Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mark Shapiro's second-best trade

When the subject of Mark Shapiro's finest trade as general manager of the Indians comes up, there are only a select few deals worthy to make the final cut.

Pilfering Travis Hafner from the Rangers for Ryan Drese and Einar Diaz is an obvious one. The 2002 Bartolo Colon deal that netted Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens from Montreal is another possibility, even though Lee landed with a thud this year and Phillips is well on his way to becoming a modern-day Joe Morgan playing second base in Cincinnati.

Eduardo Perez for Asdrubal Cabrera certainly looks like a steal at the moment.

But as the San Diego Padres struck an iceberg and began taking on water in the National League wild card race this past weekend, another trade came to mind -- or at least it should have.

Sometimes, it's not who you get. It's who you give up. And there is a growing trend of addition-by-subtraction deals involving Milton Bradley, who is to outfielders what Krakatoa was to tropical islands.

Everywhere Bradley has landed, he has quickly worn out his welcome, largely due to his sideshow-producing temper and apparent desire to needlessly provoke the opposition with flippant, Barry Bonds-esque acts like emphatically snapping open the Velcro on his batting gloves as he begins his home run trot.

Since 2001, the Expos have dumped him off on the Indians, who dumped him off on the Dodgers, who dumped him off on the Athletics. Earlier this year, the A's dumped him off on the Padres.

San Diego, like every other team that has traded for Bradley, was seduced by his potential. A switch-hitter with 30-homer, 100-RBI ability, he has never hit below .267 in any season since 2003. His career high is .321 in 101 games for the Indians in 2003. This year, he was hitting .306 for the season, .313 since joining the Padres.

The Padres' offense, one of the weakest among baseball contenders, relied heavily on Bradley's bat for several months. Sure, Bradley has a long history of volcanic outbursts, particularly at umpires, but if he can hit like he was hitting this year, the Padres probably figured that they could take the bad with the good.

The trouble is, the bad with Bradley can be really, really bad. And Sunday, it reached catastrophic levels.

Bradley insists that umpire Mike Winters baited him, calling him a dirty word as he stood at first base. The accepted story at this point says Bradley and Winters had a beef from earlier in the game when Winters rang him up on a third-strike appeal.

But what is for certain is that Bradley needed to be restrained multiple times from going after Winters. Padres manager Bud Black had to hold his outfielder by the jersey to keep him from physical contact with Winters, and the the subsequent fine and suspension it would bring.

(Think Eric Wedge remembers a thing or two about grabbing onto Bradley's jersey and holding on for dear life?)
Of course, we all know what happened after that. Bradley thrashed, Black tugged back, then Bradley fell and tore a knee ligament, ending his season when the Padres needed him the most.

And another team likely has second thoughts about trying to build an offense around Bradley.

When Wedge pressured Shapiro to trade Bradley just before the 2004 season began, Wedge was made out to be the bad guy in a lot of circles. He wanted his players to be puppets, detractors said. He wasn't a strong enough personality to take on a talented-but-mercurial player and turn him into a star.

We all had visions of Albert Belle back then. If Mike Hargrove could manage the tantrum-prone Belle to a 50-homer, 52-double season, why couldn't Wedge manage Bradley into a productive player ... that is, if Wedge was worth anything as a manager?

When the final straw snapped that spring, as Wedge benched Bradley for failing to run out a ground ball, then Bradley went AWOL in a taxi, we could all agree that Bradley had some issues to work out -- but that doesn't mean you just quit on a player, does it?

The comparison is faulty. Despite their standing as two of baseball's most temperamental antagonists, Bradley and Belle are not similar. Belle seldom showed extreme emotion on the field. Bradley, on the other hand, is a powder keg between the foul lines.

It turns out, Bradley has been, is, and always will be a walking distraction to a winning team. He's a fine all-around talent, but the positives begin and end there. Other than that, he's selfish, immature, injury-prone and possesses an ultra-sensitive hair trigger temper.

Trading Bradley for Franklin Gutierrez and Andrew Brown might have sent a bad message to Tribe fans at the time, fans who were looking for signs that the team was starting to pull out of its rebuilding nosedive. At that point, no one wanted to see a promising young player pawned off for yet more prospects who were three and four years away from the big leagues.

