I’m not saying Acta is the best manager in baseball, but what I am saying is that as the manager of an overachieving team, he deserves some credit. But that’s not really what I’m talking about here, although I’ll touch upon it again, I’m sure.
Looking back to July of 2011, in those first weeks of July, you could feel the Indians sliding, but I don’t think anyone expected anything different. This team didn’t have the horses to win the division, and that was okay. A group of youngsters were waiting in Columbus that would join the team in 2012 and make that final push, and it would all come together. Alex White was figuring himself out as a starter, and while injured, wasn’t far from returning. Jason Kipnis was continuing his rapid ascension through the Indians system with another solid year in Columbus. Lonnie Chisenhall was doing the same, and was thought of in higher regards than Kipnis, at least by most. Drew Pomeranz made mince-meat of the Carolina League, and was already in Akron. It wasn’t hard to see that he’d start the year in Columbus, and likely, by July of 2012, would be a factor in the rotation. There were solid support guys, such as Jason Donald, Tim Fedroff, Beau Mills, Thomas Neal, Zeke Carrera, Jared Goedert and Cord Phelps, who could fill in the cracks as utility guys, potential fill, or even as a starters if the going got tough.
Don’t get me wrong, at the all-star break in 2011, I wanted the Indians to make a move to keep this going, but that was at the all-star break. As the month proceeded, you could feel it slipping. Jason Kipnis bounded up in late July and helped buoy the Indians a bit, but there were enough holes and injuries to curtail any thought of an Indians uprising.
Sure, the Indians would have to go into the 2012 offseason and fill some gaps, but things looked promising. If they could manage to get a first baseman or a left fielder, or both, things looked really good. Think about it. Carlos Santana was going to be your starter at catcher, and while first base was a hole, Kipnis, Cabrera and Chisenhall would be at second, short and third (Chiz a mid-year replacement, or sooner, if he earned it). Left field was also a hole, but this was the one position I was sure the Indians would hunt someone down for. With Grady leaving, Brantley would move to center (or stay in left…as I thought there was a slight chance to grab a centerfielder…boy…was I right/wrong/right), and Choo would rebound in right.
The rotation seemed solid in theory, but they would likely need to make a move here. Next to left, I felt this was where they needed to start. Masterson was one of the best starters in baseball, and surely this was the start of his rise, not the end. Fausto Carmona wasn’t the ideal #2 starter, but that’s where I felt the Indians would make their move and grab another middle-of-the-rotation guy, and have a 2a and 2b scenario with Carmona and Mystery Free Agent. Carlos Carrasco entered July pitching his best baseball of the season (what a five game stretch…4-1 with four starts going at least seven innings, and two those 8+), and while I had him at #4, there was a secret inkling that he would be the #2 guy. I mean, Carrasco was looking like an ace, and was pitching in Cliff Lee land. Alex White would round out the top five, or move to the bullpen, giving Tomlin the fifth slot. Then, come the break, Drew Pomeranz would be making his grand entrance, ultimately giving the Indians a rotation of Masterson, Carmona or Mystery Free Agent, Carrasco, White & Pomeranz. If Mystery Free Agent panned out, then you move White to the pen.
There were wildcards in the rotation as well. You had Zach McAllister, who the Indians acquired in a steal of a deal, wiping out the IL. You had Jeanmar Gomez, who was doing the same. David Huff was a major league starter for crying out loud, and was still dominating Triple A hitting. Kluber had a gun, and Scotty Barnes was likely the best lefty prospect, and potentially the best prospect of the entire bunch. As an organizational guy covering the minors, while I knew the Tribe’s upper level was moderately limited, I also realized that the Indians had a system that could at worst, fill gaps, and at best, become a solid nucleus.
I haven’t even talked about the bullpen, because the mafia was so good already. But Perez could only get better, and he had to because Pestano was so good. Still, the arms at Columbus were even better, and yes, this was before anyone heard of freakin’ Cody Allen. The only people on the planet that thought highly of him were residing as writers right here at IPI (spearheaded by TLastoria and Jeff Ellis…but covering him on ATF on a nightly basis last year made it clear there was something there). But wow, Chen Lee was freakishly good, and Hagadone looked even better overall. I know that Tony was high on guys like Zach Putnam (for good reason), and with Tyler Sturdevant and Bryce Stowell on the horizon, the pen looked like it was the strength of the system.
