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“Blame it on the truth that ran us down”

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

Terry Francona held a town hall session at Playhouse Square this afternoon for a special that will air on SportsTime Ohio on Thursday, Jan. 24. A number of topics were addressed with regard to the future of the Indians. Nothing particularly newsworthy, but certainly an entertaining discussion that involved not only Francona but his father, Tito.

There was, however, one old wound that a fan brought up, and it’s worth bringing up here, too.

skinnerFrancona was asked about Game 7 of the ALCS between the Indians and Red Sox, and, specifically, about third-base coach Joel Skinner’s decision to hold Kenny Lofton up at third with one out in the seventh, with the Indians trailing, 3-2.

I’ve asked our multimedia crew if it’s possible to chase down the video clip of this play. If they’re able to get it, I’ll post it here. (UPDATE: Here’s the video.)

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

In the seventh, Kenny Lofton was on second after a two-base error by shortstop Julio Lugo, and Lofton could have tried to score when Franklin Gutierrez ripped a single off Hideki Okajima down the third-base line. The ball ricocheted off the photographer’s pit and into shallow left field, and Skinner, fearing Manny Ramirez would gun Lofton down at the plate, held the runner up at third.

When Casey Blake hit into a double play to end the inning, that hold-up loomed large.

“It’s tough to read if it’s ricocheting back to the shortstop or to left-center,” manager Eric Wedge said of that play. “I think it was just a tough read for [Skinner].”

In the immediate aftermath and the time since, Skinner has often been vilified for that play. How do you hold up a speedster like Lofton and not test the mercurial Manny? (That such a pivotal play so prominently involved two members of the Tribe’s so-called glory years is the sort of cosmic kick-in-the-gut that Clevelanders know too well.)

Well, here’s what I’ve said any time the topic has come up in the last five years: Skinner was flying blind. He was at an awful angle to make that read, to know if the ball would bounce away from or directly at Ramirez, and so I find it awfully difficult to give him the goat label.

Here’s what Francona said:

“To be really honest about this, being a third-base coach in Boston is probably the most unfair job in the world, because you’re making a split-second decision, and you’re the only one in the ballpark who can’t see the whole field. Because you get that blind spot down the left-field line, and the ball caroms off the wall like it did in that instance. I think what you have to hope for is you have to make that split-second decision and what we used to tell our runners was keep your head up, like on a swivel, so you can be your own coach. Because that happens more often than people realize… If the runner keeps his head up, then he can score on his own and you don’t run into that problem, because the third-base coach is in a real bind there.”

Maybe, when you think of it in that light, this was one of those moments in which the notion of home-field advantage is rather real. Maybe the Indians, as a whole, should have been better prepared for such a scenario. Maybe we ought to consider the possibility that Lofton could have/should have acted on his own and ran right through the stop sign (it’s not the boldest suggestion in the world, given that Lofton played 63 regular-season games at Fenway in his career and was, therefore, well-versed in its quirks… to say nothing of Manny’s quirks). And maybe we shouldn’t forget that Blake grounded into the ensuing double play on the first freaking pitch (not that Indians fans ever had much trouble picking on Blake over the years).

loftonThis, then, was a sequence with no shortage of blame to go around. And it undeniably altered the complexion of that game. Teams that advance in the MLB postseason have to have a little bit of luck on their side, and they have to have the talent to capitalize on that luck. The Red Sox did just that, as they went on to stomp the Tribe, 11-2, that night, before sweeping the Rockies in the World Series.

Indians fans, meanwhile, were left to bemoan that seventh-inning sequence, and pointing the finger at Skinner has always been the easiest coping mechanism available to them.

You know, this is as good a time as any to bring up another element in this that I’ve thought about often. Prevailing wisdom in these parts — and I’ve heard it uttered from many a neighboring barstool — is that the Indians would have make short work of the Rockies in the World Series, if only they would have gotten past Boston.

Admit it: You’ve thought or uttered that belief at some point, have you not?

My counter to that contention is simple: Who could be certain of such a thing? Did you watch the way CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona pitched in that LCS? Were you supremely confident in Joe Borowski in the ninth inning? More to the point, are you at all familiar with Cleveland sports? Don’t you think it’s even the slightest bit possible that there might have been some other disaster waiting around the corner?

No, all we know is what we know. We know the Indians lost Game 7, and they haven’t been back to the playoffs since. Maybe Francona will get them there again. But in the meantime, let’s back off the belief that Joel Skinner and his magical stop sign were the only things standing between the Indians and World Series championship glory. It’s never that simple, really.

~AC

PS: Just showed this post to my dad. He read it, he liked it. But he still blames Skinner.

A defense of the attack on “Field of Dreams.” Or an attack of the defense of “Field of Dreams.” Or something.

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

There was this movie on one of the Showtime channels — not sure if it was Showtime Beyond or Showtime Extreme or Showtime Moderate or Showtime Time-Waster — the other day called “Vibrations.” It is the story of an up-and-coming young rocker named T.J., who loses his hands when his car is attacked by drunken, violent hooligans.

You’re already intrigued, aren’t you?

fodWell, spoiler alert: T.J. flees his hometown and his comely girlfriend and becomes a drunken bum on the streets of Manhattan… until Christina Applegate and her friends in the electronic music scene come along and help restore his confidence by creating mechanical hands that can be programmed to play the keyboards. Under the stage name Cyberstorm, dressed like a futuristic robot, he becomes a huge hit on the club circuit, and his national tour takes him back to his hometown, where he gets revenge on those hooligans (coincidentally enough, assigned as security guards at the theater he’s playing) by locking them into a basement and subjecting them to obnoxious noises at full volume.

