Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gone with the wins

It's over. The credits are rolling, and it wasn't a happy ending.

Wednesday's trade of Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco to the Phillies essentially finishes what the Bartolo Colon trade of 2002 started.

The rebuild is kaput. Mark Shapiro's original plan is busted after seven years, two winning seasons and one playoff appearance. It's back to the drawing board, and it's going to take at least several years before any new momentum might be able to slingshot the Indians back up the standings. Until then, build up your emotional callouses and prepare for a lot of losing as the Indians try to piece their organization back together.

More and more, I'm hoping that task will fall on new shoulders, but that's a whole other column.

For now, putting Shapiro squarely in the crosshairs of blame for this deal is attempting to simplify a complicated issue by hunting for a scapegoat. There are several reasons why Shapiro traded Lee now, and at least a few of them aren't his crosses to bear. Shapiro is on the hook for who the Indians received in return, but not entirely for the circumstances that led to the trade.

First, Lee's relationship with Indians management was tenuous at best. He still held a grudge for the way he felt he was treated during his worst of times in 2007, when he was demoted and didn't make the postseason roster. Lee was able to harness his resentment and use it to better himself in a big way in '08, and after a slow start, '09 as well.

This spring, the Indians reportedly didn't want to talk contract extension with Lee because they didn't want to sign him at peak value. That probably further agitated the waters between player and organization.

With all that in mind, it's reasonable to wonder if Lee was a voice of dissension in the clubhouse, a guy who spoke negatively of management. We know how the Indians deal with those kinds of players. They get rid of them.

Second, the Phillies seemed to really want to make a move for a frontline starter. Shapiro's haul for Lee and Francisco (pitching prospects Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp, catching prospect Lou Marson and minor league infielder Jason Donald) has been met with a heavy helping of criticism by fans and the local media, but if timing was an issue, perhaps Shapiro wasn't going to find a team more willing to make a blockbuster deal than the Phillies, who are attempting to stock up for defense of their World Series title.

But the third reason for the trade is perhaps the most disheartening, because it involves the financial state of the Indians. If the Indians made this trade primarily for financial reasons, it forecasts rough seas ahead for the franchise, at least until the economy improves noticeably.

No secret, the economic nosedive of the past year has hit Ohio hard. A region already losing jobs to business flight is now losing jobs to downsizing at established companies. Widespread job loss means family budgets around the region get tightened, and discretionary spending -- like Tribe tickets -- is among the first things to go. Couple that with a lousy on-field product and a palpable distrust of Indians management throughout the fan base, and you have a recipe for rusty turnstiles at Progressive Field.

As of last month, the Indians were averaging a little over 22,000 per game. A beyond-capacity crowd for the Cavaliers, a sparse crowd for the Indians.

Less attendance leads to reduced merchandise sales, and likely indicates shrinking ratings for the club's game telecasts as people find other things to do with their summer besides watch a losing baseball team.

All of it nails Larry and Paul Dolan squarely in the wallet. And that's what makes this summer's purge of (so far) Lee, Francisco, Mark DeRosa, Rafael Betancourt and Ryan Garko so troubling. For at least the short term, we might be going retro in Cleveland. The cash-strapped Tribe of the '70s and '80s might be returning, selling off their best players to save money.

Lee was slated to make $9 million next year, should the Indians have picked up his club option. If $9 million for one year is too rich for the Dolans' blood, that's a sign that ownership might fear some very real financial distress over the horizon, if things don't pick up on the revenue front. But that's an "if" that is only truly known by the Tribe's high rollers and accountants. It's up to the rest of us to speculate.

But if we are to play the role of Bill Belichick, who famously only went by what he saw, what we see is a team that just traded their best pitcher at least half a season before it was truly necessary, meaning the fear of losing Lee to free agency was not the only factor at work here.

The Indians have performed what could loosely be described as fire sales in 2006 and '08. But the players traded in those purges amounted to assorted flotsam and jetsam that didn't play into the team's long term plans.

The trades of 2009 cut a lot deeper -- and deeper still, if the Indians trade Victor Martinez before Friday's trade deadline -- and seem to resemble a white flag more than an attempt to retool for next season.

This coming rebuild is a far cry from Shapiro's original plan of 2002 and '03. It won't arrive on the heels of a seven-year run of success and the benefit of the doubt it provides. It will arrive in the midst of an economic hurricane, with a fan base running the emotional gambit from angry to exasperated to jaded, thoroughly unwilling to spend what little mad money they have on the Indians.

The biggest battle the Indians leadership regime will have to fight -- whether it's the present cast of characters or a future regime -- won't occur between the foul lines, or even in the farm system. It will be the battle to reclaim the franchise's reputation, a battle to get the fans to believe again, both with their hearts and their pocketbooks.

Unfortunately, Wednesday's trade just made that battle a lot harder to win.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Great article as usual. I always look forward to your posts. Let's be honest, the window closed for the Tribe when they went down 3-2 to Boston 2 years ago. I say this being an ex-Shapiro "fanboy".