How Did the Cleveland Indians Get Back Here So Soon?

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How Did the Cleveland Indians Get Back Here So Soon?
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

In a move that surprised few but disgusted many, the Cleveland Indians dealt left-handed ace Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco to the Philadelphia Phillies for a handful of minor league prospects.  It has also been reported that the Indians are flying a white flag at Progressive Field. 

 

How did the Indians get back here again…and so soon?

 

After an amazing run in the mid- and late-'90s that included six division titles (the last in 2001) and two pennants—but zero World Series championships—the Indians were confronted with the inevitability of rebuilding that teams without unlimited checkbooks experience.

 

Ownership had changed hands in 2000 when Cleveland-native Larry Dolan bought the team from the beloved Jacobs family. 

General Manager John Hart, who had been largely responsible for the resurrection of the once-proud franchise, saw the writing on the wall and resigned after the 2001 season.  Dolan promptly replaced him with Hart’s assistant, Sabermetrics-oriented Mark Shapiro. 

 

Not knowing much about the new front office, Tribe fans wondered what type of owner they had inherited:  a rich guy who spends whatever it takes to keep young prospects and sign stud free agents, all in the name of winning, or a rich guy who prefers to hang onto his cash and rake in the profits from his “investment.”

 

Dolan assured fans that when the time came, he would spend the money.  Shapiro said there was a plan.

 

Tribe fans bought it.

 

At the behest of Dolan, Shapiro slashed payroll by refusing to resign high-priced talent left over from the '90s and abstaining from big spending in free agency.  He also traded anyone that would fetch multiple minor league prospects in return.

 

Meanwhile, Indians fans watched as their team was stripped down to the core.  Even though fans suffered through the big league club’s string of mediocre seasons, they remained optimistic about the success that their stockpile of young talent would someday bring.

 

You think we’d know better by now, huh?

 

Actually, it looked good for awhile.  Tribe fans became believers in Shapiro’s philosophy, especially when it turned out that one of his earliest and most noteworthy moves—the trade of Bartolo Colon to Montreal—had yielded future superstars Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee.  Shapiro was even named Executive of the Year by Sporting News in 2005.

 

With a solid nucleus that also included future All-Stars CC Sabathia and Victor Martinez, the Indians looked poised to make a deep run in the playoffs.

 

And they did.

 

In 2007, the Indians won their first AL Central title since 2001, finishing 96-66.  They took out the New York Yankees in a thrilling divisional series, but ultimately blew a 3-1 series lead against Boston in the American League Championship Series.

 

The blown lead was gut-wrenching, but that, of course, is something Cleveland fans are used to dealing with.  In fact, Tribe fans remained wildly optimistic.  After all, the team was so young and so good!  They’d have plenty more cracks it.

 

That was less than two years ago.

 

Now, after two supremely disappointing seasons—each of which included the trade of the reigning AL Cy Young award winner—the Indians appear hopelessly headed for rebuilding mode once again.

 

It seems like Shapiro’s plan all along was to make the Indians just good enough to make one deep run in the playoffs.  The problem is that they didn’t cash it in and win it all.

 

Meanwhile, the players that gave the Indians their best shot at a championship in 10 years—specifically, the guys they drafted and traded for earlier in the decade—have earned respect around Major League Baseball.  And in baseball, respect equals big-money contracts.

 

By trading Sabathia last year and Lee this year, the Indians have made it clear that they will have no part in hanging onto the very talent that they spent years and dollars acquiring and cultivating (while the fans patiently waited). 

 

The trade of Lee is devastating to the passion and loyalty of Tribe fans.  But it’s not the trade itself that hurts so much as it is the reality that the Indians’ next chance at contending for a future championship just got pushed back several years.

 

Ahh, yes.  The future.  The future holds another stockpile of young players with undetermined value.  Like last year, the Indians did not get any major league-ready talent in return for their prized pitcher.  In fact, they didn’t even get the Phillies' best prospects.  You know, the ones Toronto wanted for their ace, Roy Halladay?

 

For the record, I have grown to hate the word “prospect.”

 

No, the Indians only got four guys that they hope will be good enough to make it to the majors someday.  Unfortunately, quantity does not guarantee quality.

 

Meanwhile, the most talented Indians currently remaining on the roster are left to play out their contracts while they patiently wait for their turn to be traded.

 

So, as the trade deadline approaches, whether or not the Indians trade Victor Martinez this year is completely irrelevant.  It’s not as if they’re going to sign him to a long-term contract. 

Martinez will simply become just another star player who finishes out his career elsewhere.  And then it will be Grady Sizemore, and then it will be the next former-prospect who commands big money on the open market, and so on.

 

The most discouraging fact of all is that Indians have no solution to remain a perennial contender.  The last two seasons have proven that their scouting and player development are not even close to where they need to be.  How else do you explain what has happened since 2007?

 

Even when they do hit on a prospect, the front office doesn’t bother going the extra mile to keep him.  After all, the Indians have already spent tons of time and money on developing the prospect in the minor leagues.  Why would they want to spend even more on him? 

 

What is even the point of drafting and trading for prospects if the team just plans on getting rid of them once they command bigger money?

 

Sadly, it’s become all too obvious that the Indians’ strategy is to keep payroll extremely low, find the right mix of good players who aren’t expensive, and catch lightning in a bottle.  If it works, great—and if not, tear it down and start all over again.

 

Dolan has proven to be a liar and an owner who doesn't care about winning.  Unfortunately, the Indians still appear to be profitable, so don’t expect things to change.  One thing is for sure:  payroll won’t be increasing anytime soon.

 

Shapiro is a phony.  Other than getting lucky on a few prospects and trades, the team has huge holes, most of which have existed since Shapiro took over.  Other than 2007, the bullpen has been a disgrace every single year. 

They have also made no effort to get position players (third base, left field) that they need to round out the batting order.  Shapiro's leadership has led to exactly two winning seasons in eight years.

 

Then again, perhaps Shapiro was being honest all along when he said he had a plan.  Indians fans just didn’t realize his plan included only one legitimate shot to win per decade. 

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