No, I didn’t make any of this up. This movie really exists.

“Vibrations” is a story about love and friendship, about overcoming difficulty and handicap, about redemption and revenge. So it has some admirable, overarching themes.

But these themes do nothing to prevent “Vibrations” from joining “The Room” as one of the most addictively awful movies I’ve ever seen. It is poorly acted and poorly conceived. And if we didn’t live in a world in which a guy like me could have access to 19 different Showtime channels, it inevitably would have been lost in the sands of time.

Now, I’ll allow, easily, that “Field of Dreams,” the film my friend and MLB.com cohort Jordan Bastian is so passionately defending, isn’t anywhere near as bad as “Vibrations.” It had a bigger budget, bigger stars and, of course, has a much, much bigger following. “Field of Dreams” is routinely listed among the best baseball-themed flicks of all-time.

One issue with “Field of Dreams,” however, is that its supporters are so fiercely devoted to its father-son sentimentality and tear-jerking homage to the glory of the game that they lose all sense of rationality and reason. To rail against the movie, as I did in a recent column, is, in their eyes, to demystify a legend, to desecrate a sacred social institution, when, in fact, all those of us in the anti-“Field of Dreams” camp are doing is pointing out that the plot is preposterous, the sentimentality is silly and Kevin Costner is annoying (the movie poster alone is annoying).

Another, otherwise reasonable MLB.com colleague, Zack Meisel, tweeted at me the other day that if I don’t like “Field of Dreams,” I don’t like baseball. What a ridiculous suggestion, Zack. I love baseball. And the best thing about baseball is that I don’t need sci-fi theatrics, ghost stories or unresolved daddy issues to love it.

There seems to be an assumption that those of us who don’t like “Field of Dreams” (and while I am clearly in the minority, I know I’m not alone in this opinion) don’t understand its message. As if the depths of this screwy script can only be deciphered by only the most emotionally advanced among us.

Please. This could not be further from the truth. Just as anybody with at least a third-grade education can understand the message in “Vibrations,” the message in “Field of Dreams” is not so difficult to decode.

It’s the presentation that leaves plenty to be desired.

Sure, it’s frustrating that Ray Liotta wasn’t dedicated enough to the Shoeless Joe Jackson role to learn how to take a few swings from the left-hand side of the plate. But every movie has its share of “goofs” that make their way to the IMDB page. No, my central issue with “Field of Dreams” is that it dumbs down the profound issues of generational conflict, spirituality and the afterlife and, in the process, abuses and cheapens the connective qualities and simplistic beauty of a great sport, all for its own box-office gain. It is a fairy tale that feels more like an acid trip — an overly layered plot that is too corny and contrived for its own good.

The House Where The Movie Field Of Dreams Was FilmedShoeless Joe, you’ll remember, is the central figure in an argument between Ray Kinsella and his dad — an argument that leads Ray to flee home and never see his father again. Ray doesn’t respect his father because his father’s hero was Shoeless Joe, one of eight men banned from baseball as part of the Black Sox scandal.

Listen, Shoeless Joe took the money. $5,000, to be exact. But he played a great World Series. So his is a complicated case involving potential moral corruptness but probably not outright criminality. Count me among those who believe his “lifetime ban” from baseball should have ended when he died. But let’s not rope Shoeless Joe into our parental problems, all right? Let’s not use him as an axis in some conceptual conflict meant to illustrate the generational divide between 1960s-era fathers and sons. Hasn’t Joe been through enough? Let the man rest in peace, for God’s sake.

And Terence Mann? Make up your mind, Mann. Are you an anti-establishment black activist, or do you worship at the altar of baseball nostalgia and all the racial segregation it once embraced? (Bastian mentioned wanting to go to the “Field of Dreams” to see Cool Papa Bell stealing off Josh Gibson. I didn’t see either one in the movie. Let’s just leave it at that.)

One of the many agonized (and agonizing) themes of “Field of Dreams” is pursuing your dreams without regard for the cynics or the skeptics. As Bastian wrote: “It was a story of a man doing something he believed in, no matter what people thought of him along the way. He risked everything in order to do something he felt was right. He had a dream, and wanted to have a catch with his dad, and the baseball gods made it possible.”

Wait a minute… let me get a tissue.

I’ll counter with a public-service announcement: Just because you hear voices in your head doesn’t mean they’re correct, OK? Costner’s character winds up redeemed here because enough lunatics happen to share his “vision” to plop down $20 and see his field of ghosts. Let’s not take that as gospel that we should risk our family finances and livelihood to pursue every half-cocked hallucination we have (in fact, as I type this, my wife is upset that I’m paying more attention to my dream of artfully ripping “Field of Dreams” than I am to watching the NFL playoff games with her… she’s probably onto something). And we certainly shouldn’t put our families at risk if the end-goal is to summon some dead relative. Nine times out of 10, their spirits do not emerge in our cornfields.

Hey Ray, you have regrets about the way you disrespected your father? Leave me and my $7 out of it, all right?

