Although I think any speculation that the Indians might move or abandon Cleveland is quite unrealistic, I do not think it is unrealistic to think that this is a critical juncture for the Dolan ownership of the Tribe. I spent 4 installments in this series to try and explain to everyone why local economics, population, sports popularity or other sports competition is NOT the reason for the declining attendance. There is NO credible evidence to support these theories other than trying to absolve the current Indians management or ownership from culpability for a failing business plan.
I have explained why it is failing to the best of my ability by analogy and explanation using real world examples. The sad thing is that the failure might be primarily and unfairly generated by horrific perceptions of an inability or unwillingness of ownership to make the sacrifices necessary to improve the product toward the goal of a championship. I am not trying to argue that this perception is fair or just. Or that the Dolans are cheap or liars. That would be truly unfair and unsupported. What I am saying is that you can’t blame the customers for a failed business plan. I have discussed this topic with thoughtful and intelligent bloggers and friends with a few still firmly clinging to the theory that the market or the fans are to blame for the failing product. I will further address why the facts do not support such assertions in my final post later this week. But for this post, I will discuss what is right about the current Cleveland Indians, what is wrong, and what should be done to change perceptions and the competitiveness of the team.
The great news is that, in my opinion, there is much more right about this Cleveland Indians baseball team than wrong. And, contrary to what one might believe based on the first 4 posts, I credit the ownership and management for what has been done right. It is why I honestly feel that the “Window is Now”. I will not recap all the moves that have led to this point, but I will look at the results.
The Indians have one of the best and most respected managers in Major League Baseball. He is steady and thoughtful and honest. I think he must have the respect of his players as well because they sure play hard for him. I have never questioned the heart, drive or determination of the players during Francona’s tenure. I may not always agree with Francona’s moves but it is a tradition to question the manager. He might be one of the best reasons for optimism going forward. And he manages the playing time of the players to keep them sharp better than any manager I have ever seen.
The Indians management with support of ownership have locked up key younger players to extend their contracts beyond their first years of free agency. This is a reversion to the 90s model that fits well with a smaller market team. It helps maintain a core of young players over an extended window. Brantley, Gomes, Kipnis and Santana will be here awhile and many others are under control for between 2-4 years based on their years of service. That includes many pitchers (including Corey Kluber) and middle infielders. This gives the Indians some flexibility to adjust and fill in their weaknesses but probably not in the weakest area.
In fact, if we look at our minor league system, the Indians have a more than adequate stockpile of middle infielders beyond the wave about ready for the big leagues. The stockpile of starting pitchers and outfielders is not as robust but there are still some quality arms advancing. Plus, keep an eye on James Ramsey who was acquired for Justin Masterson. Had the Indians drafted better during the past decade they would not be faced with the need to go outside the organization to improve the roster adequately. Unfortunately, for this “window” I think they should and must look outside their current major league and minor league rosters.
Although Terry Francona handles veteran utility players fantastically, some veteran presence might need to be sacrificed going forward. Names like Mike Aviles (whom I love as a player) and David Murphy and Ryan Rayburn come to mind. Sadly, Nick Swisher comes to mind as well but he has an untradeable contract and it might be a PR nightmare to trade him (especially because we would still need to pay about 80% of his salary if not more.) The Indians need to make room for some additional young players on the active roster and decrease salary in order to make the other moves necessary to take the next step.
One of the biggest difficulties with the current roster is how to attack third base and second base. Lonnie Chisenhall has finally taken great strides in 2014. However, he still has an average glove at best and probably not enough power for third base. Plus, I am not sure he can hit for a high average consistently. Even this year he was white hot and then stone cold before leveling off in the .280s. Jason Kipnis, also one of my favorite players, has looked lost this year and very ineffective at the plate. Plus, we have many options for second base going forward including Jose Ramirez who is a better second baseman than even a shortstop. As hard as it is to consider, the Indians will need to at least explore his trade value or consider a return to the outfield for Kipnis. Again, I am not advocating this per se but it must be considered.
