Maybe the Indians’ deep thinkers finally had it up to here after the club lost 94 games in 2012.
The Tribe has been none too successful under the ownership of Larry Dolan and his son Paul, well-meaning as they are. Really, they are.
But money has always been an issue, and it showed in the quality of the rosters that general managers Mark Shapiro (now club president) and Chris Antonetti put on the field. How so? During the past 11 seasons, the Indians have posted plus-.500 records only twice but have lost 90 or more games four times, including three of the past four years.
The offseason that ends when spring training begins Monday in Goodyear, Ariz., brought major moves that involved expenditures to bring in Nick Swisher ($11 million in 2013), Brett Myers ($7 million), Mark Reynolds ($6 million), Drew Stubbs ($2.8 million) and less costly additions Mike Aviles and Matt Albers.
Even with the relative extravagance displayed by CEO Paul Dolan and Antonetti, the payroll for 2013 probably won’t come in at much more than $68 million and it might not reach that high. Last year, the Tribe began the season with a 25-man payroll of $65 million.
But give the guys credit. With season-ticket sales sinking to little more than 8,000 in 2012, and attendance (1,603,596) sagging to the second lowest in all of baseball, Dolan and club executives had two choices: They could start over for the umpteenth time and get rid of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera, players who are beginning to make larger sums, or they could try to add to the group of promising young players they had.
The offseason acquisitions might not put the Indians in position to contend for the American League Central Division championship this year, but the unexpected (to some) spending spree demonstrated good faith to the fans and might allow the team to be a factor in the 2014 race. So add they did, while Dolan bit his tongue and most likely approved a deficit budget.
Note to fans: The $10 million yearly increase in rights fees the Tribe will receive from Fox Sports Ohio, which purchased SportsTime Ohio from the Dolans, probably won’t show up until next year. Neither will the extra cash from new national television contracts that don’t kick in until 2014.
Tearing up the roster again would have done nothing to restore the credibility gap between the Dolans and the fans, and attendance surely would have dropped further when the customers realized that another rebuilding strategy was in the works. Fortunately, the club dropped some $36 million in salary and had the wherewithal to spend without putting the team into a financial crisis.
So the good news is that the Indians signed players who fans have heard of. The bad news is that the most important part of the roster — of any roster — has been improved only marginally. That would be the rotation, of course. Yet even here there is hope of progress, possibly even this year.
But keep in mind that the Tribe will begin the schedule with no legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 starter. At best, past performance indicates that Masterson and possibly Myers can step up to become solid No. 3 starters.
After a stunning turnaround in 2011 (12-10, 3.21 ERA), inconsistency again overcame Masterson, and he compiled an 11-15 record and 4.93 ERA in 2012. Masterson has the arm to be a 17-game winner, but he remains a work in progress. At least new manager Terry Francona hopes he will see progress.
Francona knows Masterson from the pitcher’s early days with the Red Sox, with whom Francona was manager. Maybe that will help.
Myers spent all of last season in the bullpen with the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox after a dismal campaign in 2011, when he was 7-14 with a 4.46 ERA in Houston. The Tribe isn’t worried that Myers will struggle to fit in as a starter again — after all, he has been in rotations almost his entire career — but it remains to be seen whether he can succeed in a league whose teams field tougher lineups.
Jimenez couldn’t have been worse since coming over from the Colorado Rockies in a disastrous trade that is the low point in Antonetti’s brief tenure as GM. Jimenez’s command problems and his insistence on doing things his way were there for all to see with the Rockies, which is why GM Dan O’Dowd dumped him on the Tribe halfway through the 2011 season.
And whatever happened to Jimenez’s 97-mph fastball? Nobody seems to know where to look for it. Jimenez never has complained about an arm injury. It appears that he prefers being a “pitcher” rather than dominating hitters by throwing the ball past them.
Might he do a 180? As long as his arm is sound, there’s no reason why not, except that the most difficult thing to change is an athlete’s state of mind, and that’s what is keeping Jimenez from reaching his potential.
Unfortunately for the Tribe, it would be no surprise if Jimenez repeats his awful performance of 2012: a 9-17 record and 5.40 ERA with 96 walks and 16 wild pitches.
Maybe the only reason for optimism is that the guaranteed portion of Jimenez’s contract will expire after the season. The prospect of a large pay increase (or the fear of making hardly anything) often spurs players to greater heights.
One positive note last year was the emergence of Zach McAllister in only his second partial major-league season. His 6-8 record and 4.24 ERA in 22 starts don’t quite tell the story. You had to see him make the transition from tentative rookie in 2011 to confident performer last season. Even his fastball got faster.
Management has anointed Masterson, Myers, Jimenez and McAllister as pitchers with a secure hold on the rotation. The fifth starter will come from a group that includes Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber and long shots Trevor Bauer, Scott Kazmir and possibly David Huff, but more than likely he will contend for a job in the stacked bullpen.
It will be an upset if anyone but Carrasco wins the final spot in the rotation. Carrasco missed all of last season after elbow surgery Aug. 4, 2011. Tribe operatives have reported frequently that he has thrown well during his recovery, and it appears that Antonetti and Francona are counting on him to make the rotation out of spring training.
The two wild cards among the corps of starters are Bauer and Kazmir. Bauer is a highly touted prospect acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks little more than a month ago. At 21, he has displayed exceptional physical skill and exceptional flakiness. The D-Backs didn’t appreciate Bauer’s unconventional ideas about pitching, but that doesn’t mean he won’t fulfill the otherworldly expectations placed on him.
It appears that the Indians would prefer that Bauer start the season at Triple-A Columbus, but if he consistently blows away hitters during exhibition season, that could change.
Kazmir also carried high expectations during the infancy of his career, but he hasn’t been effective since 2008. Part of the reason is a balky shoulder that either is a nonfactor or will continue to plague him. Nobody is quite sure. He also seems to have other difficulties, mechanical or otherwise. On the plus side, he is only 28. He will almost certainly begin the season at Triple-A.
Obviously, offense, defense and the bullpen will play a large role in determining the Indians’ success. But the key to the team’s fortunes will be the rotation, which currently has many more question marks than answers.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.