I think one reason “Field of Dreams” sneaks its way onto so many “best baseball movies” list is because of the simple fact that there aren’t many great baseball movies. Many of them wind up too intellectually dishonest to appeal to real baseball fans and too boring to appeal to the masses. If Hollywood wants to co-opt baseball nostalgia for its own greedy gains, I’d rather it just leave the game alone altogether.

vibrationsBastian’s response to my three paragraphs of anti-“Field of Dreams” propaganda was well-written and heartfelt. Ultimately, though, his post was about his fond feelings for the field where the movie was filmed — a field he and his family visited each summer of his childhood. And as my initial column made clear, I love that field, because it represents the game’s more simple and satisfying strengths. The field is everything the movie is not — uncomplicated, well-constructed and a beauty to behold.

Those are some great childhood memories and photos you have there, Bastian. I have a childhood memory, too (but, sadly, no photo to accompany it). My memory revolves around the day in 1989 when my dad, my brother and I (just 8 years old) went to a matinee at the Lakeshore 7 in Euclid to see a newly released baseball movie called “Field of Dreams.” The Lakeshore 7 sits just down the street from Sims Park, where my dad would take me just about every day one summer when he was unemployed to play catch (not “have a catch”… because nobody who has any appreciation for proper linguistics would ever teach their kids to say “have a catch”).

The lights went down, the movie came on, and, a couple hours later, we walked out of the theater, and our opinion of what we saw was (and is) a shared familial feeling:

“Field of Dreams” stinks. It stunk then, it stinks now. And given the choice, if only for a dose of unintentional comedy, I’d rather watch “Vibrations.”

~AC

“All the females want to drool”

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

I’ve got a story up on the main site today about Trevor Bauer, who met with the Cleveland media this week and made a fantastic first impression (you should also read Jordan Bastian’s story here).

Bauer is a fascinating figure, be it because of his importance to this Indians’ organization, his quick descent from highly prized prospect to discarded trade piece in Arizona, his oft-discussed training program, his intellectual approach to the game and the variety and intensity of opinions about him and his skillset. Frankly, it’s all too much to fit into a single story, and I’m certain Bastian will have plenty of Bauer-related content in Spring Training and beyond.

But I wanted to delve just a little bit deeper into one aspect of my interview with Bauer that didn’t get full coverage in the column: The rapping.

Below is the YouTube video for “Diamond in the Rough,” the rap song mentioned in the piece. It was released by Bauer and his friend Connor Garelick, under the name Consummate 4sight, last summer.

It’s not great, right? It actually contains the line, “I’ve got slobber on my feet, ‘cause all the females want to drool.” Not great.

I do, however, find the feelings of detachment Bauer expresses in that song to be interesting, and that’s a theme I explored in the story.

But what about this act of rapping, in and of itself? It is, after all, the nature of our often-dismissive, hyper-critical world to scoff when a guy like Bauer gets involved in an extracurricular pursuit of this nature.

Frankly, though, I love Bauer’s perspective on the matter.

“It’s something I really enjoy doing,” he said. “People can say whatever they want about it. I know I’m not good at it. But maybe one day I’ll make a song where one person gets something out of it that helps them.”

In other words, Bauer knows it’s just a hobby. If you don’t like it, don’t listen. And as he put it, if his hobby was fishing and all he could reel in was a two-inch fish, would anybody rip him for that? Probably not.

As a guy who writes for a living, I can certainly appreciate Bauer’s creativity and the honesty he conveys when he puts pen to paper.

“Writing has always been my way to vent,” he said. “When I’m down, when I’m happy, I write. I like to write. I like the puzzle that words are. My dad wrote two poems a year for my mom — one for Mother’s Day and one for her birthday. I started helping him write the poems, so they came from me and him. And then my sister, who also likes to write books, got into it. It became a family thing.”

The rapping is not a family thing. In fact, Bauer said he only turned to rap by default.

“I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument, so I was pretty much left with nothing but rap,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a rapper. I’m not that into it. I have no illusions about that. I’m not trying to make a career out of it… There’s a lot that goes into the process. Coming up with lyrics, finding the rhythm, making the beat. I taught myself how to do that from scratch, as well as the actual mixing techniques. How much reverb, how much EQ [equalization], how much compression, how do you make the whole thing fit together?”

Bauer, who studied mechanical engineering at UCLA, is always trying to learn how things fit together and why they work the way they do. It’s something he obviously applies to pitching, and he’s made attempts to pass what he’s learned along to the next generation.

“I’m trying to give young baseball players a resource,” he said. “Someone they can bounce questions off. That’s the reason I have a YouTube channel and a Facebook page. People ask questions, I can make a video for them.”

You can find Bauer’s instructional YouTube channel here. You can find his Facebook page here.

And if “Diamond in the Rough” whet your appetite, Consummate 4sight has several songs on SoundCloud.

~AC

“I can hear the wild wind blowing”

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

Well, this is what happens when you hesitate or procrastinate or otherwise elongate what ought to be a prompt procedure. You end up writing an introductory paragraph on top of an introductory paragraph, and you get another life lesson about the value of striking while the proverbial iron is hot (and we’ll just have to save the lessons about using clichés and misusing the word “proverbial” later).

