CLEVELAND: Answering questions about the search for the Indians’ next manager, General Manager Chris Antonetti seemed to realize he could have been the co-sacrificial lamb.
Had owners Larry and Paul Dolan felt more vindictive about the Tribe’s third 90-loss season in the past four years, or even the misguided 2011 decision to trade for Ubaldo Jimenez, Antonetti could have been swept out with manager Manny Acta, relieved of his duties with six games remaining.
Perhaps that’s why Antonetti’s second season-ending post-mortem Thursday at Progressive Field took a different tone that his first. He was humble, more honest and down to earth. Gone was some of the executive speak that made him sound like a clone of his predecessor, Mark Shapiro.
Antonetti seemed almost sheepish about his role in the Indians’ 68-94 season in which they finished fourth in the American League Central, 20 games behind. Especially considering that on July 26 they were 50-49, 3½ games out, after defeating Detroit Tigers ace and 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.
Then came losing streaks of 11 and nine games and a 5-24 August that dropped the Tribe to 55-77. The collapse — winning a mere 18 of the last 63 games (.286) — was almost incomprehensible. As Antonetti conducts his postseason player and staff interviews, there has been no consensus answer as to why. He said he could be delving into the reasons for another month.
“I don’t think there’s one single reason why we struggled the way we did,” he said. “The one thing we all feel is we have better talent than our record shows.”
Later he lightly interjected, “I’m still taking opinions if anybody has an idea what happened.” (The last time a member of the Tribe front office asked me for an opinion, former GM John Hart threw out a spring training query to this longtime Cincinnati Reds fan about reliever Ted Power.)
Unlike 12 months ago, Antonetti seemed more cognizant of his failures. During the skid, the Indians could not pitch, hit or field well, and some of the responsibility falls on the man who put the team together. He painted less of a glowing picture of the roster, especially of the starting pitching, than after the 2011 season, when he seemed to gloss over the Indians’ woes and tried to make it sound like everything was fine.
Perhaps part of that was an effort not to lump all the blame on Acta, especially knowing full well that his free-agent acquisitions of Johnny Damon, Derek Lowe, Casey Kotchman and Grady Sizemore were all disasters, except for Kotchman’s prowess in the field. Meanwhile, right-handed hitting outfielder Josh Willingham, whom he tried and failed to sign, batted .260 with 35 homers and 110 RBI for the Minnesota Twins.
There was still a touch of ‘What more could I do?’ from Antonetti, especially when it came to a lineup loaded with left-handed hitters. That might not change much next season, when there could be at least four left-handers (Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Shin-Soo Choo, Lonnie Chisenhall) and two switch-hitters (Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera) in the batting order.
Rarely one to let his personal side show, Antonetti did give a hint to how he felt as he watched his team fall off a cliff.
“As painful as the last two months have been … it’s been really tough,” he said. “We have high expectations. We were a competitive team for four months and it disintegrated relatively quickly. Very quickly. That’s not how we wanted to finish the season.
“The important thing is how we move forward. I don’t want what happened over the last two months to completely mask some of the positives.”
When asked to name his favorite moment of the season, Antonetti caught on quickly to what seemed like a trap, realizing that the highlight he was about to name was also the beginning of the end.
“Could it be the game against Verlander?” he said. “That’s probably the highlight. I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything over the last seven weeks since then.”
When it was suggested he might not feel that way because of what followed, Antonetti said: “It was still an exciting game, we were playing pretty well, we won two out of three [from the Tigers], we came back against one of the best pitchers in baseball. Our fans were engaged and excited and it was a great night at the ballpark. Those are the memories you hang on to.”
Down the road, the Indians might decide Antonetti is not the right man to guide them for the duration of the Sandy Alomar/Terry Francona era, or whomever the next manager turns out to be. But there was a sense Thursday that Antonetti no longer feels he is above the fray. He seemed well aware that the Tribe’s painful finish could have claimed more than one victim.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.