Some tough decisions awaited the Cleveland Indians organization as the 2002 season unfolded.
After nearly a decade of fielding championship-caliber ballclubs, the team was relinquishing its vice grip hold of the American League Central Division. The few stars that remained from the great postseason runs of the 90s were either aging or seeking big financial scores. The strategy of filling the gaps with pricey hired guns via free agency was failing.
For the first time in a decade, the Indians hoisted the white flag while the regular season was still in progress and began a rebuilding plan.
Predictably, the fans were divided into two camps:
1. The bitter, angry camp that refused to accept the new ownership and believed things should continue with the Indians as one of the league's elite, no matter what the cost, and...
2. The camp that believed it was time to let go of the 90s teams and break it down in order to build it back up for another run of success a few years down the road.
Young General Manager Mark Shapiro took a great deal of heat for dealing the team's ace, Bartolo Colon to Montreal for prospects. The front office knew things would get worse before they got better, and hoped some of the top tier prospects in their loaded farm system would pan out.
The team lost 94 games in 2003, yet there were signs of better days ahead. Young CC Sabathia was starting to look like the ace he was projected to be. A young sinkerballer named Jake Westbrook looked promising as did Cliff Lee, who the Tribe obtained in the Colon trade. On the offensive side, young sluggers Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner gave Tribe fans reasons for optimism as did a 29-year-old career minor-leaguer named Casey Blake.
By the following season, the team finished just two games under .500 setting up a three year run that saw the Indians return as one of the league's elite teams.
After the devastating choke in the 2007 ALCS, however, plans veered off course. Expected to challenge for another Central Division title in 2008, the Tribe stumbled out of the gate and never recovered.
Suddenly, the club was trading another ace, this time Sabathia, for prospects and surrendering another season. For many Tribe fans, it was way too soon to start rebuilding again.
By 2009, the housecleaning continued with the trades of Cliff Lee and Vic Martinez as the Tribe limped to a 97-loss, last place finish. Shapiro and company hoped they could repeat the last rebuild and again field a winner in just a couple years.
When the 2010 season started, it was clear something had gone wrong. More specifically, EVERYTHING had gone wrong. The few veterans that remained in place to help usher in the young guys to big league stardom either underperfomed (Jhonny Peralta, Travis Hafner) couldn't stay healthy (Asdrubal Cabrera) or a combination of the two (Grady Sizemore, Kerry Wood).
More disturbingly, an astonishing percentage of the young players failed to make a successful transition to the big leagues.
At this point, it appears Shapiro failed to hit a homerun on ANY of the multiple prospects acquired in the Sabathia, Lee and Martinez deals. With 25-year old Matt LaPorta looking hopeless at the plate and Michael Brantley failing to hit his weight and being sent back to the minors, the Sabathia trade is shaping up to be a major bust.
Two months into the season and the Indians are already out of contention with the second-worst record in baseball. Fan reaction has progressed past anger to the worst thing a sports franchise can experience -- indifference. The Indians rank dead last in the majors in attendance, filling a tad more than 15,000 seats a contest.
If you dig below the surface, it gets even uglier for the Tribe. Years of atrocious drafting and the poor returns on the aforementioned trades have left the farm system with little blue chip talent. Just one guy, catcher Carlos Santana is consistently mentioned by the Cleveland media, and while he hits a ton, he is weak defensively and rarely throws potential basestealers out.
Of the 102 draft selections the Indians made between the 2004 and 2005 drafts, just three players (Trevor Crowe, Tony Sipp and Jensen Lewis) are on the big league roster and neither are considered impact players.
Simply put, the Indians brass has made way too many mistakes for a small-market team with a meager payroll and the future is about a bleak as it has been in the last quarter century. Since the a team was first called the Cleveland Indians in 1915, the franchise has never suffered back-to-back 95-or-more-loss seasons. This year's team is three games WORSE than last year's squad after 52 games. That team dropped 97 contests.
Next year Mark Shapiro will move up in the organization and hand the GM duties to longtime assistant, Chris Antonetti. Considering the path this baseball team is currently on, Antonetti may be smart to decline the job