If the Indians had come within a whisker of the World Series in 2006 and finished in fourth place in 2007, Yankee pitching prodigy Phil Hughes might have been an Indian by this past Christmas, or Red Sox pitching prodigy Clay Buchholz, or Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who might have given Eric Wedge an excuse to move the potent bat of Grady Sizemore down in the order.
Alas, the toe-stub occurred in '06 and the near-miss in '07, meaning that Indians management can't risk moving their hefty lefty ace and intentionally detonating a shot at winning a world championship this year.
That, in turn, means the Indians will almost certainly watch C.C. walk away at season's end for little more than a sandwich pick in the '09 entry draft. But it will be worth it if the Indians are parading down Euclid Avenue at the end of October with a World Series trophy in the lead car.
....If, if, if.....
"If" is the siren song that woos any sports team coming off a near-miss season. "If" makes general managers impulsive -- it just so happens that Mark Shapiro's impulse is to stand pat and lean on his farm system.
"If" makes a team's uppity-ups believe that, yes, they are this good, and "if" they can just get a few more breaks to go their way, it's title time.
I call it the "stepping stone theory." The notion that a team "headed in the right direction" will always be able to use the previous season's success as a springboard to even more success the following year. In the Tribe's case, it's the notion that they've cut a toe hold at Game 7 of the ALCS, so the next step is the World Series.
The 1996 Indians apparently missed that memo when they failed to win the World Series. So did the '98 Indians, though that team was radically different from the '97 team.
Certainly, there are reasons to believe that this Indians club is in better shape than those Indians clubs, or even the recent White Sox and Tigers clubs that followed successful, hardware-winning seasons with mighty regressions the following year.
This Indians team is far more a total package than any of those teams. In fact, when taken as a sum of its offense, starting pitching and relief pitching parts, you could make an argument that the Indians are surpassed only by the Red Sox as the most complete team in baseball. The places in which the Tribe doesn't have outstanding quality, such as the corner outfield spots, the organization at least provides multiple potential solutions.
But even the enviable levels of talent and depth from which the Indians can draw cannot guarantee success. And it can't guarantee that Shapiro's don't-rock-the-boat gamble isn't going to blow up in his face and send him scurrying to trade C.C. for pennies on the dollar prior to July's trading deadline.
The '07 Indians had to win 96 of 162 regular season games, endure a midseason offensive swoon that cost C.C. and Fausto Carmona 20-win seasons, glean enough offense from other bats to compensate for a lackluster season from Travis Hafner, fend off the Tigers until mid-September, then beat the Yankees in Yankee Stadium just to advance to the ALCS and have the privilege of wasting a 3-1 series lead against the eventual World Series champion Red Sox.
That was all during a season in which they beat the now-traded Johan Santana five times, Justin Verlander three times and didn't have to face Francisco Liriano. It was a season in which they beat up on divisional opponents to the tune of a 48-24 record.
On top of walking through that mine field and coming out unscathed, the Indians stayed relatively healthy in '07 and had out-of-nowhere contributions from the minor leagues to compensate for a largely-ineffective free agent class.
Now, Shapiro and company are banking that last year's Indians can arrive back in the ALCS in '08 and take that mystical, magical next step when they get that 3-1 series lead. It seems to be a philosophy that takes a lot of variables for granted. But it's also a philosophy that is entirely defensible in light of what the team accomplished last season.
Just bad timing, I guess. Or really good timing, depending on how you look at it.
If Shapiro hits the jackpot and the Indians are toting World Series hardware this October, C.C.'s departure will be a footnote to a historical accomplishment. If Shapiro's pockets ends up inside out, he will become yet another sports executive to fall victim to the beautiful sirens of "if." And he will have a heck of a lot of work to do to reload his C.C.-less team for another World Series run in 2009.
And for those of us who followed the Indians of the '90s in their pursuit of an end of the rainbow and pot of championship gold that was never found, this song and dance will begin to look all-too-familiar.