How could a team that won 96 games and came a game away from going to the World Series have regressed so much?
How many stellar outings by starting pitchers can they squander by scoring 3 runs or less?
How can every hitter be so bad simultaneously? What happened to the rock solid bullpen?
But there is one question underlying question on every Tribe fan's mind.
Who's to blame?
There is only one answer: Everybody is. Every one's hands are dirty in this one. It starts at the top and trickles down the the end of the bench. Let's review:
Culprit #1: Mark Shapiro
I think very highly of Mark Shapiro and I feel what he has done since he took over in the early 2000s can not be overlooked. Yes, he has made some mistakes, but to take the high dollar "Jacobs Era" Indians and transform them to the cost conscious Dolan-led organization they are today is nothing short of amazing. But everything starts at the top and Shapiro's lack of action in the off-season is where this whole mess started.
I hate cliches but there is an old sports cliche that goes "If you aren't getting better, you're getting worse." Coming off that 96 win season in 2007, all Shapiro did was to add Jamey Carroll and Masa Kobayashi. You could defend this and say the Indians didn't need to do much. This which is where Shapiro is culpable.
I do not fault him for not wanting to trade starting pitching. That, beyond all other things in baseball, is a trump card. Starting pitching can carry you in this game "a la" a hot goalie in the NHL Playoffs, and it has carried the Indians in 2008.
I do not fault him for sticking with younger players like Franklin Gutierrez and Asdrubal Cabrera. They are still young, have potential and most player do go through a rough patch in their sophomore season.
However, all veteran players have a track record. A baseline for which you can judge how they will perform year in and year out. Players do have off or career years here and there but for the most part they stick to that baseline. Mark Shapiro knows this. So it is totally indefensible to think that he would get anything more than what he has from David Dellucci, Casey Blake or Joe Borowski. It is totally indefensible to think he could have gotten more out of Jason Michaels or Jorge Julio. They all had track records that told you they were average or below average players at their respective positions. To think that the Indians would get any more production out of them is unfathomable.
To put this in perspective, the Cleveland Cavaliers had some needs at the trade deadline and made a deal. It may not have worked out perfectly but at least GM Danny Ferry knew they had a deficiency and he did something. Cleveland Browns GM Phil Savage knew he had problems on defense so he did something. It was unconventional and could backfire, but he knew he had an issue and addressed it. Mark Shapiro did nothing, knowing he had two obvious gaping holes in LF and at 3B. Inexcusable.
One tangent here: The 3B deficiency Shaprio created himself. He had a very capable, young 3B named Kevin Kouzmanoff that he traded for 2B Josh Barfield. Now Barfield may turn out to be a player in the future but it should not have come to that. Shapiro, and some one else to be mentioned later, felt he had to keep Ramon Vasquez over Brandon Phillips and that created a void at 2B. So he robbed Peter at 3B to pay Paul at 2B. Would Phillips and Kouzmanoff look nice at 2B and 3B respectively, for the Tribe right now? Yes...and back to task.
I am not advocating that he should have broken the bank like the Detroit Tigers did for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. But look what they traded to get Kenny Lofton last year (a minor league catcher). Unless they have been up to the majors, all minor league players are just prospects. Nothing more, nothing less.
Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee were throw-ins in the Bartolo Colon deal. Minor leaguers are nothing until they actually make it to the bigs. Everyone has a big hard-on for Adam Miller. I hope he turns out to be what he could be and then some. I hope it happens in an Indians uniform. But I say forget Adam Miller. Adam Miller has done nothing in MLB and is constantly injured.
If it would have taken Adam Miller to get a Jason Bay or an Xavier Nady over the winter, it should have been done. Even without the knowledge of Miller's most recent injury, it should have been done. It may not have not even taken an Adam Miller. Maybe two or three minor league players in the next tier. Maybe a minor league and a major leaguer, who knows, but a move should have been made.
Mark Shapiro did nothing and that's where he deserves blame. You cannot fault him for the team's complete offensive struggles, but he knew he had two glaring issues in his line-up and did nothing about it. It may not be the sole reason for the Indians' woes, but it is a big, contributing factor.
I am neither an Eric Wedge supporter nor an Eric Wedge detractor. I like the fact that he focuses on the series at hand and enforces winning each series individually. I like how he focuses on winning division games in the era of the unbalanced schedule. I do not like the way he lets some position players and pitchers sit for weeks at a time without playing. I do not like the fact he is very bland and uses the same cliches day in and day out. Overall, I think he is an above average manager. Good but not great.
But when you are the manager, it is your responsibility to get the club ready and motivated to play night in and night out. The Tribe, to me, has seemed lifeless for a month. It is the manager's responsibility to put the players in a position to be successful. If your DH and closer are injured to the point that they are hurting the ball club, then they need to be removed from the playing rotation. I hate the fact that he is stubborn to a fault. Bottom line, the Indians sit at 24-29 and that is a direct reflection on Eric Wedge.
