CLEVELAND: It was the season from hell for the Indians. Crash and burn, haul away the ashes, try to put together a viable plan for 2013 and cross your fingers. Especially cross your fingers.
On July 26, the Tribe beat Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander to continue its presence in the Central Division race.
Five weeks later, a bizarre, chaotic collapse had sent the Tribe into free fall. By Aug. 31, the Indians had lost 27-of-32, and the season was over. Manager Manny Acta and pitching coach Scott Radinsky paid with their jobs.
A club that had seemed stable, a team that had an outside chance to win the Central Division was in ruins again. Wednesday night, the season came to a merciful end with the Indians losing their 94th game, the third 90-plus loss year in the past four.
Attendance was 29th among the 30 major-league clubs.
A payroll that ranked 25th ($65 million) at the beginning of the season seemed out of touch with the reality of what it takes to win.
Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The question: Was 2012 an anomaly, or is the franchise bound and determined to run itself into the ground because of too little cash and persistent poor decisions by the front office, headed by General Manager Chris Antonetti?
In the 13 years the Dolan family has owned the team, the Tribe has qualified for the postseason twice, the first time in 2001, mostly with former owner Dick Jacobs’ players and Dick Jacobs’ payroll. In the past 10 seasons, the club’s payroll has ranked 24th or lower (according to figures compiled by USA Today) seven times.
The Dolans articulated their plan of action shortly after buying the franchise for $423 million. To succeed with a midmarket team, they would be required to build a strong farm system, invest heavily in the draft and keep their best players until they were eligible for free agency, after six full big-league seasons.
There would be times when tear-downs were necessary, as the most expensive players were traded for top prospects, who might take two or three years to develop. But the pipeline of talent would be constant because player personnel decisions would be made only after thorough research.
The Dolans told us up front they could not afford to buy or keep top-of-the-line free agents. That has been the only part of the plan implemented as promised. CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Victor Martinez were all traded before they reached free agency.
Unfortunately for the owners and the fans, the rest of the plan has proved to be bankrupt, including the maintenance of a strong farm system.
It is virtually impossible to hit on every trade, whether it involves impending free agents or not, and the Indians’ front office (headed by Mark Shapiro before Antonetti) hasn’t been close.
The club got very little for Sabathia, Martinez and Lee. The best of the lot has been solid hitting outfielder Michael Brantley and Justin Masterson, obtained from the Boston Red Sox for Martinez, and he has been an inconsistent starter at best.
Matt LaPorta was said to be the Milwaukee Brewers’ No. 1 prospect when he arrived (along with Brantley) in Cleveland for Sabathia, but he has never been good enough to keep a job in the big leagues and probably played his last game in the Tribe organization this week.
Problems with all struggling companies start at the top. If the Dolans have any chance to succeed, they must find a way to infuse millions into the payroll, and Antonetti can’t make any more deals like the one that brought Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland for two top prospects. But it might be too late already. So many fans have developed a mistrust of the Dolans’ methods, the only way they will return to Progressive Field is if the team is sold.