Monday, June 29, 2009

How to Resuscitate the Indians in 5 Easy Steps

It's easy to forget about the Indians. They're a lifeless last-place team with absolutely no personality. They play in a football town that also just so happens to be the main stage for the greatest basketball player on earth and a team that is potentially on the verge of a title. Their home is a somewhat dated looking ballpark that is, much like it's sole tenant, a decade past its prime. They play in front of crowds that long for the big bats and bigger personalities of the 90's. As Mike Tyson might say, the Indians are quietly fading into Bolivian.

For the most part, the death of the Indians has been little more than a footnote on this site. With enough stress and disappointment in our lives, it's just easier to talk about the Cavs than it is to dwell on the Tribe's downward spiral. Although we would all probably acknowledge that something has been missing from this summer, most of us are generally content to keep the Indians out of sight and out of mind. While I find it difficult to find compelling reasons even to get myself to care about this organization, before we write them off altogether, let me just remind you of something that drifted into my conscience while reading a piece (more on the content later) about the Indians on ESPN today: When the Indians are winning, they're probably the most fun of any of our three teams to root for. I know that this town would probably implode if the Browns ever reached a Superbowl, but just consider the following about the Indians: 1) They play 162 games a year, 2) the bulk of their season is played in the summer and fall when people in Northeast Ohio actually venture out and associate with others, 3) you can watch them from a good seat for $15 bucks, and 4) they play the sport that has the most thrilling postseason (baseball is my 3rd favorite sport to watch but NOTHING, and I mean nothing, comes close to October baseball. It's as good as it gets).

Bottom line: We should care about the Indians. Our parents and grandparents care about them because they remember the champions of the 40's and 50's. We care about them because they were the central part of Cleveland's renaissance in the 90's. As much as we try to forget about it, this team really matters to this town, or at least it used to. Go ask the Downtown businesses which team is most important to Cleveland's metropolitan revitalization. It's not even close. 40,000 fans 81 times a year dwarfs the economic impact that any other team or activity can have on this city. The point to be made here is that the Indians have turned into a crappy organization and this town can't afford to have them stay that way. So, without further ado, I bring you 5 easy steps to fix the Indians.

1. Fire Eric Wedge:

I think I speak for just about every Indians fan when I say that it will be a slap in the face to all of us if Wedge survives this season. I don't even need to go through every reason. In a nutshell, he doesn't develop players and he doesn't give the fans one god damn reason to care about the team. His stoic bullshit has run its course with all of us. At this point, every interview is just a disgusting, patronizing sham. If you're going to act like he does, you'd better make sure you're a winner. Wedge may have taken a team with two aces and two unhittable relievers to the brink in 2007, but everything that happened prior to that second-half run and everything that has happened since game 4 of that ALCS have proven that Wedge is not a winner. Get rid of him.

2. Trade all or some of the following: Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Rafael Betancourt, Carl Pavano, Kerry Wood, Ryan Garko, and Jhonny Peralta:

Lets take these one at a time:

Cliff Lee: His value is at an all time high. If the Indians traded him now with a full year and a half left on his reasonable contract, they could duplicate the haul they received for Sabbathia. Contenders are always willing to trade prospects for aces. What makes Lee unique is that the Indians could even have small market teams offering multiple top prospects if he is moved now because those teams be willing to give up more for what is beyond the traditional 3-month trade-deadline rental. Lee has inexplicably become one of the best pitchers in baseball. Unfortunately, by the time the Indians are ready to contend again, he will have almost definitely moved on anyway. Trade him now. Let the deals for him and CC become the cornerstones of the next Indians contender.

