Indians wait for prospects after overhaul
GOODYEAR, Ariz. – In a place such as Cleveland, in a sport such as baseball, the question is not if the down seasons will come, but when.
Then, if over a year’s time the ballclub decides it must trade away two Cy Young Award winners, an All-Star catcher and a sturdy third baseman, now you’ve got your when, too.
When is now. When was last season and could be this season and maybe next one, too.
(When, as it turns out, is not now in New York, Philadelphia, Boston or Los Angeles, which is where those players went or passed through.)
Beyond the lines of Indians players here, over the fences and through a wash, there’s an aircraft boneyard. The commercial jets are retired and being preserved by the desert climate, their tailfins visible from anywhere on the Indians compound. They’ve had their day, but time and technology presumably passed them by, so they’re good for memories and spare parts. You probably wouldn’t want to fly one.
The Indians don’t want to go to the boneyard. They don’t want to start counting their losing seasons in decades or, worse, generations. They don’t want the other clubs picking through their organization, to turn it into the place you go for, say, a slightly used escape slide.
Given a payroll that would hold the New York Yankees for a month or two, general manager Mark Shapiro and his assistant, Chris Antonetti, saw the down seasons coming. They’d played to the brink of the World Series in ’07, an ultimately disappointing experience that would end up as the highlight of the decade. They’d raised enough players and made enough good choices to have had their shot, and then in three games against the Boston Red Sox, their shot was gone, leaving the future for Shapiro and Antonetti to sort out.
“We could either continue to let it play out and sit idly by,” Antonetti said, “or take the aggressive approach.”
The down cycle, as much a part of small-market reality as early draft picks and hotdog bazookas, was coming. That, they knew. Some of the descent, they knew, would have to be self-inflicted.
“You manage the cycles,” Shapiro said, “or they manage you.”
Long story short, in less than 13 months – from July 7, 2008 to July 31, 2009 – the Indians moved out CC Sabathia(notes), Cliff Lee(notes), Victor Martinez(notes) and Casey Blake(notes). From the Brewers, Phillies, Red Sox and Dodgers, their return was 11 players. In a fifth trade, one that had less to do with finances than baseball, they also traded Franklin Gutierrez(notes) as part of a three-way trade for two players. That would be five players out, 13 in.
On a rainy morning here, more than a few of those players were in the big-league clubhouse, preparing for a Sunday afternoon game that wouldn’t be played. Justin Masterson(notes), the 6-foot-6 right-hander who’d come from the Red Sox in the Martinez trade, pulled up a chair for a card game. He’ll be in the rotation. Jason Donald(notes) (Lee, Phillies, then Seattle Mariners) sat by his locker. He could play a utility role. Matt LaPorta(notes) (Sabathia, Brewers, then New York Yankees) scanned the day’s schedule. He’ll play left field. Carlos Santana(notes) (Blake, Dodgers) had gone off to hit. He’ll be the Indians’ catcher before the All-Star break. Until then, Lou Marson(notes) (Lee) will do at least some of the catching. Carlos Carrasco(notes) (Lee) was in the trainer’s room. He, too, could be in the rotation. Michael Brantley(notes) (Sabathia), Mickey’s son, was in the weight room. He’ll be an extra outfielder in Cleveland or biding his time at Triple-A.
In a sprawling, oval-shaped room, there was hardly a place to walk without bumping into a piece of the club’s future and a guy tied to the club’s past, all under one hoodie. They’re here today, or they’re nearby, or they’ll be here tomorrow (righty Jason Knapp, lefty Nick Hagadone). And everybody in Cleveland – not the least of which being the Indians – really hopes they can play.
In scouting circles, the Blake trade was better received than the Sabathia trade, which was better received than the Martinez trade, which was better received than the Lee trade. The opinions are subjective, and clouded by subsequent surgery for Knapp, the centerpiece of the Lee trade who in September had arthroscopic shoulder surgery. But contracts were expiring as team revenues remained steady, and the Indians chose not to spend themselves into debt. They said farewell to organizational and community favorites and hello to a partial but significant rebuild that just might save them from a complete bottom-out.