What I’m trying to say is I’ve had this file called “DQ DAVE” sitting on my desktop for the last couple weeks, and it was an intended blog post about the vast value of mere effort, of approaching life with even the slightest hint of panache and pizzazz. But — perhaps ironically — I’ve let that file sit there, half-written, because all the little moments, both magical and mundane, that make up the holiday season kept getting in the way of me finishing it off. And then on New Year’s Day, I woke up and the first tweet I read was from the ever-brilliant Joe Posnanski, linking to his latest blog post about this very topic. And his includes a review of a Springsteen concert, naturally, making the fact that I essentially got scooped on a philosophical thought all the more frustrating.

So anyway, let’s just acknowledge that Posnanski nailed it, and no matter what I write from this point on it likely won’t involve mention of Little Steven’s guitar solo on “Cover Me” so, really, there’s not much to see here. But I do still want to tell you a little bit about DQ Dave.

cookiejarYou see, one of my many guilty pleasures is Dairy Queen. I love Dairy Queen. Back in high school, my friends, the Paoloni brothers, worked at a Dairy Queen on Mayfield Road. It was one of those old-school, shack-sized Dairy Queens, since torn down and rebuilt to better incorporate both the “hot eats” and the “cool treats.” Needless to say, I liked the old one better. When I go to Dairy Queen, invariably for a Blizzard, I prefer the person taking my order be focused firmly on the “cool treats.” I don’t want their mind wandering or gravitating toward the “hot eats.” I feel this can somehow detract from the Blizzard experience. And the best thing about having friends working at Dairy Queen in high school was that my Blizzard experience was always top-notch. They would not let you walk out of there with a Blizzard that wasn’t thick enough to break the red plastic spoon. (They also let you get creative with your order. I would hope my friends would attest that, in 1999, I invented what is now known as the “Cookie Jar” Blizzard, and my inability to properly cash in on this invention is yet another in a long list of regrets caused by hesitation.)

Well, time marches on, and the Paoloni brothers did not, in fact, make a lifelong career out of their Dairy Queen employ. This has worked out wonderfully for them, but not as much for me, because, as is too often true in life, good help and good service are hard to find. Even at Dairy Queen.

But in the last couple years, a wonderful thing has happened. The Dairy Queen in our neighborhood, I’ve come to discover, has an employee named Dave. And Dave is like a Paoloni brother reincarnated. Or something. Point is, he’s wonderful at what he does. If we go to get Blizzards, we cross our fingers and hope DQ Dave is working that night, because nobody this side of the Mississippi can mix a Blizzard quite like DQ Dave can.

I know next to nothing about Dave, aside from the fact that his name is Dave. I don’t know what his hopes and dreams were or are. I don’t know if he runs the DQ or seeks to one day own a DQ. I don’t know if DQ is, for him, a step on the so-called career ladder or a final destination. I just know that, when it comes to mixing Blizzards, Dave has a job that many people would wearily plod through, a job that any pimply faced teen trying to make some gas money can probably do with very minimal effort or intensity. But Dave is different. Dave does his job with flair. He takes pride in his Blizzards. He ensures that you get your money’s worth when it comes to the portion size of your toppings.

And this is the brilliant part… after the mixing is complete, Dave returns to the counter, Blizzard cups in hand. He turns them upside down to reveal to you that these wondrous creations of his are so thick and so perfectly congealed that there is no danger of them spilling out, even at this 180-degree angle. It is this awesome little detail that makes you momentarily forget you just plopped down $4 to get a little bit fatter.

This, ultimately, is the essence of a life fully lived — taking pride, and not in some boisterous or obnoxious way, in what you do and how you do it. Unfortunately, not all of us are blessed with the skill or the luck to ascend to some prominent and well-compensated position in our work lives. Not all of us have the intellect to cure diseases or the financial flexibility to change lives. But we all have the ability to make this world a little more special, a little more satisfying, a little more interesting for ourselves and those around us. Let’s all remember that as we begin a new year.

***

Well, this is an Indians blog. I think. So I’m going to somehow relate the above to the Cleveland Indians.

I like this Indians offseason. Not because I think the Indians have set themselves up to be dramatically better in 2013. Frankly, it remains difficult to view them as a legit contender in the coming year. But this offseason, much like a visit to DQ Dave, has been just a little more interesting than recent offseasons past, and the Indians’ competitive chances both in the immediate and the long-term have improved. Tribe fans deserved at least that much.

When last I wrote in this space, all too many moons ago, I advocated a trade for Asdrubal Cabrera. Asdrubal Cabrera, you might have noticed, is still around. Perhaps that’s a matter still subject to change. I would still argue that you can get by on a steady dose of Mike Aviles, waiting for the kids to ripen in the upper levels of the farm system, and get back a nice haul for Cabrera. But in the meantime, the Indians did something I didn’t think was all that possible — they eked out a satisfying trade return for one year of Shin-Soo Choo’s services. And while Trevor Bauer, the key acquisition in that swap, comes with a reputation that was soiled especially quickly in Arizona, he represents the kind of risk this organization has no choice but to entertain. He has a high ceiling, so his arrival to an organization loaded with pitchers whose ceilings are an injury risk to your head is a welcomed one.

The Tribe essentially gave up one year of Choo for nine years of Bauer and Drew Stubbs, with a couple relievers tossed in. It is impossible not to like that trade from the Indians’ perspective. I particularly liked the way Chris Antonetti seized upon Kevin Towers’ particular (and some D-backs fans would call it peculiar, considering what he gave up) fascination with Didi Gregorius to orchestrate the swap after direct discussions with Arizona (discussions that involved Cabrera) bore no fruit. It’s difficult to pull off a trade in this game, and it is exponentially more difficult to pull off a three-team swap. A real understanding of the worth of your assets and the desires of your fellow GMs is a prerequisite. Antonetti met it.

