September 2012

“The change was made uptown”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

The repercussions of a second-half slide revealed themselves Thursday, and the Indians’ dismissal of manager Manny Acta had felt increasingly inevitable in recent weeks.

No rational person could reasonably assert that Acta was solely to blame for the precipitous descent from AL Central contender to bottom-feeder. But at the rate the Indians were losing games (42 of their last 57, to be exact) and at the rate Acta was losing clubhouse influence, a reasonable defense of Acta became increasingly difficult to muster.

And so the Indians replaced him with his bench coach, Sandy Alomar Jr., on an interim basis. And this, too, was inevitable, for Alomar is popular with fans, popular with the players and, more to the point, highly regarded in the baseball community as a manager-in-training and waiting.

But Indians general manager Chris Antonetti, who dismissed Acta three years after bringing him aboard, told a room full of reporters that this particular skipper story is not yet complete. Antonetti will perform an extensive, time-consuming search — one in which Alomar is, of course, a top candidate — to find the right man for the job.

“It’s exhausting,” Antonetti said of the process of finding a manager. “It takes a lot of time and effort and a lot of phone calls and trying to understand and get enough perspectives on individuals from a variety of areas to really have an informed opinion of someone.”

My advice to Antonetti?

Save your time, save your cell phone minutes and save everybody involved the hassle of submitting to a process that seems to have yet another inevitable result.

Just name Alomar the permanent manager and be done with it.

This is not meant to belittle the names that will be tossed into the fire of the rumor mill. While it’s silly to assume Terry Francona would leave a cushy TV gig to manager a team likely in need of a rebuild on a budget, there is no shortage of promising, up-and-coming managerial candidates available for such an opportunity. (Torey Lovullo, the Blue Jays’ first base coach, is a personal favorite, and he has past ties to the Indians’ organization as their former Triple-A skipper.)

Nor is this an affront against the benefits of careful deliberation and consideration. Even if the results are nowhere near as intended right now, the Indians do have a thoughtful process to the way they go about making decisions, and a managerial move is obviously a major decision to make.

But given these particular circumstances — with a perfectly reasonable candidate in place and many pertinent and pressing questions being posed about the direction of the franchise — I’d say Antonetti and Co. would be best-served to place their emphasis and put their time in elsewhere.

For a team in need of some positive PR at the moment, Alomar is as positive as they come. For better or worse, many fans here remain enamored with those teams from Jacobs Field’s nascent years, when division titles were as second nature as season sell-outs.

Alomar was, of course, a popular part of those teams, and, while nobody buys a ticket to see the manager in action, that popularity can’t hurt.

(Granted, the Indians will never reasonably be able to satisfy that certain segment of the fan base that only wishes to dwell on the ‘90s. Although Albert Belle did joke with an Indians staffer that he ought to be named the new manager because he is, in his words, “the people’s champ.” So there’s always that option…)

For a young team likely to endure a tough transition period, a rookie skipper like Alomar, who can grow along with his players, is a fit. Even Acta, in his conference call with reporters after his dismissal, noted what a “good baseball man” Alomar is (though Acta was also quick to joke that if he’s not qualified enough to be this club’s manager, he’s not qualified enough to give his opinion on who the next manager should be).

And for this particular assemblage of Indians players, Alomar is an ally. It’s not exactly fair, but the current crop of players seemed to sour on Acta. They didn’t feel he stuck up for them enough on blown or controversial calls. They didn’t feel he associated with them enough in the clubhouse.

Indeed, it’s telling that, several hours after the news of his dismissal had gone public, Acta had only heard from one of his players offering condolences.

Alomar is beloved by this bunch. Whether that amounts to much between the lines is a matter very much yet to be determined, because the talent level is clearly lacking. For whatever it’s worth, Baseball Reference’s Pythagorean won-loss calculation suggests that the Indians should have had four less wins than they had under Acta this season, and Baseball Prospectus’ manager data says Acta’s Indians outperformed their Pythagorean expectations more than any other AL club other than the Orioles.

When you consider those admitted approximations and when you note the fact that none of the eight men who started three or more games for the Indians this season have an ERA less than 5.00, you see that the Tribe has issues that go well beyond the managerial slot.

So that’s my unsolicited advice to Antonetti: Give Alomar his shot, and put the organizational emphasis elsewhere. Take the time you would have used to conduct that exhaustive skipper search and apply it to the other evaluations already taking place — evaluations of the scouting, drafting, development and injury prevention dynamics that put you in this hole in the first place.