“It resulted in some very difficult personal and professional decisions about players who were important to us as people and leaders,” said Antonetti, who will become general manager after the season, when Shapiro is promoted to team president. “Had we not taken those decisive actions we’d be in a far different and darker position today.”
Shapiro rebuilt once this decade already, following the 91-win 2001 season, an overhaul that brought, among other eventual good news, Lee, Grady Sizemore(notes) and Brandon Phillips(notes) for Bartolo Colon(notes). In 2005, he was major league executive of the year, according to the Sporting News, and in 2007 he had a three games to one lead over the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series. Of course, that was a six-year wait from hard decisions to AL Central title (there was the near-miss 93-win 2005, as well), and Indians fans would be within their rights to wonder if every surge will be followed shortly by a violent shake of the organizational Etch-A-Sketch.
“I think we’re not as far as most people would think,” Shapiro said.
What happens from here rests on the veterans who remain and the youngsters who have joined them, but will reflect mostly on management’s ability to evaluate young ballplayers and get the most for some of the better players in the game. Complicating matters, Jake Westbrook(notes), whose first start since Tommy John surgery was rained out Sunday, Travis Hafner(notes) and Kerry Wood(notes) will combine to make $33 million this season. Hafner’s contract has three seasons and $40.25 million remaining, the baby grand on the back of Cleveland’s dash to return to contention.
The club also fired manager Eric Wedge after seven seasons and hired Manny Acta, a bright and energetic former manager of the Washington Nationals. The Nats’ shortsightedness – they’d given him terrible and troubled rosters and canned him for losing with it – is a clear gain in an Indians clubhouse that was ready for a fresh approach. Acta, who turned down an offer to manage the Houston Astros, chose the Indians in part because he believed their future was so near and promising.
“You can’t evaluate these trades until, I would say, three years down the line,” he said. “But we got some pretty good talent out of some good organizations.”
Baseball America ranked five Indians among its top 100 prospects. Three of the five – Santana (“Oh, I love him,” Acta said. “He’s projected to be another Victor Martinez with probably a little more pop.”), Hagadone and Knapp – came from three different trades. Among the possible flaws, the position players are arriving faster than the pitchers; one of the tricks in these projects is to have everyone show up together.
Just down the hallway, the talent stirred. LaPorta, 25, won’t appear in a spring game for another few days because he is recovering from offseason hip and toe surgeries. Acta expects to feed him 500 at-bats. Masterson, coming up on 25, is working on a changeup. Brantley, 22, batted .313 in 28 games last season. Santana, 23, has some ways to come on defense, having been converted by the Dodgers three years ago from third base, but he has a very strong arm and a veteran’s sense of the game.
“Hopefully,” Donald said, “we can come in here and make an impact.”
Someday, the Indians hope. In the meantime, they might be better known in Cleveland as The Guy They Got for CC, The Guy They Got for Cliff and Oh, He’s the One They Got for Victor.
“I don’t think it’s something I carried,” said LaPorta, one of the guys they got for CC. “It’s something that’s going to be with me, but not something I have to live up to.”
While Masterson said there is something of a bond between the players shipped to Cleveland in those hectic 13 months, the focus is different in camp, certainly for him.
And so they prepare, the young additions beside the remaining core, if not starting over, starting anew. More, of course, could go before this is done, because it’s never done, not in a place such as Cleveland, not in a game such as baseball. They have today. Tomorrow, they’ll work out tomorrow, with the primary goal being to stay out of the boneyard.
“It’s tough to lose teammates,” Sizemore said. “We had a lot of good guys who are not only good players, but good teammates. I think it happens in 95 percent of the teams. Four or five teams in the league don’t go through that. You have to deal with it and play through it. You can’t control anything else. You only worry about what you can control.”