Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Well running dry

It's happening again, just like last off-season.
The Indians woo free agents with a bunch of pomp and circumstance to try and compensate for their lack of money. Then the free agents smile, nod and jump into the back of a Brinks truck that another team has prepared.
It happened last year with starting pitcher Matt Clement, who wasted no time accepting a lucrative offer from the Red Sox. Boston and their megabucks jumped into the fray after the Indians spent weeks painstakingly pursuing Clement.
The same thing happened this year with closer B.J. Ryan.
The Indians entertained Ryan and his wife Candi the week before Thanksgiving. They put his image on the Jacobs Field scoreboard wearing a digitally-placed Indians cap. General Manager Mark Shapiro wined and dined him.
Ryan accepted the hospitality with no reservation, then promptly went to Toronto and signed a five-year deal worth an estimated $47 million with the Blue Jays.
How much do you want to bet that on the plane ride out of Cleveland, Ryan and his agent were saying, "Cleveland? Hell, no. We know someone will offer more money."
Bob Howry certainly wasted no time in vacuuming up some of the big-market cash when he gobbled up a three-year, $12 million offer from the Cubs, leaving a hole in the Cleveland bullpen large enough to sink the Titanic again.
The Indians are quickly running out of options. Ryan and Howry, their best two closer options for next year, have now signed with other teams. Trevor Hoffman, in the sunset of a distinguished career, is probably the next-best available closer, but far from what he once was.
After him, the selection dulls dramatically, with Tom Gordon and Octavio Dotel as budget buys. Then there is the old, reliable standby Bob Wickman, who apparently hasn't made up his mind whether he even wants to return for another year.
Kevin Millwood is back home in Duluth, Ga. waiting to see who offers him what. In an article our paper ran today, he was quoted as saying "I guess it depends on what the owner does" when asked about his chances of returning to the Indians.
Translation: don't hold your breath. Millwood will likely go where the owner's pocketbook is greenest, which won't be Cleveland.
While pitcher after pitcher falls off the free agency board in rapid-fire succession, the Indians still haven't addressed the need to upgrade first base and/or right field. If Millwood, knowing he is the best or second-best starting pitcher on the market, forces teams to play a waiting game until January, all the decent first base and outfield options could be off the board.
If the Indians play along, saving their cash for Millwood, waiting on his decision even as all the other choice free agents find other homes, and Millwood leaves anyway, this off-season would be an unmitigated disaster. The Indians would be in serious danger of backsliding next year, plugging holes with more Casey Blakes.
No matter how much we, as fans, and the Indians front office, as negotiators, want to believe that smiles and handshakes matter, they don't in free agency. Money matters. Money is all that matters. Expensive dinners, video presentations, flower bouquets for the wife, it's all nice. But that all gets wadded up and thrown away at the negotiating table.
That's how a high-aspiring young team like the Indians always loses this time of year, and how the money-laden yet perennially-pathetic Mets land the likes of Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner.

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