We’ve discussed here, once or twice, that Antonetti’s tenure as GM has been about as smooth as Ubaldo Jimenez’s delivery, which is to say it hasn’t been smooth at all. But in a winter in which the Indians had plenty of reasons to strip things back down to the bone, they’ve surprised a lot of people in the industry with their aggressiveness. That all began, of course, with the move to bring in Terry Francona, and the aggressiveness in free agency has been made possible by a sudden influx of TV money, both national and local.

swisherLook, the Nick Swisher signing, the Mark Reynolds signing and now the Brett Myers signing… are these moves enough to put the Indians in the same class as the Tigers? On paper, probably not, and we have plenty of time in the coming days and weeks for further analysis and soon-to-be-obliterated predictions. But suffice to say there is risk in giving a 32-year-old Swisher the largest free-agent contract in club history and adding Reynolds’ 32.6 percent strikeout rate (then parlaying that with Stubbs’ similarly frightening strikeout tendencies) and converting Myers back to starting work (in the AL, no less).

But if you’re an Indians fan, you certainly have to be encouraged to see them doling out some dollars to take those risks, rather than orchestrating another major rebuild just three years after the last rebuild didn’t really build much. Fact is, this is not an ownership/front office group that has ever punted on, say, a five-year window in order to save money and reap draft picks, as some other small markets have been prone to do. And while STO was not exactly a YES-like revenue-generator, we can certainly see, in retrospect, how it worked out for the Dolans, squeezing a major monetary commitment out of FOX Sports about six or seven years after negotiations over a renewal with FOX didn’t go where the Indians wanted them to go.

No, the Indians’ payroll isn’t really going to jump into a new stratosphere, and the difficulties that come with being a small-market club situated in the general midst of three other MLB clubs and in a town that has seen major population declines aren’t going away. But Indians fans have to at least appreciate the way the last few months have played out, for they’ve seen the Tribe do things in a new way with some new voices on the front lines and new money in-hand. “New” does not always equate to “improved” (see my above feelings on the DQ on Mayfield Road), but we can all agree the Indians had every reason to shake up their way of doing business, to do things with a little more flair, to make this winter a little more interesting for a frustrated (and, if attendance is any indication, shrinking) fan base. They’ve done that, without hesitation or procrastination.

~AC

The case for trading Asdrubal

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

ImageThe Indians didn’t acquire Mike Aviles over the weekend in order to trade Asdrubal Cabrera. In fact, when asked if he still envisioned Cabrera as his starting shortstop on Opening Day 2013, this was general manager Chris Antonetti’s precise, plain-as-day reply:

“Yes.”

Hmm. Not a whole lot of room for shades of gray there.

But heading into an awfully interesting and important winter for the Indians’ organization, Antonetti has the option to be a little bit more open-minded about his shortstop situation. Because while he has multiple trade chips he can dangle the next few months, as the Tribe figures out how best to surround its championship-caliber new manager with a championship-caliber ballclub, none, in this moment, is more attractive and more ready to reap an impactful return than Cabrera.

The Indians know their roster, as currently constructed, is too flawed, too fragmented to be a realistic contender in 2013, even in as winnable a division as the American League Central, where the eventual AL champion Tigers needed just 88 victories to claim the division crown in 2012.

A glaring lack of upside arms in the rotation and a lineup that leans too heavily left were major culprits in the Tribe’s glaring fall from grace in the second half of 2012. And while Terry Francona was an applaudable acquisition who could create a winning culture in Cleveland, this club was clearly much more than a managerial switch away from making major strides in the standings.

The front office, then, is forced to evaluate its assets.

Some have viewed Francona’s arrival as a sign that that the Tribe is not focused on a full-scale rebuild. Perhaps that’s the case. But no matter the profile of the skipper, the Indians are not in position to field a high-profile payroll. And the state of the roster and the state of the farm system presents a strong case for being opportunistic in the trade market, exploring the possibility that two birds in the bush could, in fact, eventually outweigh the bird in hand.

Who are the birds in hand?

There’s Shin-Soo Choo, an impact bat against right-handed pitching who has proven adept at both the leadoff spot and No. 3 hole. Great arm. Great competitor. But a year away from free agency, the Scott Boras client could have a limited market, especially when you factor in his struggles with lefties.

There’s Chris Perez, the colorful and quotable closer. He’s a reasonably reliable ninth-inning option for a team in need, and the Indians have Vinnie Pestano ready, willing and able to step into that role. But Perez’s expanding arbitration worth (he could make $7 million or more in 2013) and open mouth don’t bode particularly well for his trade value.

There’s Justin Masterson, who was emerging as an ace in 2011 but took a drastic step back in ’12. Teams would line up to take a chance on him, but the Indians would be selling low.

There’s Carlos Santana, not so long ago viewed as a superstar-in-training. But he, too, had a subpar season, and his positioning has come increasingly into question, as even the Indians seem unsure of whether his future is behind the plate or at first base. Either way, he’s signed through at least 2016, so dealing him now — when it still seems his best days are firmly in front of him — does not appear to be an attractive option.

