Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro's Tenure: A Question of Accountability

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Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro's Tenure: A Question of Accountability
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Game One of the 2009 World Series: The New York Yankees versus the Philadelphia Phillies. Cliff Lee versus CC Sabathia—two recent Cy Young Award winners, two former teammates with Cleveland. To be sure, Lee-Sabathia in Game One is a dream matchup for the baseball fan. But what of the Cleveland Indians fan? Could there possibly be a bigger indictment of the Indians' management than that Game One pitching matchup?

ESPN and other major media outlets frequently point out that in only two seasons, the Indians have gone from within one win of the World Series to tied for last place in the Central division. These people provide only a superficial analysis of what precipitated this fall.

It is particularly interesting that the General Manager overseeing this demise has not only avoided serious criticism but has maintained the support and respect not only of his owner, but also of his peers around the league, who have made it no secret they admire what he has been able to do during his tenure given the "limited resources" of his organization. But is this respect for Mark Shapiro—a two-time Sporting News Executive of the Year—and his avoidance of scrutiny warranted?

It would not seem so. Shapiro described the Oct. 28th Lee-Sabathia matchup as "bittersweet." To Cleveland fans, this must have seemed an odd adjective to choose given that they were feeling only pain or disgust. In fact, Shapiro’s tenure has left the majority of fans bitter toward the man and the franchise he runs, which seems like an entirely different organization from the proud 1990s juggernaut that he inherited from John Hart.

The fact is Shapiro deserves a large share of the blame for the demise of the Indians due to his poor evaluation of talent, questionable trades, inability to put together a winning coaching staff, and his shortsighted and seemingly desperate free agent signings.

Being an effective evaluator of talent is essential to nearly all the tasks a General Manager is charged with, but Shapiro’s ineffectiveness in this area is especially glaring when one looks at his draft track record.

In 2001, (his first season as GM) with his first-round pick, Shapiro selected Dan Denham. Denham has yet to crack a big league roster and had an ERA just a hair under five in the Pacific Coast League this past season. From 2003-05 Shapiro selected (all with first round picks) Michael Aubrey, Jeremy Sowers, and Trevor Crowe. These three have all bounced back and forth between the minors and Cleveland and have offered the Indians no positive impact to speak of. The jury is still out on Shapiro’s more recent early round picks.

This inability to evaluate talent is also evident in Shapiro’s recent free agent signings. In order to improve a failing bullpen, Shapiro has opted to take chances on players such as Masa Kobayashi and Kerry Wood. Both proved to be massive disappointments. In order to solidify the outfield and add depth, Shapiro has signed Jason Michaels, Trot Nixon, and David Dellucci—all of whom were vastly overpaid for the minimal production they provided.

Perhaps the most disappointing of Shapiro’s signings is the $57 million contract extension he gave to the injury-prone Travis Hafner in 2007. Hafner’s numbers since the end of the 2007 season: 21 HRs, 73 RBI, .244 BA. Shapiro is fond of repeating that the Indians need to be as frugal and efficient as possible given that they are a small market team. Perhaps he should heed his own advice. Shapiro’s proclivity to offer bad deals is exacerbated by his track record of letting go of promising—and cheap—young talent prematurely, such as Franklin Gutierrez, Brandon Phillips, Ryan Ludwick, etc.

Yet Shapiro built his reputation on trades, most notably the Bartolo Colon for Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore heist. However, the brilliance of that trade is diminished by the fact that the Montreal Expos (Cleveland’s trade partner) were facing imminent contraction and were thus willing to trade the farm for a No. 1 starter, such as Colon, who could help them make a playoff push in their last year of existence.

To see the weakness of Shapiro’s record vis-à-vis trades, it’s helpful to keep in mind that his first ever trade was Roberto Alomar—undoubtedly one of the best second baseman of all time—for Matt Lawton and a few prospects who never panned out, but one really only needs to look to this past season.

In 2009, Shapiro traded reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee for four prospects. The headliners of the deal were Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp. A disturbing number of scouts that have evaluated Carrasco over the past two years have expressed reservations about his ability to produce at the big league level. Less than two months after the deal was complete, Knapp had arthroscopic shoulder surgery.

This past season, All-Star Victor Martinez, the heart, soul, and de facto captain of the team, was also traded for prospects. The jewel of this trade was hard-throwing Nick Hagadone, who is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery. 2009 also saw Shapiro practically give away the at-times dominant Rafael Betancourt and the valuable and versatile Mark DeRosa.

Shapiro can also be held accountable for maintaining an underachieving coaching staff for too long. The recently fired Eric Wedge and his staff proved time and again both that they could not win when it counted (see the team’s collapse at the end of the 2005 season or its inability to beat Boston one more time in the 2007 ALCS) and that they were incapable of effectively utilizing and further developing young talent (players such as Fausto Carmona, Josh Barfield, and Andy Marte come to mind here). Yet Shapiro stayed committed to this staff year after year.

However, all this is not to necessarily brand Mark Shapiro one of the worst GMs in recent memory. There have, indeed, been bright spots and intelligent moves during his tenure; his acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo is one such example. There also appears to be help on the horizon—in the form of Matt LaPorta and Carlos Santana—thanks to Shapiro’s due diligence.

Given his overall transactional history, though, the Indians fan must be worried if Shapiro can oversee a period of long-term and sustained success. Considering the lack of returns Shapiro has received for all of his moves and deals during his time as GM in Cleveland, coupled with his seemingly infinite array of excuses and explanations for the Indians’ inconsistency, the appropriate question going forward seems to be: Has Cleveland experienced brief spells of success in the past 10 years because of Shapiro’s leadership, or in spite of it?

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