Now that the ceremonial slaying has been taken care of, get down to the real roots of the problem at hand.

~AC

PS: I had a lot of fun concocting the ridiculous “Bizarro World” post that ran Monday, and hopefully the majority of you (between tears and beers, of course) took it in the light-hearted manner it was intended and didn’t seek out a short bridge from which to belly-flop.

Judging by comments posted and received here and on Twitter, some of you took it more seriously than others, and to those people I must state what ought to have been obvious: There are varying degrees of plausibility within that piece, and it is not meant as an absolute indictment of all that has taken place since the run to the ALCS in 2007 (not all of it, anyway).

But it is certainly interesting to look back at various avenues where a different course of action or the simple solution of more positive luck would have paid off handsomely. More than anything, it is also instructive to see just how much has to go right to build a big-league powerhouse, particularly in a market this size.

Nobody could reasonably expect the Indians’ front office to bat at the abnormally high percentage illustrated in that piece. But Tribe fans are certainly entitled to want and expect it to bat at a higher percentage than it has in the last five years.

“Just my imagination, running away with me”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

It’s amazing, really, this run that has sealed the 2012 American League Central Division championship for the Cleveland Indians. But it’s the product of good decision-making and, yes, good luck every step of the way.

With 92 wins and an insurmountable edge on those disappointing Detroit Tigers, the Tribe has run away with the Central, is headed to the postseason for the first time since 2007 and is also on the verge of locking up the AL’s top seed.

What an exciting time it is here in Cleveland. Why, you can’t walk the streets downtown without bumping into somebody in a Mike Trout jersey.

The Indians are the talk of the town, especially with the Browns sitting at 0-3. (The only interest in the Browns these days revolves around the possibility of them adding a roof to their stadium… like that’s ever going to happen.)

Chris Antonetti is being hailed as MLB’s likely Executive of the Year. Some people even joke that team president Mark Shapiro ought to run for actual president. (Not that we’re in need of a change, what with the housing market booming, the budget balanced and unemployment at record lows.)

***

Ah, yes, it’s been a magical ride here in 2012. And if you think back, I’d say it really began with the CC Sabathia trade in 2008.

My, those were dark days in ‘08, weren’t they? The Indians were fresh off an ALCS collapse, and they stumbled out the gates in a season of high expectations. Sabathia himself struggled mightily in April, perhaps distracted by all the talk about his free-agent year (he has since, of course, acknowledged many times in many interviews that he had no intention of re-signing with the Indians and does not, for one second, blame them for dealing him at the Trade Deadline).

I still remember those final, anxious days before the trade was made in early July of that year. The Milwaukee Brewers were vying for their first playoff berth in forever, had a loaded Double-A team and were therefore viewed as the top suitors for Sabathia. The Indians did, indeed, almost pull the trigger on a trade centered on Matt LaPorta, though I think there were concerns about LaPorta’s ability to make the mental adjustments he’d need to be a viable power threat in the big leagues (LaPorta still hasn’t amounted to much).

So instead, the Indians went a different route and dealt CC to the very place he was expected to land in free agency, anyway — Los Angeles.

Well, suffice to say that trade worked wonderfully for the Dodgers, who won the 2008 World Series with CC fronting their rotation and signed him to a long-term deal. But in the back of their minds, the Dodgers still have to wonder what life might have been like with Clayton Kershaw in their rotation.

Kershaw was just eight starts into his big-league career and sporting a 4.42 ERA when the Indians landed him in the CC deal, but he was generally regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. He’s developed into a Cy Young winner, and he and Adam Miller have emerged as the most dominant one-two, left-right punch in the Majors. Throw in lefty Chris Sale, who has made a splendid conversion to starting duties just two years after the Indians took him with the No. 5 overall pick in the Draft, and this is the most dangerous rotation in the game.

No wonder the Indians are the heavy favorites to win their first World Series title since 1948.

***

Speaking of Miller, remember all that concern over his blister issues at the start of an otherwise blistering 2008 season at Triple-A? Well, thank God that wasn’t the result of some heretofore unheard-of finger ligament pulley issue that would have probably required… oh, I don’t know… four surgeries or so. Miller’s health has been vital to him living up to the promise and potential the Indians forecast for him when they drafted him in 2003.

Of course, on this club, picking out the best Draft pick of the last decade is easy. It’s not Miller, and it’s not Sale.

No, it’s quite clearly Trout, who was taken at No. 15 overall in 2009 and has blossomed into the obvious 2012 Rookie of the Year candidate and quite possibly the Indians’ first MVP since Al Rosen.