But keeping Bradley would have sent a worse message to the other players, a message that management was willing to appease a flaky player like Bradley instead of enforcing the same standards for everyone.

Over the past three years, Bradley's continuing unpredictable behavior and inability to stick in one place for any substantial length of time has proved Wedge and Shapiro right.

It might not have been Shapiro's best trade, but ridding the team of Bradley is certainly in the conversation for the second-best trade Shapiro has ever made. It didn't even take Gutierrez becoming the team's everyday right fielder to justify it. As the Indians found out, as the Padres are now learning the hard way, players like Bradley make poor building blocks for a contender, and parting ways with them is almost always addition by subtraction.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

2007 AL Central Champs

Five years ago, the Indians embarked on a rebuilding project that was controversial in the eyes of many fans.

We didn't want to let go of the success of the 1990s. We didn't want to leave the certainty of the past for the uncertainty of the future. Yet that's exactly what GM Mark Shapiro did when he cut ties with Bartolo Colon in June 2002, trading him to Montreal for Lee Stevens, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee.

Losing followed. A 68-94 record in 2003. A mid-August surge followed by a late-season swoon in 2004. Coming oh-so-painfully-close in 2005. The horrendous setback of 2006.

But today, it all came full circle. In 2001, an aging, veteran club Indians club clinched its sixth division title in seven years. In 2007, a much younger club has returned the Indians to the same place we left six years ago.

If that is the definition of rebuiding, consider the Indians rebuilt.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Removing all doubt

It's only September, and there is plenty of time for Cleveland fans to wring their hands over whether the Indians will choke when it really matters, or when it really, really matters.

But right now, when it matters, the Indians looked like a team ready for the challenge of the postseason.

The Tigers came into Cleveland with everything on the line. They needed to sweep, or at the very least take two of three, to keep their fast-dwindling playoff hopes alive. They were coming off a sweep of the Twins, and were playing their best ball in quite some time.

The Indians, meanwhile, had a reasonably comfortable lead in the division. A previous edition of the Indians, circa 2005, might have come down with a case of wanting-it-less-than-the-other-team-itis.

The Tigers and Indians haven't been able to shake each other all year. We braced ourselves for a series in which the Tigers would close the gap on Cleveland, turning the remaining week and a half of the season into a gut-churning horse race with the offseason awaiting the loser.

But with the season at a crossroads, with the Tigers throwing everything on the field in an effort to keep October from disappearing over the horizon, the Indians didn't just triumph. They wrapped, boxed, stamped and mailed the Tigers to the golf course, where they will now almost certainly start their offseason a week from Monday.

The Indians, the little-engine-that-could with the overmatched payroll, swept their chief division rival and turned their first division title in six years into a matter of mathematics. The magic number stands at three, the division lead at seven and a half games. The Indians have 10 games remaining, the Tigers nine.

That's dominance, any way you slice it.

Over the course of three days, the Indians managed to win games in which they faced a long-time tormentor (Kenny Rogers), one of the best young pitchers in the game (Justin Verlander), and avoided a letdown against Nate Robertson. In all three games, they trailed at some point, then rallied to win.

Monday's game will probably go into the history books as the backbreaker. Detroit's bullpen imploded, allowing a game-tying homer to Jhonny Peralta and a game-winner in extra innings to Casey Blake. But that game would have meant far less if the Tigers had won the next two.

But Tuesday and Wednesday, the Indians exhibited an intestinal fortitude not present even a month ago. They fell behind 4-1 to Verlander on Tuesday, but bludgeoned him out of the game with four home runs, winning 7-4.

The Indians have beaten Verlander and Johan Santana a combined eight times this year. Think about that when you think about the Tribe's current position.

Wednesday, C.C. Sabathia put his team in a 2-0 hole that screamed "letdown," but another Blake homer ignited the offense and the Indians chipped away at Robertson, winning 4-2, finishing off the sweep and making it safe to order the champagne, plastic sheeting and commemorative caps and t-shirts.

