“Don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train”
They were a game over .500 five days before the Trade Deadline. They’ve gone 4-18 since. And the dissatisfaction in their lifeless play extends off the field, where Manny Acta makes pointed remarks about the holes on the roster and Chris Perez engages in an embarrassingly ugly altercation with opposing fans.
The “window of contention” theme we took from the front office and propped up in these parts? It’s been more like one of those utility windows in your basement. Because the Indians finished two games under .500 a year ago when injuries and depth issues erased a startlingly strong start, and they have a very real chance of finishing 2012 with 90 losses or more.
If you had asked me two weeks ago (as the 11-game losing streak was winding down) if heads would roll because of the disappointing way 2012 has played out, I would have told you pitching coach Scott Radinsky and hitting coach Bruce Fields are probably both on thin ice, given the regression we’ve seen from the likes of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Carlos Santana. Not to say that I think either guy was or is necessarily doing a lousy job; it’s just that this is the way the business works. So when Radinsky bit the bullet later that week, I figured that was the end of it and the Indians would plod along their mediocre route to the finish line.
But they just keep losing, and rather convincingly so. And when Major League clubs lose at the rate the Indians are losing in seasons in which they, rightly or wrongly, expected to contend, well, it tends to get ugly in the aftermath.
Right now, I can’t tell you how safe Acta’s job is. When asked two weeks ago if Acta would be back in 2013, Chris Antonetti said, “I have no reason to think otherwise.” But that was, of course, the same conversation in which Antonetti said he wasn’t contemplating any coaching changes, and Radinsky got the axe three days later. Frankly, the way the Indians are playing right now is reminiscent of the way they played in the lead-up to Eric Wedge’s dismissal in 2009. When teams go this bad this long, it gets prickly for the manager.
So, no, I wouldn’t say Acta’s job is quite as secure as Antonetti’s two-week-old words would lead you to believe. Nor do I think it’s necessarily fair to assign Acta the blame, for no amount of sacrifice bunting or on-field tirades in the faces of umpires or motivational speeches was going to get much more mileage out of this lemon.
But since when is the business of baseball fair? Ask Brad Mills about fairness.
Acta nailed it last week when he noted that the Indians “need more than four guys in our lineup to be productive” (a statement that is true, no matter the manager). He rattled off this shopping list:
“We’re going to have to find a solution in left field, we’re going to have to find a solution at first base and we’re going to have to find a solution at DH. That’s pretty obvious. And the third base situation is not determined either. Lonnie Chisenhall has a broken arm.”
All right, so… a left fielder, a first baseman, a DH, maybe a third baseman. Just reading this list, I get that same queasy feeling I get when my wife is walking around Nordstrom’s, and I’m not even the one responsible for writing the Indians’ paychecks. We know well by now that the Indians, like most teams, aren’t going to outspend revenues, and we know from the attendance tallies (and this Terry Pluto interview with Paul Dolan) that revenues aren’t exactly robust.
(By the way, about that DH spot… the buyout of Travis Hafner’s 2013 contract is $2.75 million. Count me among those skeptical that the Indians are going to pay Hafner $2.75 million to suit up for anybody other than the Cleveland Indians next season.)
But wait, we’re not even done with the shopping list. Here’s Acta with another obvious assertion a few days later:
“For us to play better, we need to pitch better. You can’t win if you don’t pitch better. It’s that simple. Pitching is the name of the game.”
Well, yeah, and the Indians have maybe the worst pitching staff in the American League. Their staff ERA (4.82) is, at the moment, a tick better than that of the Twins (4.83), but they’ve walked 85 more guys than Twins pitchers.
The Indians clearly need to improve their starting staff, top to bottom. And we must add that to the shopping list, because if this season is any indication, the answers aren’t likely to come internally.
You look at that list — put together by a guy whose usually prone to positivity about the assets he has on-hand — and you start to come to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that this club’s 2013 competitive hopes aren’t much brighter than 2012’s. You start to wonder if the Indians would, indeed, be best to move the most attractive pieces from a team that wasn’t all that good to begin with in order to bring in some younger, projectable bodies you can place around the likes of Jason Kipnis, Chisenhall, Santana and Brantley.
Yes, that could mean trading Shin-Soo Choo, who wants to be with a winner as much as he wants to sign a fat free-agent contract. Yes, that could mean trading Perez, though his reputation will undoubtedly precede him in trade talks. Yes, that could mean even mean parting with Asdrubal Cabrera, who has once again seen his production wane in the second half.
But if the Indians do it, don’t call it a “rebuild,” because that would tend to imply that something significant was previously built.
This talk of stripping this club down to its core is probably the last thing Indians fans want to hear, three years after Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez were dealt. And it’s talk that, just a few weeks back, I personally would have strayed far away from. That just goes to show how much can change in a few weeks’ time in this game, and perhaps the Indians will change this outlook in the remaining six weeks of the season.
For now, though, they just keep losing ballgames, and they look lifeless doing so. And sometimes, a lifeless ballclub leads to a lively transaction wire.