Yes, all those other teams that picked ahead of the Indians are kicking themselves now. The Indians recognized that the ’09 Draft was heavy on pitching from both the collegiate and high school ranks, but 10 of the first 14 picks were used on pitchers, and the herd was thinning quickly. Alex White was high on the Indians’ board, but they saw him as more of a reliever than a top-flight starting option, so, they figured, why use a top-15 pick on a reliever? Trout was the best bat available, and the Indians signed him well above slot, at $2.25 million.

Man, what a bargain. And with Trout on board, having made his first foray into the big leagues in the latter half of ’11, the Indians were able to make a clean break from Grady Sizemore last winter, after Sizemore endured another injury plagued year in the last guaranteed year of his contract.

I still can’t believe the Phillies paid Sizemore $5 million and haven’t had him on the field for a single inning this season. But oh well, that’s their problem.

***

With the money freed up from Sizemore’s departure, Antonetti had a brilliant offseason, didn’t he? He knew the Indians were close to being a championship-level ballclub after they finished right around .500 last year. He just had to find some affordable power in the corners.

There were concerns about giving left fielder Josh Willingham a guaranteed third year, as he was entering his age-33 season. But Willingham has alleviated all those concerns with a team-high 35 homers and an .892 OPS. At $7 million per season, he’s considered a steal.

Willingham has obviously helped the Indians remain productive against left-handed pitching, but he’s not the only reason for that success. Occasionally moving Santana to first base (keeping his body fresh) and having Allen Craig spell Shin-Soo Choo (who still struggles against lefties) in right field from time to time has worked wonders.

Yes, where would the Indians be without Craig? Remember how upset some of you fans were when the Indians dealt Asdrubal Cabrera to the Cardinals for Craig? “How can you trade an All-Star shortstop?” was the popular refrain, but the Indians… oh my, they were wily. They recognized that Cabrera wasn’t likely to repeat his home run production from 2011, and they knew he was prone to injury and second-half slides, so they traded him while his value was at its peak.

The Cards were desperate enough for shortstop help that they gave up Craig, who had some huge moments for them in the postseason last year. The Indians were criticized for dealing for a guy coming off knee surgery, but look how quickly Allen, affectionately known to the Cleveland faithful as “The Wrench,” healed and how well he slotted into the first-base spot? His 22 homers have been a big boost, and you can often spot the female fan group “Wrench’s Wenches” rooting him on from the stands.

Of course, dealing Cabrera meant Antonetti had to get creative to fill the shortstop hole. But he dealt from a position of strength in sending closer Chris Perez to the Red Sox.

“They traded another All-Star?” screamed the naysayers. “What are these guys thinking? Everybody knows All-Star selections are the best gauge of a player’s talent!”

Well, sure, it was difficult to part with Perez. He saved 36 games last year. But he was due a big raise in arbitration, and the Indians felt they could find a suitable closer through other means. Perez, who replaced Jonathan Papelbon, hasn’t had as many save opportunities on that brutal Boston team, but at least his colorful and controversial remarks (I still can’t believe he called the Fenway sellout streak “numbers-fudging fraud”) have fit right in with the drama always emanating out of that clubhouse.

Meanwhile, the Indians have received serviceable shortstop play and a few timely hits from Jed Lowrie, who has managed to stay healthy. And the real key to the deal will be the continued development of Felix Doubront, who has made a successful conversation to starting duties in the back end of the Tribe rotation. This rotation could be really good for a long, long time.

Perez has not been missed in the ninth inning, that’s for sure. Unwilling to simply hand over the closer duties to the young Vinnie Pestano (who has been brilliant in the setup role), the Indians instead instilled a more veteran presence in Fernando Rodney. For the bargain cost of $2 million (or $2.5 million less than what Perez commanded in arbitration), Rodney has had a season perhaps worthy of the Cy Young Award — a 0.64 ERA and 44 saves.

What a shrewd pickup.

***

I would be remiss to not point out the other trade with the Red Sox that worked out so wonderfully. The midseason trade for Kevin Youkilis was another important one, as Youkilis has joined team captain Victor Martinez as a respected leader in the Tribe clubhouse while hitting for power and drawing his share of walks.

If you think about it, the timing was amazing. Had young third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall broken his arm on, say, June 29, instead of June 24, the Indians probably wouldn’t have sent Corey Kluber and Aaron Cunningham to Boston for Youk on June 25. The division-rival White Sox might have landed him instead.

