Since Eric Wedge was hired as the Cleveland Indians' manager prior to the 2003 season, it's been consistently difficult to get off to a strong start each season.
With the exception of 2007, Wedge's teams have been under .500 in April and May every year.
While various reasons have been offered by the Indians' publicity machine, including the lineup featuring a bevy of hitters who traditionally get off to slow starts (particularly Victor Martinez), wide-spread difficulty hitting in the cold, schedule mishaps, injuries and adjustments, the pattern remains irritating for the Indians and their fans.
The 2008 season was unquestionably a disaster.
Coming off of the 2007 season in which we witnessed the Indians go deep into the playoffs, many baseball pundits expected the Tribe to continue to compete for a World Series. However, the team got off to such a lousy start that they waved the white flag at about mid-June and began fielding trade offers for their ace, C.C. Sabathia.
Sure, the cold weather didn't help—it never does. The MLB schedule makers are never particularly kind to the Tribe, and key injuries to Travis Hafner and Martinez certainly crippled the team's postseason bid in 2008.
Still, last year's early failure bears a direct correlation to a host of poor decisions made by Wedge and General Manager Mark Shapiro going into and coming out of Spring Training.
First, the Indian's brass continued an alarming pattern of not using spring training as an evaluation period. Instead, the Tribe think tank writes the opening day roster in early February, and despite what evolves in latter February and March and the new information coming to light, they staunchly stuck it out.
Last year, David Delucci barely hit his weight during spring training, showed signs of a slow and ineffective bat, and didn't improve his lollipop arm. Meanwhile, Ben Francisco, a young, promising prospect, hit nearly .400 during Spring Training, displayed improvement in the field and showed great awareness on the base paths.
Nonetheless, the powers that be went with Dellucci, saying he was owed another shot due to the bad-break injury he had the year before.
For the first month-and-a-half, the Indian's bats were as quiet as a library, and absolutely no production from the corner outfielders didn't help matters.
Later in the year, (too late in my opinion) Francisco was called up and he made an immediate impact after being put third in the lineup for the better part of the season. Meanwhile, Delucci's overall impact on the season was not event worth a second look.
And that wasn't the most egregious example.
The Indians' decision makers thought that Joe Borowski could continue as a viable closer after seeing him top-out at 83 mph during Spring Training games, wherein he was relentlessly pummeled by major and minor league hitters alike.
The Indian's stubborn refusal to grapple with Joe's diminishing skills leading up to Opening Day resulted in a disastrous year for the Tribe bullpen, which was a bigger factor in the season's collapse than the oft-cited offensive struggles.
Are these two examples the only reasons the Indians faltered and failed to make the playoffs? Of course not. Would Ben Francisco have saved the Tribe had he started the year in the bigs? Probably not. However, these decisions (or lack thereof) highlight an alarming inability to utilize Spring Training as an evaluation period.
If this year, Cliff Lee comes into Spring Training with a fastball maxing out at 79, I hope he doesn't start the year as our ace, and I don't care what he did last year. It's a brand new ball game every year come springtime, and it's important to reassess a team's strengths and weaknesses.
The Indians need to stop filling out the lineup in January, and use February and March to make informed decisions that will lead to wins once April gets underway, and the games begin to count.
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