KANSAS CITY, MO.: Could the season have been different for the Indians?
Let’s be honest, this team was not going to win the American League Central Division or latch on to a wild-card berth without divine intervention, and there is no indication that the Tribe is anywhere near the front of the line to receive that kind of extra benefit.
OK, fine, but was last place inevitably in the club’s future? Not necessarily, but once the winter signing and trading season was over, there were neon signs pointing to the possibility. I didn’t pick up on them; maybe I tried not to look too hard.
But I did not think the roster was put together in a way that made much sense: far too many left-handed batters, a rotation constructed out of string and a lot of hope, no reliable alternatives (I probably should say major-league alternatives) in the event Grady Sizemore and/or Travis Hafner did not rebound from years of injuries and a farm system that was almost totally lacking in talent at the upper levels.
You could blame it all on the ownership of Larry and Paul Dolan for failing to provide anything but the most minimal financial help, but they were not the only culprits in the club’s implosion.
General Manager Chris Antonetti not only made several bad decisions, but also a few of them were almost beyond comprehension. Of course, if you brought any of these up, Indians deep thinkers would give a knowing smile and say something like, “Of course, a sportswriter wouldn’t understand the nuances of player acquisition.”
One thing a sports writer does know — as do lots of fans — is that refusing to sign Josh Willingham for $7 million a year for three seasons is the kind of blunder that a GM can’t do more than once without losing his job. Or maybe it wasn’t Antonetti. Maybe the Dolans aborted the signing; maybe it was club president Mark Shapiro, though my impression of Shapiro’s management style revolves around putting someone in command of an area and letting him do his job.
Left field, where Willingham would have played, became the initial and a lasting trouble spot, when Sizemore went down with a back injury in spring training that required surgery. There was nothing close to an outfielder in camp who possessed the talent to perform at an everyday major-league level.
So the search for a left fielder became almost laughable, involving these primary candidates; Shelly Duncan, Thomas Neal, Trevor Crowe, Russ Canzler, Felix Pie, Aaron Cunningham, Chad Huffman, Fred Lewis and Ryan Spilborghs.
Duncan won the job. He had been with the Tribe the previous year and performed better than expected. His defense was shaky, but he had right-handed power. Of course, until their backs were to the wall — either find someone to stand in left or go into the season with eight regular position players — the Indians had never thought of Duncan as a day-in, day-out player. Neither did any other club.
Among the eight other contenders, only one played in a big-league game this season before this month: Cunningham, and he played for the Tribe. Unfortunately for the others, none of the 29 franchises were able to see the hidden gems they were passing up.
Left field was only one of the problems that never got fixed, which brings up Johnny Damon. Why did the Indians have to drag him into this mess? They signed the former All-Star, who at 38 could no longer hit and never could throw or track fly balls even moderately well. His signature went on the contract April 17, and even though he had missed spring training (no job), he was summoned to Cleveland two weeks later.
Not only was Damon old and a victim of diminishing skills, but he also was yet another left-handed batter in a lineup that could send nine of them to the plate. Not surprisingly, the Damon move didn’t work, and he seemed almost embarrassed to be put in a position where he had no choice but to fail.
Left field was only the beginning, a never-ending beginning. Antonetti needed a starting pitcher and quickly chose Derek Lowe, whom he acquired a month after the 2011 season ended. Lowe also was aging but relatively cheap (the Atlanta Braves paid $10 million of his $15 million salary).
However, he didn’t turn out to be a bargain. After becoming the Tribe’s best starter through early June with a 7-3 record and 3.06 ERA, Lowe began a swift decline through July, when he was released carrying an 8-10 record and 5.52 ERA. He is now in the New York Yankees’ bullpen.
I always wondered why the Indians thought a 38-year-old who had a bad year would rebound when he was 39? And what was the rush to sign him? I did not hear the footsteps of other GMs trying to beat Antonetti to the punch. But this was part of the stress put on Antonetti by the Dolans. Not that they forced the issue, but the GM had $13 million to fill three positions.
Damon was the first, Sizemore ($5 million) was the second, and Casey Kotchman ($3 million) was the third. Kotchman represents another mismatched player who fit the budget, and that’s about all. What the Tribe needed was a right-handed first baseman who hit home runs.
What they got was a player whose overriding skill is defense; he is not a prolific home-run hitter and bats from the left side. Kotchman is not a bad player, just the wrong player for the Indians.
A couple of things were difficult to protect against, and both involved the disintegration of the rotation. In addition to Lowe’s fall from grace, it took Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona) almost the entire season to procure a work visa, and Josh Tomlin headed for the operating table for elbow reconstruction surgery midway through the schedule.
The other complicating issue was the lack of top flight players in Triple-A and Double-A? Is there another big-league franchise with no prospects at either first base or in the outfield within the upper levels of its farm system?
Most of these holes could have been filled in more sensible ways, including a more competitive layout of cash. Maybe next year. Then again, probably not.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.