It sure has been fun watching Youkilis and all the other newcomers over the years interacting with Martinez, who creates a unique handshake for each member of the club. He has been the glue that has held this club together in recent years, the one guy who has truly seemed to love playing in Cleveland and defines what it means to be an Indian.

Not long ago, Martinez was the subject of rampant trade speculation. In fact, in 2009, sinking in the standings and looking to cut costs, the Indians considered a fire sale in which they would have traded both Martinez and reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, even though both players were more than a year away from free agency (can you imagine the fan uproar that would have caused?).

Well, rather than rush a trade that would have sent Lee packing for a group of prospects highlighted by, say, an 18-year-old on the disabled list in Class A ball, the Indians opted to hold on to Lee for another year, when similar trade packages were available. (That July 2010 deal with the Rangers for a group highlighted by Justin Smoak still hasn’t worked out, as hoped, but hey… no front office bats 1.000, and the Indians bought themselves benefit of the doubt with the wildly successful Bartolo Colon and CC swaps).

And rather than trade Victor, the Indians were able to work out an extension with him that runs through 2014. If you think about it, that extension probably wouldn’t have been possible had the Indians dedicated a large chunk of their player payroll to lock up former designated hitter Travis Hafner, as so many fans clamored for in 2007. When Hafner’s ’07 season got off to a slow start, the Indians wisely backed off the extension talks, recognizing it might be crazy for a small-market club to give upwards of $57 million to a guy who can’t even play a position.

Whatever happened to Hafner, anyway?

Naturally, there were concerns about Martinez’s long-term viability at his catching position. But the Indians had Carlos Santana, who viewed Martinez as his idol, on-hand via the Casey Blake trade from 2008, and Martinez, content to spend his entire career in Cleveland (unlike so many others), accepted a move to first base and, eventually, DH.

He, too, has stayed healthy. The Indians sure do seem to have a lot of luck in the health department.

***

Of course, much credit for this wild ride also goes to manager Bob Melvin. It was a little ironic when the Indians, in the middle of that 2010 season, dismissed one 2007 Manager of the Year in Eric Wedge and replaced him with another, but it’s worked out.

Like Wedge with the Indians, Melvin was the fall guy for a D-backs team that did not meet amplified expectations after that 2007 NL West title and subsequent NLCS appearance. But the Indians recognized that Melvin is great working with young players (in ’07, he became the first manager in postseason history to fill out a lineup card with four rookies on it), he’s calm and conscientious, he’s a good communicator and a hands-on instructor and demands (and gets) hustle from his guys.

Melvin had been a finalist for the Astros job after the ’09 season, but Houston went with former Nationals manager Manny Acta. Had the Indians gone to full fire-sale mode in ’09, they, too, might have been searching for a skipper at that time, but they decided to give Wedge one last shot in the final year of his contract. When the 2010 season got ugly, Lee was traded, Wedge was canned and Melvin was brought in to help salvage the wreck.

Two years later, Melvin is well on his way to another Manager of the Year award. But this is a total team effort, from top to bottom.

Where would the Indians be without those successful drafts? Those shrewd swaps? Those impactful acquisitions?

They certainly wouldn’t be in the midst of this glorious 2012 season — a season that has been like a dream for so many Tribe fans.

If this is a dream, forgive them if they never want to wake up.

~AC

“If you ain’t first, you’re last”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageLast place, unappealing as it is, at least comes with a certain amount of clarity. Because at least we can say that what’s happened to the Indians these last couple months is not just jaw-dropping or bewildering or perplexing. It’s borderline historic.

Perhaps you’ve seen the note that only three teams in baseball history have been in first place after 70 games and gone on to finish last — the 1991 Angels, the 2005 Nationals and the 2006 Rockies.

Now, granted, the season is not over, and the Indians might not finish last in the AL Central. They might not even be in last by the time you read this.

But even those Angels and those Nats wound up with 81 wins, while the Rox finished with 76. These Indians, whether they finish last or not, clearly aren’t going to wind up with 76 wins or anything close to it. They are on pace to lose 95 games.

As I write this, the Indians are in last… with a caveat. The Twins are in last, too. But the Indians are 5-10 against those Twins, so consider that a tiebreaker.

This is an abomination, and it doesn’t even matter what the “right” moves are. The Indians have to consider the drastic ones.