The Indians are going to be the 2007 American League Central Division Champions. And they can take all the credit for themselves. Detroit fans might think the Tigers choked, but they didn't. The Indians, right now, are just plain better. And they showed it this week, in no uncertain terms.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The chaos theory

Ever since the Browns re-entered the league eight years ago, I've been searching for my own version of the Holy Grail.

I want to see the Browns, someday, field a team that is capable of controlling the clock, imposing their will on another team and winning predictably, the way teams like the Patriots and Colts do.

I want to see a team that looks like it has its collective head screwed on straight, that doesn't look unstable and violently manic-depressive.

Unfortunately, the Browns of the past seven days are the Browns at their best since 1999: The kings of chaos.

Get blown out by the arch-rival Steelers in the season opener. Trade the starting quarterback two days later. Replace him with a guy who has zero wins in three NFL starts. Predict calamity as the high-powered Bengals visit town for Week 2. Then watch as the single most improbable outcome this side of aliens landing on the 50-yard-line unfolds.

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer passed for 401 yards and six touchdowns. Rudi Johnson, who always saves his best 2003 Jamal Lewis impersonations for Cleveland, rushed for 118 yards. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh had two touchdown catches apiece. Johnson made good on his promise to leap into the Dawg Pound.

The Bengals scored 45 points as the Browns defense -- supposedly the team's strength heading into the season -- laid an ostrich egg for the second straight week. And the Bengals lost.

How? Apparently Doc and Marty McFly managed to get the flux capacitor up and running and beamed the Browns back to 1989, the last time they scored 51 points in a game.

Apparently Derek Anderson drank some MarinoAde. Unfazed as the dropsies plagued Braylon Edwards, and at one point Lawrence Vickers, Anderson shrugged off weeks and weeks of inconsistent passing with an out-of-nowhere 328 yards and five touchdowns.

Which begs the question, "Where the bloody hell was this in the preseason?" If Anderson is capable of throwing like this, he should have buried Charlie Frye on the bench by the second week of August. Maybe last week's debacle against the Steelers wouldn't have happened if Anderson would have found the light switch a month earlier. Because you know and I know that the full resources of BALCO couldn't engineer a performance-enhancing drug potent enough to allow Frye to pass for 328 yards and five touchdowns in a single game.

But before we get too carried away, we need to rein in our adoration of Anderson right now. Sunday's win was just one game, just like the loss to the Steelers was just one game. Cincinnati's pass defense revealed exactly why, no matter how potent the Bengals offense becomes, they are going to stay a paper tiger (no pun intended) in the playoffs.

But even more than that, Sunday's game was so freakish, how can we possibly look upon it as a building block? Sure it was a win, but a win that's not likely to be replicated anytime soon. Chances are, the Browns aren't going to suddenly find their niche as an offensive juggernaut and win a bunch of 38-33 games.

Chances are, next week against the Raiders, who defend the pass far better than Cincinnati, it will be right back to scoring in the teens and the burden will be on the defense to come up with a few stops, which they have been utterly incapable of providing thus far -- game-clinching interceptions excluded.

This has been the story of the Browns' life for way too long now. It definitely feels good to get a win, especially a divisional win for the beleaguered Romeo Crennel. But if you're looking for something that the 2007 Browns can hang their hat on, this isn't it. This week's strengths tend to be next week's weaknesses, and vice versa.

Despite all the effort that has gone into fortifying the offense and defense, the Browns have become well-versed in only one thing since returning to the league: Flying by the seat of their pants. Sunday's improbable win is Exhibit A.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Waffle House

Politicians never listen to their own advice. Neither, apparently, do the handlers of the Cleveland Browns.

You're not supposed to govern by opinion polls because public opinion is extremely fickle. Yet how often do the local representatives kiss posterior to get votes the next time their name appears on a ballot?

Coaches and general managers of sports teams aren't supposed to cave to public demand, either. The old saying is that coaches who listen to the fans are destined to end up sitting with them in the stands.

Yet it appears public opinion is, in fact, influencing the method to Phil Savage's and Romeo Crennel's madness. Where fan and media pressure isn't influencing, a general lack of interest in making the tough calls seems to be picking up the slack.