All of a sudden, the Tribe’s starting pitching is young and incredibly effective. It would not be a total mistake to go into next season with a rotation of Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer, and House. That would be a very young rotation to contend for a championship, but 2015 might not be that year anyway and they would be much more stabilized after 2015. If they do not supplement that group however with maybe one veteran with a great reputation near the end of his career (as they did with Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser), they will be very short on depth with McAllister being the next man up and little else. They have learned enough about their bullpen that the Indians might be able to make little or no change there. Another bullpen option is always a good idea but not mandatory to contend next year.
Defensively the Indians were simply awful and that poor fielding also contributed, in my opinion, to the poor fan acceptance of this team. I have been at the stadium many times when one of those clunker errors occurs. There is a collective groan from the crowd and it sucks the life out of the stadium. Not good to get return customers. But there is no way to really upgrade that significantly without wholesale changes and I don’t think that would be wise or necessary. The team was in a season long slump defensively and you have to hope next year would be at least noticeably better.
So, except for that league worst or near worst defense, we have a pretty darn good baseball team in Cleveland. However, it is failing at the gate and there is only one way to energize the fan base and increase fan interest going into next year. That would be to find a way to fix the multiseason hole in the middle of our lineup and increase the Indians offensive efficiency. Statistically the Indians score enough runs in total until you add up the horrific number of games where they have scored 3 runs or less. I can’t find the exact number, but it is huge and has been quoted on TV several times. The Indians might win some of those games but a 2-1 game, while great for the baseball purists like myself, doesn’t excite the casual fan base which is what the Indians need to succeed. More importantly, it makes it too easy for the opposing team’s starting pitcher to navigate the middle of our lineup without much fear.
Brantley is a perfect number 3 hitter. He is a tough out in every way. Hits fantastically in the clutch. Has plenty of power for the 3 hole. And hits for a very high average. Carlos Santana has enough power for cleanup by some standards but barely so. Plus, he has way too many holes in his swing to make him a truly feared hitter like Brantley. His batting average is simply not good enough for the 4 hole despite his walk and OBP totals. It doesn’t really help the lineup for the 4th hitter to draw walks and not hit for average. Kipnis was terrible wherever Francona hit him this year and I only hope this is not the real Kipnis. If it is, we are in trouble. Gomes is developing into a true middle of the order hitter for the 5 or 6 hole. I could go on but you can see the picture. The Indians have no one to man the fourth spot in the lineup which is the most critical spot after the #3 hitter (and maybe the leadoff hitter by some standards.)
A feared power bat who hits for a high average in that position would vastly extend the Indians batting order and make it dramatically tougher for the pitcher. Now you are moving Santana or Gomes to the 5th spot and 6th spots. Kipnis can drop to 7th assuming Ramirez maintains his position in the number 2 hole. Then Chisenhall and Murphy (or whomever roams right field) drop to 8th and 9th.
I am certain that if the Dolans would look at this logically and realize it is a hole that hasn’t been filled for years, they would consider giving the go ahead to get that kind of player for next year. Although trades can be considered, there is a hitter out there available that would be willing to come to the Indians without us paying a premium over other teams. I am virtually certain of that because he said that he wanted to finish his career here and his next contract will likely be his last. Plus, he cried when he was traded and never wanted to leave. And he has paid us back many times over for our stupidity by pounding us into oblivion with his buddy Miguel. AND he plays for our direct competitor who is the major obstacle standing in our way to a division championship (the only real way to “make the playoffs”). As you already know, his name is Victor.
In my next installment I will address some of the other theories blaming the city population or the fans for the business failure of the Indians over the past 4 years. And I will explain why, in stark contrast to Paul Hoynes who simply said we now “can’t afford him”, adding Martinez would be an excellent investment and give our team a legitimate chance to contend that everyone could see. Thus increasing interest and attendance while erasing a probably unfair perception of the Indians management and ownership.