In a rebuild, you deal just about all of the above and bring back as many warm bodies as you possibly can. The Indians, though, have given no indication that they’re going the full rebuild route. The route they’d rather take is the one Oakland traveled a year ago, dealing from depth and going young but feisty. The A’s proved feisty enough to stunningly win the AL West — a method easy to admire and all-but-impossible to replicate. But for the Indians, Cabrera at least fits the formula.

Why? Because he’s a 27-year-old All-Star shortstop locked into a reasonable deal ($16.5 million over the next two seasons). There is always a demand for up-the-middle talent, and Cabrera, even with some concerns about his conditioning and fading range, has value as a starting option at either short or second. And for teams like the A’s, Red Sox and Mariners, there could be particular demand in the shortstop trade market, because the free-agent market this winter is definitely dim.

It’s true that the Indians also have use for a 27-year-old All-Star shortstop on an affordable deal. But the Aviles acquisition buys them some flexibility. Aviles, who hit .250 with a .663 OPS in 136 games as the Red Sox’s primary starting shortstop last season, could be a stopgap before the Indians start dipping into their Minor League options — Juan Diaz, who spent the bulk of 2012 in Double-A, and Tony Wolters and Ronny Rodriguez, who spent the whole season at the High-A level.

Francisco Lindor, the Tribe’s No. 1 pick from the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, is viewed as the club’s shortstop of the future, but, even in an environment in which clubs are speeding up the timetables of their top picks, Lindor is only going to be 19 next year. So he’s still a ways away from the bigs.

You deal Cabrera and start to lean on Aviles and the organizational depth if and only if you can bring back some young and projectable starting pitching options. That will be the goal in any trade the Tribe makes at this juncture, but Cabrera has the ability to bring back more than any other trading chip the Indians can reasonably dangle. If the Indians explored this route, they’d be dealing Cabrera at his perceived peak (though his 2011 season, in which he hit 25 homers and drove in 92 runs, was likely his <i>actual</i> peak).

Maybe that’s not the route the Indians are currently inclined to go. But that’s the sort of aggressive approach a small-market club that has struggled in the drafting and development departments needs to take to build a winner on a budget.

~AC

“The ties that bind”

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

What’s happening in Cleveland is a testament, first and foremost, to the value of strong relationships.

Baseball, like any other business, is built on them. And for Terry Francona, the relationship with the men who make the Indians’ personnel decisions began on a hotel treadmill at the Winter Meetings many years ago and a couple managerial stops ago.

Francona and Mark Shapiro got to talking in the workout room, and their conversations have evolved steadily over the years. On Friday, the conversation was about the Indians’ managerial vacancy, and on Saturday, the announcement was that Francona had accepted it.

For the Indians, this is quite a managerial coup. They’ve averaged less than $60 million in player payroll over the last three years, they’re coming off a 94-loss season and their upper-level Minor League talent is, shall we say, suspect.

Add up those factors, and this ordinarily would not be the type of job a Terry Francona — a two-time World Series winner with a resplendent reputation — would touch.

But the relationship has remained steady and sturdy, even as many changes have taken place in Francona’s life and the Indians’ various ups and downs. When the Phillies fired Francona in 2000, Shapiro, the Tribe’s newly appointed general manager, scooped him up in a special assistant role. When Francona interviewed for the Red Sox job, Shapiro and his then-assistant, Chris Antonetti, helped prep him.

They didn’t prep him for Friday’s interview; they didn’t need to. Francona’s enthusiasm for this position – enthusiasm that surprised some – was all the Indians needed to move forward. Yes, Sandy Alomar Jr. was fit for this role, and I was definitely among those touting him. But that backing was fixated on the faulty premise that Francona wouldn’t actually be interested. That he was served to surprise, though, in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have, given the relationship base he’s built with the front office and his family lineage in Indians baseball.

All Francona needed was some assurance of stability. A four-year guarantee buys him that, and in recent days Francona had let on that such a guarantee is worth more than the money alone.

Now that this personal relationship between Francona and the Indians’ higher-ups has led to a more formal one, it is, of course, Francona’s job to start building relationships with the young faces on the Tribe roster. And the front office is supplied with the likely more difficult task of building up the talent level of a team aching in the one area that is most difficult to alleviate – starting pitching.

That’s why the question of whether or not Francona can win in Cleveland trends more toward “when” than “if.” There is some thought that Francona wouldn’t have taken this job without some assurances that the Indians plan to expand their player payroll. Perhaps that’s true, though more than a decade-long track record from the Dolan family of not vastly outspending projected revenues speaks for itself, and revenues from a 2012 season in which the Indians finished next-to-last in the attendance tally weren’t exactly robust. Neither are the projections for 2013.

What people need to understand is that a jump from the $60 million range to the $80 million range, even if applied appropriately, might only buy a club another win or two. Even a seismic increase in the payroll department — and that’s not going to happen in one of the game’s smallest markets, unless there’s some franchise-altering regional television deal on the horizon of which I’m completely unaware — means nothing if it’s not backed by solid baseball decisions.

Fact is, the Indians could have survived quite well (particularly in the AL Central) on their present payroll, had the personnel decisions — from the CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Ubaldo Jimenez trades to the amateur Drafts — not turned out so consistently unproductive in recent years.

Time will tell, as it tends to do, but this Francona hiring feels like a significant step in another, more positive direction in the decision-making. It is, however, only a small step, for the Indians are clearly much more than a manager away from contention.