This isn’t even hindsight. Tony and I discussed a long-term plan prior to the trade deadline in 2011 via e-mail and twitter that seemed to be taking shape right before our eyes. He and I disagreed about Kipnis (I wanted him up, Tony felt that he should stay down…while the Indians went my way, I think a case could be made now that it was too early…that’s hindsight), but agreed that there was support in the system. No, it wasn’t centerpiece support, but definitely the type of support that could push a contender closer to contending. Both of us thought the Indians could contend a bit in 2011, but go all out in 2012.
Now I’m aware of my organizational bias. Understand that. I am a firm and full believer that I look at the Indians’ organization differently than most, but while I have a generally more optimistic view of the minors, I also REALIZE I have a more optimistic view of the minors. Also realize, as I talk about July 30th, 2011 and beyond, the realities will take shape, but last season, this team unquestionably was in a vastly different place. It all hinged on the calls that would be made at the top going forward in 2011, and the offseason of 2012.
I should have known that the Indians were in trouble on July 28th, 2011, when they traded Abner Abreu and Carlton Smith for Kosuke Fukudome. I didn’t like the deal then, and I certainly don’t like it now. The prospects were minimal. Carlton Smith was playing over his head at the time as a reliever, and wasn’t one of those elite arms that we talk about so much here (he’s currently not affiliated with a team…playing in the Atlantic League). Abner Abreu was a tantalizing talent, but after finding a way to regress in three seasons in High A, he was going nowhere fast (he was recently released by the Atlanta Braves, High A team). But Fukudome represented a rental player. He was a guy that could fill in for Choo, and fill in at center, but it may have been a sign that the Indians were going all in for 2011. That’s when the rumblings started behind the scenes with regards to Ubaldo.
Tony caught wind of the potential deal a day or two before it happened. I still have the e-mail he sent somewhere. It said something like, “Don’t say a word, but there’s a potential big deal on the way.” He didn’t say much more about it than that, but through a text and an e-mail, he let me know to be on call on the 30th, because there was a deal that was likely going down, and it was a big one. He was away from his computer, so I would have to roll out the welcome wagon to whomever it was going to be. Of course, by that time, the Ubaldo-rumors began, and the banter began about who was going to go. I felt so certain that Pomeranz was untouchable, but figured he or White would go, with maybe a Joe Gardner and a low minors guy with upside. Of course, a guy with 2 ½ years control let me to believe that perhaps a Kipnis or Chisenhall would be on the table as well, which scared the hell out of me.
Certainly the Indians wouldn’t bail on their upper-minors depth for Ubaldo, who was the talk of Colorado over the first-half of the year because of his bad mechanics, drop in velocity, and overall bad mojo.
Then it happened. That fateful day on July 30th, 2011.
Chris Antonetti went all in. He dealt for Ubaldo Jimenez. It was a bold move. It was a galvanizing move. It was a move that hadn’t been seen in Cleveland for a few years, but one that was both welcoming to some, and, well, horrible to others. Gone were both White and Pomeranz, onward to Colorado. The future of the Tribe staff, or their future ace and bullpen stud…depending on how you look at it. Gone were Joe Gardner, a top ten-ish prospect who had struggled in 2011, and Matt McBride. Coming to the Indians was Ubaldo…a former ace, who I’m sure the Indians thought they could fix. Certainly he was flawed. Regardless, I’m not going to rehash the nuances of the good with the bad of that deal. Hindsight proved my initial thoughts were correct. It was a bad deal. But, regardless of hindsight, that single solitary move changed the direction of this franchise. While it appeared to be an offensive move, it turned into a defensive acquisition. Boy, if only the Indians could have convinced Beltran to come to Cleveland at the same time. What a difference THAT would have made…but again…hindsight.
That’s the friction point folks. July 30th. That’s when the view started to change. Carlos Carrasco almost immediately went on the DL, and ultimately had season ending (for both 2011 and 2012) Tommy John surgery, taking his name off the table for 2012. Kipnis got hurt, and while he would return in 2012, put an end to his offensive explosion last year. Cabrera continued to struggle and Brantley got hurt. Choo returned in August, got hurt again, returned in September, and was shut down.