This much we know: The Browns' leadership tandem (trio, if you want to throw Randy Lerner in there), has been treading on eggshells pretty much since the NFL draft. The number of noncommittal non-decisions Savage and Crennel have made since the spring is enough to choke ... well, an entire season.

They could have, and should have, named a starting quarterback at the outset of training camp. It should have been Charlie Frye, not because he was necessarily the best choice to win, but because on a team where continuity has been about as hard to access as Macchu Picchu, your best bet is to lay the groundwork for the most seamless torch-pass to Brady Quinn you can muster.

But in rode Derek Anderson on a white horse, lifting the Browns to an overtime win over the hapless Kansas City Chiefs late last year. In a city so desperate for football success in any form, this apparently qualified him to receive a legitimate look as a starter. The Anderson bandwagon picked up a head of steam in a hurry, and the Browns were happy to oblige.

So Savage rubber-stamped an open quarterback competition this year. The trouble is, straw in any form can't be spun into gold. Neither quarterback seized the job, despite the best efforts of Crennel and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to cross their fingers and hope really, really hard that the more physically-gifted Anderson would suddenly emerge as a modern-era Vinny Testaverde.

The QB cloud hung over the Browns for more than a month, through an 11-day Quinn holdout, through at least one coin flip to decide who would start a preseason game and through a large graveyard of offensive drives that died before their time. Finally, Crennel emerged and announced that the Browns were headed right back to where they were a year ago. Frye was starting.

As far as anticlimactic events go, that was the equivalent of any Super Bowl that featured the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills. And all it cost the Browns was a training camp's worth of building offensive continuity.

Then after finally, finally making up their minds, putting their foot down, making a move that showed some semblance of conviction, Crennel benched Frye a quarter into Sunday's miserable loss to the Steelers, and two days later, Savage traded him. In doing so, he might have revealed the real reason the Browns can't seem to achieve success.

Savage and Crennel can't blame the roster misadventures of Butch Davis anymore. Not with a couple of solid drafts and free agent classes now on the team. They can't blame hasty hiring of assistant coaches, not with the hand-picked tandem of Chudzinski and Todd Gratham piloting the playcalling. They can't blame a team president or a meddlesome owner. John Collins is long-gone and Lerner has an ongoing affair with his English mistress, Aston Villa.

The only guys left are the men in the mirror. Savage understands the talent-amassing part of the job. But that's only half the battle. You must manage that talent properly once you get it. That's something neither he nor Crennel seem to understand in full. Playing yo-yo with your quarterback situation until the tail-end of August, then pulling the plug on the guy you selected after one quarter of the first game of the season isn't managing your roster the right way. It sure as heck doesn't send a good message to the rest of the team.

It was probably a mistake to draft Frye and try to turn him into the future of the franchise. Savage was a rookie GM when he drafted Frye in 2005. Frye was coming off a great performance in the Senior Bowl, he was a local boy from a local school, and Savage was probably trying to play to the fans a little bit. But in the end, it was a "draft-and-hope" situation. Savage was hoping that Frye would be worth the third-round pick and would turn into a hometown boy made good. He didn't.

But instead of coming up with a definite plan on how to handle the Frye situation, Savage and Crennel swayed to extremes, burying him behind Trent Dilfer one year, then handing the starting job to him with no veteran mentor the next. This year, they split the difference by forcing him to compete for the starting job with Anderson, his competitive peer. All the while, Crennel and his ever-changing legion of offensive assistants were trying to de-program Frye's legs (his only true asset as a QB) and turn him into a pocket passer.

Here's a bet that once Mike Holmgren clears out all of the mental static Frye's head has accumulated over the past two years, he might actually become a productive player for the Seahawks.

Apparently, that's too much to ask of Browns management at this point. Whether it's caving to fan opinion, media criticism or their own indecision, Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel seem to be the masters of the mixed message. And the whole team is suffering because of it.

I'm not dead. I swear

Never meant for my blogging hiatus to go this long. But I am still alive and well, and should have a column up shortly.