Sunday, May 25, 2008

Standing still

There is a common belief in sports, business, or any other competitive, performance-driven endeavor that says, "If you aren't getting better, you're getting worse."

Excellence is a matter of constant maintenance. No person or organization that aspires to greatness stands pat and assumes that they've carved a toe hold on the mountain of success, a floor which they will not sink beneath.

We've seen it with Tiger Woods, an obsessive competitor who has repeatedly remade his swing in an attempt to eradicate any flaw. We've seen it with Michael Jordan in his later career, perfecting a fall-away jumper after he returned from minor league baseball a step slower. Those two athletes, possibly the greatest players their respective sports have ever seen, are the ones who could be excused before all else if they decided to coast a bit here and there. But Woods never does. Jordan never did. They don't because they know standing still is competitive suicide.

Indians GM Mark Shapiro is apparently taking a different approach. One that embraces the belief that a baseball team, like fine wine, needs time to age, time for chemical reactions to take place and molecules to find their proper places so that, by the time you pop the cork on that vintage Merlot, it has reached its full flavor potential.

But it only takes a quick glance at the Tribe's offensive statistics to come to the conclusion that so far, Shapiro only has a Thermos full of grape juice to work with.

When it became apparent earlier this season that the offense was going to become a long-standing problem, Shapiro said he wanted his team to "heal itself from within." That could be interpreted many ways. Does he want the farm system to ride to the rescue the way they did lat year? So far, Ben Francisco, and possibly Michael Aubrey, have been the only bright spots delivered to the lineup from Buffalo.

Does he want struggling established players like Travis Hafner, Ryan Garko and Casey Blake to look deep inside themselves to find the reasons why they seem to strike out at every single RBI opportunity? So far, soul searching hasn't led to any enlightenment.

Does he want more coaching from the coaches? Does he want more managing from Eric Wedge? The Internet lynch mobs that want to ride Wedge and hitting coach Derek Shelton out of town on a rail would seem to indicate that's not working so well either.

Any way you slice it, when you're hitting .231 as a team, when you went more than six weeks without a homer from your cleanup spot, when seven players who could be classified as "regulars" are hitting below .220, telling your team that it needs to heal itself from within seems like a load of mumbo-jumbo from a GM who is trying futily to defense his decision to add no firepower to his offense this winter.

In sports, general managers are paid to be, to an extent, cynical. They're paid to believe that the offense that was mashing the ball last September could end up swinging balsa wood the following spring. They're paid to believe that last year's lights-out bullpen could be this year's gasoline-soaked rag. They're paid to to protect their roster by not letting players out of their contracts on a wink-and-nudge agreement (ahem, Jim Paxson).

GMs are supposed to think that way because they're supposed to be prepared and have ready-made contingency plans. It might not be fair to demand that Shapiro have looked into his crystal ball during the offseason and see an offense with a mean batting average dipping dangerously close to the Mendoza line, but it is fair to demand that he relentlessly seek out avenues through which to improve his team, even if he's satisfied with where they are, as he likely was over the winter.

But where would he play anyone he acquired, you ask? That's a valid question. The Indians already had a depth chart pretty well stacked as the team headed into the '08 season. They had a number of sizable contract commitments and were understandably reluctant to add more salary burden this winter.

But Shapiro should have been able to look at his roster and see the limited potential of historically part-time players like David Dellucci and Jason Michaels, the inexperience of Franklin Gutierrez, Asdrubal Cabrera and Ryan Garko, the advancing age of Casey Blake, the unrealized potential of Andy Marte, the vicious all-or-nothing swings of Jhonny Peralta and Hafner's shocking drop in production, and see developing trouble.

At this point, anyone hitting better than .250 would easily be able to take at-bats away from a number of those players. At this point, those players don't exist for the Indians unless they develop as part of the healing-from-within process.

It appears that Shapiro elected to assume that the clutch-RBI, walk-off homer prowess his club displayed late last season market the turning of a corner, the proverbial light bulb switching on and propelling his offense to elite status. What he should have assumed was that the '07 Indians caught lightning in a bottle (Two walk-off homers from Casey Blake in one week? Seriously?) and would need help to produce like that again in '08.

As a result, Shapiro stood still in the offseason, figuring the rest of the league, sans Boston, had to do all the work to catch up to his team. As of Sunday night, 10 of the 13 other American League teams have not only caught up to the 23-27 Indians, but passed them in the standings, including the entire AL East.

If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. It's a notion that Shapiro challenged this winter, and Shapiro, like his team, is losing.