Victor Martinez: This is by far the toughest call to make because Victor is one of the last guys here that actually makes the fans care. Trade him and you might have a full-fledged fan mutiny on your hands. Here's the thing though: Trading him just makes too much baseball sense to ignore for cosmetic reasons. He's over 30. His contract will be up before the Indians can contend again. Teams would pay a ransom for a backstop with his bat. Finally, and most importantly, the Indians top prospect plays his position (Santana). I love Victor Martinez. He plays hard, he does it with personality and flair, and he has been nothing but good to the fans in this town. That said, we'd be doing him a favor by moving him to a contender. It's in everyone's best interests to trade him soon.

Rafael Betancourt: Teams are always willing to overpay for relievers at the deadline, even right-handers. Betancourt is too old (34) to contribute to the next Indians contender. Moving him is an easy call.

Carl Pavano: It's a miracle that he actually has value right now. The Indians should take advantage of it.

Kerry Wood: There obviously aren't many games to save. I'm not sure what we accomplish by paying him another $15 million over the life of his deal. Even given his rocky start, teams needing a setup man or closer will pay for his services at the deadline.

Ryan Garko: Slow, no pop, no position. This is exactly the type of player that has no future here. See what you can get for him and move on.

Jhonny Peralta: See Garko, Ryan. This isn't the type of guy you build a team around. Asdrubal is our SS of the present and future. Peralta is a disgusting player, and I never want to see him in an Indians uniform again.

If a player isn't on this list, it's either because he's both young and good (Sizemore, Cabrera, Choo, etc.), promising enough to potentially be a part of our future (Reyes, Carmona, Laffey, Lewis, etc.), worthless in trade (Francisco, Barfield, etc.), or just laughably overpaid to the point where it's not even worth trying to move him (Hafner). If a player isn't in one of these categories, he needs to be moved.

Now, I know what you're thinking: If you traded all of the guys on my list, the Indians would be a 55 win team that nobody would watch. Here's my question to you: Is that any worse than a 70-win team that nobody will watch? I mean honestly, what's the difference? The only difference I can think of is that our current 70-win team lacks the depth of top-level prospects to actually improve in the coming years. My hypothetical 55-win team is stocked with a handful of elite prospects and even more high-ceiling developmental players that could evolve into solid major-leaguers. As a fan, which team would you rather root for?

Here's what this really boils down to: When you're a small to mid-market team like the Indians, if you're going to build a perennial contender like we saw in the 90's, you either have to get extremely lucky through the draft and player development (obviously not the Indians forte), or you have to make enough timely moves to create a bumper crop of top prospects that can grow into a contender before they all reach free-agency. The Indians need to infuse their system with a glut of young talent in the mold of Santana, Brantley, and LaPorta. Holding on to veterans just for appeasement and appearances isn't going to help anyone. Still, I recognize that a massive fire sale is going to create even more resentment from the fans. Thus, I give you step 3 . . .

3. Hire Omar Vizquel or Mike Hargrove as Manager:

I know what you're thinking: I'm typing with my heart and not my head. Allow me to make my case: The Indians have two gigantic problems right now: 1) They stink and have no serious prospects for improvement; and 2) perhaps more importantly, they have NO connection with the fans anymore. There is not a single personality in that dugout, aside from maybe Martinez, who gives the fans a reason to care. They all carry on like robots. Even Sizemore, who I love as a player (and who under the right regime might actually become the top 5 player that he should be), is more of a bassist than a frontman. There is a huge disconnect between the Indians and their fans. That problem is only going to be exacerbated by the selloff that I'm calling for in step 2. There are only two men on Earth who harbor the potential to make the fans care again if this franchise goes into a full-blown rebuilding mode: Omar Vizquel and Mike Hargrove.
Vizquel is the better choice of the two here. The Indians would sell more tickets with a 50-win team managed by Vizquel than by continuing with their current operation headed by Mr. Personality. Vizquel is one of the most beloved athletes in the history of Cleveland sports, which is saying a lot for a career .273 hitter. What's more, I think he will eventually be a very good manager. He obviously has a high baseball IQ, he was well-liked as a teammate, his media skills are fantastic, and most of all, he understands how to connect with the fans. Some might argue that it's foolish to hire a guy without any coaching experience, let alone managerial experience, but honestly, how much of a risk are we really talking about here? First, you'd be handing him the keys to an operation with no chance of contending regardless of the manager. Second, he can't be any worse at developing players than our current manager. Third, we're talking about a baseball manager here. They're important but they're not football coaches or even coordinators for that matter. They make a difference but it's not as if the job couldn't be done by a novice, especially one who has been playing professionally for 20 years.