But if the Indians wanted a clubhouse culture change, they’ve found it. If they wanted a guy fans can respect, a guy whose beliefs they can buy into, they’ve got one.

The Indians knew quite well, when they began the process of replacing Manny Acta, what they’d have in Terry Francona if they could get him to come aboard. And now that he’s agreed, this already long-term relationship is really just beginning.

~AC

“What to leave in, what to leave out”

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

The guy in the Travis Hafner shirt, doing pushups in the cardio room? He thinks the Indians should keep Travis Hafner.

The guys in the weight room, over there by the crossover cables? They’re intrigued by Russ Canzler.

It was an interesting experience at my local gym the other day, because people were talking about the Cleveland Indians. And while this might not sound strange, given that, you know, we were actually in Cleveland, I can assure you this was, indeed, a rare occasion, considering we’re in the middle of the NFL season and the end of an MLB season in which the Indians lost 94 games.

But it just goes to show you that there are two types of teams that attract heated discussion — those in the thick of the race, and those who are so far out of it that you can make a case for overhauling every element, right down to the bat boy.

In the former instance, every fan is a manager. They offer their opinion on each call to the ‘pen, each pinch-hit opportunity, each lineup, because every game, every inning, every last matter of minutia matters.

In the latter , every fan is an owner or a GM. They know who to hire, who to fire, who to trade and who to sign.

So, yeah, the Indians, as hard as they’ve been to watch these last couple months, have been pretty easy to discuss. Because there are plenty of talking points at play here and plenty of decisions for this front office to make in the coming weeks and months.

With that in mind, let the following serve as an addition to the discussion. Here, in my view, are the 10 most pressing, pertinent and possibly perplexing personnel issues facing the Indians in the coming weeks.

TERRY FRANCONA/SANDY ALOMAR JR.: We can’t rule out the possibility that others get involved in the managerial search, but for now all we can do is focus on these two. And if Francona is as interested in this job as he’s been telling people, I humbly and happily rescind everything I wrote in this space a week ago. I think Alomar is absolutely deserving of this opportunity, and I think a team in the Indians’ position – a team that will be young, by default, in 2013 – can afford to go with a rookie skipper. But if Francona really wants in, I think you’ve got to bring him aboard.

That’s just my opinion, of course, and it’s easy to offer that opinion when it’s not your money. Francona made $4 million in Boston. No manager is going to make that much here. So this particular personnel decision might ultimately rest with him and his willingness (or lack thereof) to take a significant pay cut. It has been noted that this might be the only job available to Francona this offseason, depending on how things shake out, and that could certainly play a part.

But there is plenty of speculation in the industry that if the Tigers don’t win the World Series, they’ll part ways with Jim Leyland (and for all we know, Leyland might make like his close friend Tony La Russa and go out on top even if they win). The Tigers job would be an extremely attractive one for a proven skipper like Francona. Ultimately, this might all come down to timing. But even if the Indians don’t land Francona, they could do a lot, lot worse than Alomar for this job.

SHIN-SOO CHOO: One of the more genuine players I’ve covered. Genuinely cares about his performance, genuinely cares about winning, genuinely wants to represent South Korea well and genuinely felt embarrassed and accountable when he made that dumb decision the night of his DUI. And there’s another genuine quality to Choo, too: He genuinely wants to take advantage of his market worth when the opportunity presents itself, and he, of course, has every right to do so.

I’m not sure that worth will be quite as staggering as some assume, given that his continuing struggles against left-handed pitching keep him well short of superstar status, and he’ll be 31 when he hits free agency. But by now, the Indians have to know where they stand with Choo and Scott Boras on this issue. And if they can flip Choo for near-Major League ready starting pitching or corner outfield help, that’s a move they have to make at this juncture. The question is: Will Choo’s trade value will be significantly greater this winter than it will be next July? Because any team that acquires him has to know he’s likely to test the market next winter.

CHRIS PEREZ: There is a mountain of evidence that suggests the Indians ought to trade this guy. From a results standpoint, closers are an erratic bunch, by nature. This particular closer brings in the added element of saying or doing whatever feels right at any given moment, sometimes crossing that fine line between passion and recklessness. He’ll also come with a price tag likely north of $7 million this season. For a team that had somewhere in the neighborhood of a $66 million payroll at the outset of this season, that’s an awfully high percentage to invest in a ninth-inning arm.

But Perez’s ever-growing reputation likely isn’t helping his trade value, which might have peaked around the time the Tribe opted to stand pat in late July. Joel Hanrahan is at least one other closing option that could be made available in what could well become a crowded market. So while the evidence says trade Perez, it’s not necessarily a slam-dunk decision for the Tribe.

ASDRUBAL CABRERA: He’s going to make $6.5 million in 2013 and $10 million in 2014. The Indians aren’t in a position where they need to shed payroll, but they are in a position where they need to bring in some controllable, projectable pieces, even if it means parting with what few marketable talents they have on-hand. Cabrera would seem to be an attractive trade chip.

JUSTIN MASTERSON: Sure, you have to at least explore his market worth. But this would definitely be a “sell low” situation, so it’s probably not the best time the pull the trigger.

TRAVIS HAFNER: The Indians have mercifully reached the end of the largest — and, as it turned out, most cumbersome — contract they’ve ever handed out.

Well, almost.