To keep Jason Michaels over a Ben Francisco coming out of spring when Michaels was scuffling and Francisco was tearing it up was just plain stupid. Eerily similar to the Brandon Phillips fiasco. (See, I told you we'd get back to this.) That fiasco falls in the lap of Shapiro because he is the GM and he okays the deal. He could have said no, but he didn't, and Eric Wedge is to blame as well.
Maybe Wedge was afraid of another Milton Bradley. That was a legitimate concern. But Phillips showed none of the tendencies of a Milton Bradley. Phillips was a young, frustrated player who struggled in his first full year in the big leagues and was sent back down to the minors. Did he mope, get demotivated and have a bad attitude while in AAA? Yes. But he was a player early in his career who was immature. Bradley was a veteran player who had worn out his welcome in every level he played, and continues to do so.
Phillips outplayed Ramon Vasquez in spring a couple years ago and was shown the door. It was one instance in a line of them where Eric Wedge chose a mediocre, veteran player over a younger player with potential. He did it again with Trot Nixon over Franklin Gutierrez last year and again this year with Michaels and Francisco.
It's also happening with Andy Marte and Casey Blake. I understand Casey Blake leads the team in RBIs and average with RISP, but he's still hitting only .216. As I stated above, minor leaguers are prospects until they get to the majors so they can be valuated. You can't evaluate Marte when he sits on the bench 28 of 30 days of the month.
How did Gutierrez do when he came up after Dellucci got hurt last year? How did Francisco do upon his call up this year? How did Grady Sizemore do after Juan Gonzalez got hurt in his 1st AB in 2005? Uncle Eric needs to shed his veteran man-love and realize he has to put some faith in his younger talent. Until he does he will remain average at best.
As far as putting the Indians in a position to win, he can not bat, pitch or field for the team. The fact that the entire team slumped at the same time is not his fault. They fact he didn't bring up Francisco sooner is partially on his shoulders. The Borowski and Travis Hafner injury debacles are also things Uncle Eric is to blame for.
I understand that in today's sports, you look for any advantage you can. Smart strategy. But if your closer, who is borderline combustible every time he steps on the mound anyway, is hurt then he should not be pitching at all, let alone in pressure situations with the game on the line. That is just hurting the ball club. It is the manager's job to prevent that. Uncle Eric did not. The same thing hols true for Hafner. The guy obviously has something wrong. Whether it is physical, mental, sexual or something else, it doesn't matter; the manager needs to step in so it doesn't hurt the ball club. Eric Wedge did not step in and that is on him.
Culprit #3: The Players
But the Indians this year look like they are going through the motions. The facial expressions. The post game comments. The body language. The approach at the plate. The lack of execution. The brain cramps at the most inopportune times. Effortlessly handing over of leads right after acquiring them. These things rarely happened in 2007. Suck it up and grow a pair back.
Last year, the Tribe were battlers. They were never out of it, always game and full of life. Even when they lost, they had a shot and things just didn't work out or they just got beat. That happens, it's baseball.
If you hold Uncle Eric accountable for being 24-29, then the players must be held accountable for their performance. If Borowski and Hafner are more hurt then the manager or GM knows, then they need to say something about it. Don't give me that ego BS; if anything, you should want to look like garbage every night.
Jhonny Peralta is swinging at high heat and sliders away again. He didn't do it last year but these tendencies have returned in 2008. Wedge called out Betancourt for not pitching inside after yesterday's loss. I say good. He's got a 5.56 ERA, gives up more hits than innings and has given up more homers this year now, than all of 2007. "Mr. Untouchable" Grady Sizemore is batting .255. Yes, his OBP is up and he has been hot lately but you know what? The fact that Sizemore hasn't made the proverbial leap to a .300/30 HR/90 RBI/30 SB superstar that we all thought he would be. Maybe we had our hopes too high? Maybe he will still do it, but he isn't right now. Most of his major categories (AVG, R, 2B, HR, XBH, SLG) slipped from 2006 to 2007 and he has failed to trend toward 2006 in 2008.
The younger players like Gutierrez and Cabrera are going to struggle at times; there is a readjustment period after the league adjusts to you, but it's no excuse for bad at-bats. How many times are you going to let a 2-0 fastball down the heart of the plate go for a strike instead of taking a cut at it? Same goes on 3-1 counts. That's just bad execution, not inexperience or adjustments.
Other than the starting pitching the Indians have failed to execute at a highly maddening rate in every game. For them to be that bad is incredible and falls solely on the players. They are the ones playing the game. Not Mark Shapiro. Not Eric Wedge. The way they are playing the game right now is absolutely awful.
They showed some glimmers of hope in the White Sox series, but not enough as they lost two of three. They have lost 10 of 12. They travel to Kansas City to take on the Royals, losers of 10 straight and in just as big of an offensive funk as the Indians. Then they take on pitch-poor Texas and Detroit to complete an 11-game road trip, their longest of the year.
They may be 24-29, but they sit only 5 1/2 games out of the division lead. Shapiro needs to find a way to fill a hole he ignored. Wedge needs to open his mind to new ideas and new way to motivate and get the most out of his players. The players need stop feeling sorry for themselves, realize they are talented and just play the game. They can still make it Tribe Time Now, but they have to decide if they want to, and decide quickly...or it will be too late.