The offseason, I’ve discussed over and over again. The left field situation lacked risk, and ended up with players that all somehow rhyme symbolically with Aaron Freakin’ Cunningham. First base was another futile effort that saw the Indians acquire some robot name Kotchman that can field fairly well, but hits like a wispy bit of crepe paper. Carmona turned into Hernandez, got arrested, and didn’t show up until July, where he started performing like, well, Fausto Carmona. Ubaldo stunk, so did Masterson, and the rest of the staff. The Indians dealt for Derek Lowe, who was awesome in April, not so much afterwards. Kipnis had to carry the team. Hannahan was brought back, and just when it looked like Chiz was showcasing his talent, he got hurt. Carlos Santana got beaned (yes Kenneth, actually in the head this time) and concussed, and his season stunk for the first half, although he rebounded in the second. Of course, there was no White in the pen or the rotation, and no Pomeranz. The Rockies were busy fast-tracking himthem (mistake) to the bigs.
And while there are a host of folks rolling out the, “well, Pomeranz isn’t doing squat for the Rockies,” give me a freakin’ break. The Indians would have never walked him out to the bigs in 2011, and likely would have made him earn it in 2012. Anyone who saw him pitch last year saw that he could struggle with mechanics on occasion, and that he still didn’t know how to incorporate offspeed stuff with regularity. In other words, while his arm seemed ready, he still had work…and at least another season (back to July) to figure it out, if not more. In essence, this deal took him forward, and back at the same time. Now, I’m not saying the Indians would have pampered him and made him great. What I am saying is that we’ll never know what part patience would have played in all of this. Not sure where I stand, or stood on White. I liked him better than most, but I do think it would have been in the pen. Either way, they were both off the table.
Antonetti failed on all fronts to bring in anyone worthwhile, and brought in the WRONG pieces to boot. Again, this wasn’t hindsight, but fact…that everyone noticed while it was happening. It was beautified by the “we’re taking advantage of the right-laden-league by putting together a lefty-laden line-up,” but it’s hard to beautify a stinking heap of crap.
The Indians acquired a bunch of Matt LaPortas in Columbus, and Gomez was pushed into the rotation. Tomlin stunk, and so did Masterson. The rotation was/is bad, and McAllister pitched well in some outings, but had to all-the-sudden take on the role of some sort of savior, which he just isn’t. At best, he’s Jake Westbrook (which would be pretty darned good, by the way), but only with a Sabathia or a Lee in front of him. He had Ubaldo and Masterson (yeah, I groaned too). Everybody stunk in the second half…everybody…
Which leads to the look forward to 2013.
14 months after seeing a potential promising future as early as 2012 gives Indians’ fans their most bleak fast-forward of recent memory. There are questions at every position, including Kipnis. Columbus is now filled with a bunch of bit players and fill, as is much of Akron. There are no starting pitchers of note that aren’t the same ones we were talking about in 2011, although Danny Salazar is out there…dominating along quite nicely, thank you very much. Salazar won’t be an option though, until mid-year at the earliest, if everything goes well. The only strength in the current system is the pen (and the low minors, and shortstop), and truthfully, past Chris Perez and Vinny Pestano and Cody Allen, is it? Perez is likely gone, and Pestano has struggled. There are a gaggle of arms coming up, but are they going to pan out?
Will Choo be here in 2013, and if he isn’t, will he bring in anyone?
Will Cabrera be here in 2013 even though he’s signed through 2014, and if he isn’t can HE bring in anything?
Will Masterson begin discussions of a rebound, or will we start rehashing the old, “Should he be in the pen” debate? If we were a better team, there’s no doubt that WOULD be a discussion.
Will Carrasco come back in 2013 in the rotation, and if he does, will he be the guy from last June, or something else entirely?
Will the Indians re-up Ubaldo…and/or Hernandez…which one? Both? None?
Will Chisenhall be the guy that everyone thought he was going to be prior to 2011 (the best prospect in the system), or post 2011 (a pretty good player)?
Will Kipnis rebound?
Will Carlos Santana rebound?
Is McAllister for real?
Can Pestano close, or will it be Allen, or will Perez be back?
Is Brantley really good, or do we just have nothing to compare him to?
Questions…questions…questions…without a whole lot of answers.