Vizquel + young talent is a package you could sell in this town. They'd still be bad and they still wouldn't be breaking any box office records, but I assure you, this town would embrace them. People would actually care about the Indians again. Vizquel could walk out of the dugout and simply wave his cap, Jimmy Dougan style, before every game, and it would still give fans more of a thrill than the outfit currently masquerading as the Indians. If you don't believe me then you didn't see the reception Vizquel got when he came back to Cleveland as a Giant. The word beloved doesn't do justice to the relationship between Vizquel and the fans here. He's the right guy to make this team matter again.
Would he take the job? It's hard to say. He's still under contract with the Rangers and probably wants to play as long as he has a job, but you could concieve of a scenario in which Wedge is fired, an interim manager is named, and then Vizquel is contacted about taking the job next year. The guy loves the Indians, loves the game, and probably wouldn't mind keeping a 7-figure salary for the foreseeable future. Who knows if he wants to manage, but there is at least some reason to believe that the Indians would have a shot.

If Omar won't take the job, the Indians would have no better option than Hargrove. I'm the first to admit that teams rarely go forward by looking backwards, but given the special circumstances surrounding the Indians right now (namely, that the fans hate the organization), a little nostalgia might go a long way. I saw a piece on ESPN yesterday about Hargrove (the one I referenced earlier) and I have to admit, it made me sad. I was never really a huge Hargove fan but I must concede that I miss the guy. Yes, 99% of those feelings are probably more about what Hargrove represents than what he actually brought to the table, but perception is every bit as important as reality. If the current Indians regime can make itself look a little bit more like the one that preceeded it, maybe the fans would be willing to give them a shot. You could sell Hargrove + a youth movement as the second coming of the 90's Indians. Plus, while Hargrove may not have been the best game manager in the league, he certainly oversaw the development of a lot of great young players, roids or no roids. He's currently managing a Summer League team in Kansas called the BJs (I swear I'm not making that up) and desperately wants back into the Majors. If called, he'd be on a plane before Dolan hung up the phone.
4. Sell Reality:

Cleveland fans are not as stupid as the current Indians regime might wish to believe. They can feed us heaping bowls of bullshit, and lord knows they try, about staying the course and sticking with what you've got, but we all know the truth: The Indians aren't going anywhere. They have a couple of stars, a handful of above-average players, a few talented prospects, and a bunch of crap. Yet, in spite of this painfully obvious reality, we can't ever seem to get an honest assessment from Wedge, Shapiro, or Dolan, about what's really happening to this team. When my plan takes full effect, and the Indians as we know them have been imploded and the team is led by Vizquel or Hargrove, ownership and the front office need to come clean. Tell the fans the truth: "Look, we weren't going anywhere so we traded all of our veterans and and decided to go into full-blown rebuilding mode. But, at the same time, we whacked the manager you all hated and replaced him with an icon that all of you love and who knows the game well enough to succeed. We want you to come along for the ride and grow with this team, because as you can see by all of our elite young talent, we're going to be special down the road." Give Cleveland fans some credit. It's not that we're afraid of losing . . . It's that we're afraid of never winning. Give us genuine hope and we'll buy into it, even if you tell us it's going to take a while.