Anonymous said...

Its nice to sit behind a computer screen and criticize the job of a GM in a major league sport. Since you've apparently decided you know whats best for the team and know exactly what ails it, Id like to hear from you WHO to trade for and WHO do we give away?

M. Collins

Erik said...

How come no one ever rushes to Danny Ferry's defense like this? Oh, I forgot, he's the idiot who is running LeBron out of town. Shapiro has a plan and is sticking to it, which means he has a built-in buffer against criticism.

I don't have any grand alternative plans. I don't think that's a prerequisite for writing a column like this, because I'm not the one getting paid a big salary each year to make sure my offense isn't hitting .231 in late May.

All I'm saying is that enough evidence was there to clue Shapiro in to the possibility that this offense wasn't going to perform in '08 the way it did in '07, and maybe he should have been a little more proactive (to use a favored term of his) about improving the offense over the winter.

Zach said...

23 wins on May 26 is an acceptable win total for this market, remember?

Seriously though, the Indians lineup has no magic cure-all. I have been saying for weeks the Indians should play Andy Marte for a while to see if he can out-perform Blake or Garko. When anyone raises this point, we are told the Indians are trying to win now.

I fail to see how playing Casey Blake 150 times a season accomplishes this.

The problem with the Indians is that they just assumed they could run the same team out there (minus a .300 hitting Kenny Lofton) and all would be fine.

But it doesn't work that way. John Hart understood this after 1995, and let Mark Clark and Paul Sorrento (and later Eddie Murray and Carlos Baerga)go.

But the offensive woes can almost be designated to Travis Hafner. And I'm so sick of someone saying he's coming out of it every time he gets a single.

If Hafner was hitting like the guy the Indians paid for last spring, this team would be winning more games.

But add Hafner to a sea of inconsistent players, and the machine breaks down.

The problem is the Indians are stuck with what they have. Had they been proactive in the offseason in signing a bat, things might be different.

But a lineup with Blake, Dellucci and Cabrera is going to be weak,and little can change that now. Hafner's poor hitting turns the offense from troubling to catastrophic.

davemanddd said...

amen, amen and amen. if you put detroit's offense alongside the tribe's pitching staff, you could print your world series tickets up right now. that being said, the tribe certainly does need to do something about their offensive (as in pee-yew) offense and they need to do it now. we already know what we got with the likes of david de-douche-bag, casey blank and jhonny pissralta which is just a bunch of garbage. now is the time to make drastically hard but certainly necessary decisions as to what kind of team you are going to continuously put on the field. with steroids no longer being part of the equation, the days of the still-producing journeyman veteran are over and as such, these types of players need to be jettisoned, or at best, put in more part-time reserve roles. i would be content if andy marte were given the same number of at-bats that casey has been given and just make casey this "super-utility" player that so many other people thinks he would be better at instead of just letting him play 3rd base every day and thereby stunting marte's development. i honestly think the tribe front office needs to make a very serious run at acquiring baltimore 2nd baseman brian roberts as well as colorado 3rd baseman garrett atkins. john hart was never afraid to make any deal that improved his team, no matter what the cost, whereas the ultra-conservative mark shapiro appears quite gun-shy to make any similar moves with his prospects. don't give me that b.s. about mortgaging their future either. i want to win a championship now, not just be competitive for the next 3-5 years. if they win a championship this year by making a big trade and it causes them to have a losing record for the next 10 years, i can live with that. just give me one championship and i can die a happy man. to hell with having a competitive team over a long haul. we had a competitive team in the 90's and still got zero championships because hart was unable to deal for that ever elusive "ace". now we have an ace but no stud hitters. can we please find the happy medium???

Ben said...

I had WKNR on early this past Saturday morning and whoever the host was made a point which I really liked.

He talked about the Tribe had tried to rebuild and contend at the same time and it blew up in their faces. They signed Matt Lawton and Ricky Gutierrez. It was worthless, they needed to totally commit to rebuilding, they couldn't do both.

Now they're at the other end of the spectrum; it's time to contend, but they're still trying to keep their farm system loaded. They can't do both, they need to totally commit to winning NOW, they can worry about prospects later.

I thought this was an excellent point. They're still trying to have things both; they needed to totally commit to rebuilding and now they need to totally commit to contending.

That being said, it's hard to trade for talent in May when everyone is still in contention. But by the time some bats might be available, it could be time to seriously consider trading CC.....

(also, I defend Danny Ferry!)