Which brings me to Chris Antonetti. I just want to say one thing (with elaboration, of course). Chris Antonetti is in a precarious position as the GM of this ballclub, and to be honest, I don’t know any sane human being who would WANT this job.
Think about it. This past week, the Red Sox and the Dodgers orchestrated one of the most ridiculous deals in the history of baseball. I still can’t comprehend the dollars, but it just goes to show you how your market and your money can fix things up very quickly.
On one end, you have the Dodgers. Last season, they couldn’t do a thing because their owner was an idiot, and their future was clouded. This year, with a new ownership group in tow because of one of the most lucrative TV deals on the planet, the Dodgers took on more money than the Indians will have wrapped up into contracts over the next three or four seasons.
Now, the Red Sox, with a clean slate and a deep farm system, can again spend multi-millions to recreate their team.
This is the era of baseball that the Indians have to deal with. In one fell swoop, the Dodgers and Red Sox did something the Indians will never be able to do…fix things in one deal, and do it with millions (and even the term billion) involved. What both teams did will take the Indians five years to do, which makes the job of the GM on this team such a focal point.
You can’t make mistakes.
If you do, it can set a franchise back five years.
Combine that with the fact that the Red Sox and Dodgers both play the moneyball and draft game BETTER than the Indians, and you have one giant cluster…er…you know where I’m going.
Chris Antonetti has made mistakes, and you can judge for yourself what they are. In this market, unfortunately for Chris, they are mistakes you can’t make. Fair or not, he has to be fired, or reworked into the system. The problem with reworking in the system, is that Shapiro will likely “promote” him, which is the wrong message to send, and one they’ve been sending all too often.
While painful, it’s time to purge now, and I’d start with Shapiro, and wipe clean the entire front office. Why? That’s the cards that are dealt. If this team contends next year, it will be through a miracle of bad teams in the division, and amazing managing and game play…but it will be smoke and mirrors. The time is now, to get a new system in place, while there is a year or two before the next wave of players. Yes, it means a new rebuild, but if they don’t do it now…
Go out and find a youngster who is 30 and starving to be a GM. You know, a guy that would take the job no matter what...because he'd be a major league GM. There are literally dozens of brilliant young minds in the majors. Go out and get one. Bring in some old school guys to be advisors, like John Hart and Mike Hargrove. Create a new system that was better than the old system, and take some risks. It's the only way to go, because the old way didn't work.
…what’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Have a great Labor Day everybody…and smile. Any day with baseball…good or bad…is a pretty good day.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who is this next wave of players 2 years from now? I know the narrative is that the drafting has improved immensely under Grant, but to me that's a false narrative. The 2010 draft (outside of Pomeranz) looks bad ... Washington and Blair are about toast, Wolters looks okay but probably isn't as good as Cord Phelps, they spent $1 million on Lavisky for a guy who can't even get to high A. 2011: Are we relying on Lindor to be the savior? He barely OPS'd .700. He's all potential at this point and is no sure thing. Dillon Howard looks terrible, as does to a lesser extent Sisco. Outside of Lindor, it looks like they hit on some lower-round relief pitchers. It seems right now, the Indians have a bunch of shortstops (mostly international signings, not draft) and relief pitchers with upside and not a whole lot else. The main basis for the improved drafting narrative was Chisenhall, Kipnis, Pomeranz and White, but obviously the jury is still out on those guys, and outside of them and possibly Lindor, the recent drafts looks as much a wasteland as some of Mirabelli's.
If they get rid of Antonetti and Acta and make a couple of decent free agent pickups, I strangely think the team can be decent next year. They clearly quit on Acta, and the pitching staff just massively underperformed. I think Masterson bounces back, and having Carrasco back in the fold should improve the pitching situation. They should be able to sign SOMEONE on the free agent market with Hafner's contract coming off the books, and by not spending $5 million on Grady. But mostly, they don't need to compete with the Dodgers and Red Sox. They just need to compete with the White Sox, who have an equally barren farm system and an aging team, the Tigers, who are average and will have a tough time making a free agent splash this year, and the Royals, who have their own prospect struggles and remain, well, the Royals.
"Problems cannot be solved by the same level of awareness that created them." Yes, let these go down as the lost years. But, for those of us in grief, let's end on a tantalizing note. Again from Einstein: " There are two ways of looking at life. Either everything's a miracle.... or nothing is..."