Some will say that should start with a purge of Manny Acta and the coaching staff at season’s end, if not sooner (though many of those same people will want bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. installed as the skipper). As rational as I try to be in this space, as much as I know a managerial change won’t change much, who am I to disagree? Heck, at this point, a dismissal might be merciful.

(This Jon Heyman report has Acta on the hot seat. As you know, Paul Dolan said a few weeks back that everybody, Acta included, was safe. But obviously those votes of confidence can go south. Besides, Dolan said that at Acta’s charity bowling function. That wouldn’t exactly seem a reasonable time to talk publicly about his performance being under scrutiny… unless, of course, you wanted to invite speculation that Acta’s on the outs if he rolls anything less than a 200.)

Nobody has been a bigger supporter of the energy level and insight Acta has brought to this club than me. Frankly, on a personal level, as a media member, I love dealing with the guy. And I can’t fault him for falling short with a flawed roster. (In fact, Baseball Reference’s Pythagorean W-L calculation estimates that these Indians should actually be five games worse than they are right now. So if you think this is bad, well….)

But who could possibly muster an artful defense of Acta and his coaches now that the Indians have won just nine of their last 43?

Wait… does that sound dramatic enough? Let’s try this again: The Indians have lost 34 of 43.

No, no, that still doesn’t quite capture it. Let’s try this: The Indians have been losing roughly eight out of every 10 games… for seven weeks.

There, I think that did it.

And while this is an issue that goes beyond coaching and beyond preparation and ultimately comes down to talent level (or lack thereof), maybe at some point you do have to send a message to your players and, yes, to your fan base that, hey, we’re going to try doing something differently, even if it can be construed as change for the sake of change.

Has Acta lost the clubhouse? Have the players stopped caring or trying? Or are they really just this bad a baseball team?

This is how Chris Antonetti answered questions of that nature Tuesday, courtesy of Paul Hoynes:

“I don’t get any sense that the guys are just finishing out the string. The balance of the year is still important to everybody. We still have mostly a very young team that is looking to establish themselves as Major League players. Everybody still has something to play for.”

So… are you picking up on that supposed sense of urgency when you watch this team play?

Look at these quick and dirty numbers since July 27:

Justin Masterson: 7.14 ERA, .295 average against, .507 slugging percentage against (including nine home runs).
Ubaldo Jimenez: 6.79 ERA, .295 average against, .498 slugging percentage against (including eight home runs).
Asdrubal Cabrera: .236/.303/.343.
Shin-Soo Choo: .237/.346/.329.
Jason Kipnis: .206/.281/.287.
Michael Brantley: .262/.323/.362.
Carlos Santana: .260/.339/.447.

Those are not some young guys in an audition or guys getting innings and at-bats out of desperation. Those are your purported anchors, your purported building blocks in the rotation and in the lineup. And aside from Santana (whose numbers are not great but are at least an improvement on his season tally), they have all regressed — in some cases, quite significantly — down the stretch (and in the cases of Masterson and Jimenez, this is regression on top of regression).

Whether that’s an issue between the lines or between the ears is probably case-specific, but one has to wonder about the overall focus level in that clubhouse right now.

But if the Indians are, indeed, going to focus on change, it has to extend beyond the coaching staff and beyond the trade department, where the markets, however limited, for Choo, Chris Perez, Cabrera, Masterson and Jimenez must, at the least, be explored this winter.

On the heels of the 11 straight losses in early August, Antonetti said it was “possible” that the Indians’ evaluators had overrated their pitching. I think we can go ahead and update that to “probable,” and the overrating quite obviously extends to some amateur and trade acquisitions on both the pitching and position player front over the years.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say Antonetti has had a brutal 14 months, dating back to the Ubaldo trade. The budget is not all that’s held the Indians back in 2012, and neither is a lack of luck.

Antonetti’s job is still expected to be safe at season’s end, and indeed he’s built up a good deal of collateral in his 13 years in this organization. But it might do the Indians well to get some new blood in the evaluative and developmental mix to pair with Antonetti and Co. Fresh ideas, new ways of scouting talent or analyzing data. Because while many of the criticisms thrust at this front office the past decade have been unfair, the criticisms start to carry more weight when a rebuild goes wrong. And aside from a 30-15 spurt of unexpected brilliance at the beginning of 2011 and contention-by-default in a bad division at the outset of 2012, very little has gone right here since the 2009 purge.

The current standings allow us to sum it all up in clear and certain terms: In 2012, the Indians expected to contend for first. For a while, they did. But now they are in last. And their place in the standings probably won’t be the last area of drastic change.

~AC

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