The buyout of Hafner’s $13 million option for 2013 will cost the Tribe $2.75 million. Though I freely admit I could be completely off-base, it’s hard for me to imagine the Indians paying Hafner $2.75 million to play elsewhere (or nowhere) next season.

What, realistically, is Hafner’s open market worth? If, just for the sake of discussion, we follow FanGraphs’ rationale that a win is  is worth roughly $5 million in free agency and Hafner, with all his injury issues, has a 0.7 WAR this season, then he might be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5 million, tops (this, by the way, is extremely debatable). If you’re going to be paying him the bulk of that anyway, is it worth it to keep Hafner around in the part-time role he’s suited for? Otherwise, with $2.75 million already doled out to Pronk, what is your best, most realistic, most cost-effective DH option in free agency? A 42-year-old Jim Thome? Or do you just rotate position players through your DH spot? And if so, do you have the kind of depth necessary — i.e. nine position players worthy of 500 ABs — to make that worth your while?

I think the vast majority of Tribe fans are simply done with Hafner. They’ve seen enough. (That guy at the gym in the Hafner shirsey is one of the few exceptions to the rule.) But 2013 might — emphasis on might — be the first time in a long, long time that Hafner’s salary is commensurate with his value, and I can’t help but wonder if the Indians will take advantage of that.

UBALDO JIMENEZ: There’s no other way to put it: The Big U has gone backward in his time with the Indians. They thought they could fix his mechanical flaws, but his performance regressed. He thought a happier environment would propel him to his past success, but the only difference is that he’s in a better mood between lousy starts. And despite all that regression, he stands to get a significant pay raise, to $5.75 million, if the Indians pick up his 2013 option.

What a country.

To decline the option would cost the Indians $1 million for the buyout, and ordinarily this would be a no-brainer. Except you might have noticed that the Indians don’t exactly have a staggering number of bodies lined up to make starts for them in the Majors next season, and that roughly $5 million saved on Jimenez won’t buy them much in the market (See: Lowe, Derek).

CARLOS SANTANA: Catcher or first base? There are few things in this game as valuable as the middle-of-the-order hitter who also serves as your catcher. But what if that hitter regresses at the plate and provides only average value behind it?

I can’t tell you that the regression in production we’ve seen from Santana this season is directly tied to him catching. But I do know the wear and tear can’t possibly help. Santana’s offense improved in the second half, and that’s encouraging. But he’s still not the dynamic lineup presence the Indians thought him to be or he seemed to be trending toward last year.

Santana works hard on his defense, and he’s gotten better this season. I’d say he’s about average. He threw out 26 percent of opposing baserunners this season – ranking him 15th among those with at least 70 starts at the position. According to Baseball Info Solutions, he provided two defensive runs saved (an improvement over his minus-6 mark of a year ago), and this ranked 13th.

Is that defense worth preserving if the position itself has any impact on Santana’s power and production on the offensive side? That’s a question the Indians grappled with a year ago. They opted for the best defensive infield alignment they could muster in signing Casey Kotchman, and he came as advertised as a terrific defender. But he also had one of the worst offensive seasons of any player at any position in the big leagues, so I’m not sure the tradeoff was worth it.

I’m not sure the Santana tradeoff is worth it, either.

RUSS CANZLER: All right, so Canzler probably doesn’t really present a “pressing” decision. But the need for left field and/or first base help for next season is glaring. The first step, of course, is to assess your in-house options. So… is this guy anything? And if so, where was he two months ago? I suppose the fact that he wasn’t in the bigs at that point is indicative of whether the Indians feel he’s a Guy or, you know, just a guy.

(Apropos of nothing: My wife saw Canzler come up to bat the other night and thought he slightly resembled a bearded Jon Hamm, “only not as attractive.” That’s no knock on Canzler, because I have the sneaking suspicion my wife doesn’t think anybody is as attractive as Jon Hamm, myself included.)

THE FRONT OFFICE: Chris Antonetti has built up too much equity in this organization to be dumped after two years on the GM job, but Antonetti would be the first to admit that the last year and a half has not gone particularly well for him on the decision-making front. So the Indians have to take a good gander at their structure, their personnel and their decision-making process and see if they might benefit from an assist from other voices brought in from the outside. Baseball men with different perspectives gleaned from different experiences in different organizations.

As Paul Cousineau of the DiaTribe points out in this piece, the Indians have shown a willingness to explore this possibility in the past, as they discussed bringing aboard Josh Byrnes in an advisory role in the fall of 2010, shortly before he wound up joining the Padres. Ironically, Cousineau’s piece came to the conclusion that Francona might be a fit for such a role. Turns out, he might have a decidedly more prominent one with the Tribe.

~AC

PS: Having just cited his work, I’m going to take this opportunity to thank Cousineau for his contributions to the Tribe scribing community over the years. Many of you who read this space also read Paul’s, and for good reason. His work is thorough and thought-provoking and, overall, fair. He’s the rare fan who doesn’t let his passion get in the way of his analysis. And I’m fortunate enough, through our mutual interest in spending an inordinate amount of time writing about the Indians, to have become good friends with him over time.

Well, Paul has decided to call it quits on the DiaTribe front, settling into a happy retirement focused on his day job and his wonderful family. I don’t blame him a bit, but I’ll miss reading his stuff (sometimes kicking myself when he presents a point I wish I had thought of first).

I hereby raise an imaginary Bombshell Blonde (a refreshing canned beer… check it out) to you, dear DiaTriber.

“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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