5. Let the kids play:

If you're going to sell the youth movement, you've got to let the kids play. Aside from speeding along their development, this will also foster the type of player-fan connection that is so sorely lacking in the current state of affairs. Fans always have a greater connection to players that they watch grow up. That's part of the reason, along with the fact that they had all-stars at every position, that the mid-90's Indians meant so much to this town. So many of those guys made the leap as Indians. For my future team, the same thing needs to happen. No more Dave Delluccis, Carl Pavanos, or any other stopgap veterans brought in to make the team slightly less worse (and take away at-bats or innings from the prospects). It will be time to live, and more likely die, at least for a while, with the kids.

That's it. That's my plan. You may not like it, but I can assure you it's better than the road to nowhere we're currently traveling. How about it Tribe fans? What do you think?


Alvaro Espinoza said...

Good thoughts Biff - it's been near impossible for me to sit down and try to write something about this team because I'm so turned off by it. I can't remember another summer in which I've sat down to watch so few games. I think I respect myself too much to do it.

As for Omar, he's currently on the Rangers - if any move was made to bring him in, he'd either have to retire, be traded to us, or wait until after the season.

I still think Tony Pena may be a nice fit (as he's managed before and he's some intensity to him) but he lacks that wow factor that Omar or Hargrove would bring to the table.

I also think you need Brantley and LaPorta playing every day up here. Indians' fans may not like it - but Andy Marte has been playing great all year in Triple A - I'd give him one more shot (do you really think Peralta is going to be do any better at this point?) The Tribe mismanages its top prospects so often, it's no wonder that so many of them fail and fall flat (see that joke of a Laporta call up earlier in the season).

Oh - and here's a fun game for everyone. Try to predict the Indians' lineup each day. It's near impossible to do. Let's have some fucking consistency.

Lenny k said...

Good read on the many woes that Tribe has become this season. Agree with the Wedge comments, still cant figure out why this guy has been given so many chances, in any other city he would have been gone years ago.

Watched his interview after last nights game- About the play that he got ejected on, he was pissing and moaning about the umps making that call and blaming them. Garko in his interview simply blamed himself for his swimg that produced that terrible dribbler. Wedge needs to go as he brings no fire to this club, which is fine when you are winning-something he is not doing.

tony pena would be a good fit for this club in my opinion.

Art Brosef said...

I like Tony Pena as well. Id rank him after Vizquel and before Hargrove.

I understand that its difficult for the Indians to contend, but I just hate how forgettable and boring they've become.

Alvaro Espinoza said...

I forget were I read it - but somewhere had a run down of Hargrove's coaching stats after leaving the Tribe and I think he had maybe one winning record in all the years after he left. I like Hargrove as well as the next guy - but it may be a product of the team's he had. I mean - he had a lineup full of All Stars and Hall of Famers and an almost open wallet at his disposal at the time.

Barry Lakin said...

You want to let the kids play. Okay. What is the lineup.

LF: Brantley
SS: Cabrera
CF: Sizemore
C: Martinez
RF: Choo
DH: Laporta
1B: Brown, Jordan
3b: Marte
2B: Valbuena

The Talented Lamond Murray said...

How about Bobby Valentine for manager? He brings some energy to the game and gets the most out of the players he has, which you can't say for wedge. He has also had some success with the Mets and got them to the playoffs a couple of times, including one world series appearance. Unfortunately, the tribe will probably promote Joel Skinner.

Biff said...

There's nothing wrong in theory with either Tony Pena or Bobby Valentine. In practice, however, neither guy can do for the Indians what Vizquel, or to a lesser extent, Hargrove could do. If this team tears down and rebuilds, you're looking at at least 3-4 years before they might possibly contend again. Without a manager that galvanizes the fan base, who exactly is going to pay attention to the team during that time?

I understand that rebuilding is always a painful process, but I just think this team would have to pull out all the stops or else face the prospect of drawing 10,000 a game for years. If you can get the fans to buy in to the rebuilding effort through your managerial choice, at least you might be able to keep your team from completely falling out of the fan base's conscience. I don't know...I'm just searching for a way to make the team relevant again.