Indians: Unlucky or the Residue of Design?

CHRIS PUMMER: I think it’s hard to describe the Indians of the past decade as unlucky. Not when the trades of Bartolo Colon, Eduardo Perez, Ben Broussard and Einar Diaz netted them players like Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin Soo Choo and Cliff Lee. (Plus Brandon Phillips, who Cleveland discarded hastily.)

Maybe you can attribute that impressive haul to the scouting acumen of the Indians’ front office, though you’d be remiss to not give Omar Minaya or Bill Bavasi some measure of credit (or blame) for a few lopsided deals. Those players formed some of the more talented pieces the franchise has had since Mark Shaprio took over as GM.

Is it unlucky that a group like that, along with homegrown All-Star caliber players like Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and CC Sabathia, could make only one playoff appearance since the team’s last core disintegrated?

I think the Indians’ bad luck has been a product of their own making.

Even in a division like the AL Central, which rarely churns out a juggernaut of a team, Cleveland doesn’t operate like it has a chance to win the division every season. For an organization not interested in letting its payroll approach $100 million, perhaps it’s prudent to launch a timed rebuilding every so often.

But while the Indians have been very good at diving to the low points of the success cycle, they’ve managed the highs very poorly.

Maybe they were unlucky when a 93-win team didn’t win a division back in 2005. Though it should be noted that the Indians didn’t add any pieces to make a run, and actually traded a useful Jody Gerut.

Since then, however, the Indians have never looked to make a big trade or a splashy free agent signing to put the team over the top.

Dealing away prospects or paying market prices for talent might be the antithesis of building from within, but if you’re not committed to keeping the players you’ve developed, it’s a necessary part of exploiting your limited window of opportunity.

Instead the Indians tried to rebuild every year, never trying to just go for it.

After 2005 they dealt Coco Crisp. The team finished below .500 the next year as Todd Hollandsworth and Jason Michaels combined for more than 700 plate appearances playing left field.

In 2007, even while plugging that outfield hole with retreads like Michaels, David Dellucci and Trot Nixon, the Indians still managed to have their best season of the decade, winning 96 games and going to the ALCS. Surprising seasons from Fausto Carmona and good bullpen work helped. Another bat and a starting pitcher might have helped even more.

Where things really came undone was in 2008, when a poor start had the Indians trailing in the division by more than 13 games on July 7 when they dealt Sabathia instead of spending the money to keep him or simply taking a couple draft picks should the price be too steep.

The tragic ending is that the Indians played well the rest of the way, finishing with 81 wins. It’s hard to think Sabathia couldn’t have helped them climb even closer than the seven games they finished the season behind the White Sox and Twins, especially with so much head-to-head division play.

Then near the trade deadline last year, Lee and Martinez were sent packing. The woeful part of those trades wasn’t that the Indians, who sat 11 games back, were waving the white flag in a division battle that would have been won outright with 87 wins. It’s that those trades also choked the life from Cleveland’s chances of making a 2010 run at a division that looks just as weak as it’s been the last two seasons.

With 97 losses to finish 2009, and a run at 100 looking likely this year, Cleveland is still running it’s rebuilding operation out of the AL Central basement, despite avoiding gambles on the trade and free agent markets.

Sure there’s some bad luck in there. Hafner has tanked since getting a huge contract, which was maybe ill-advised to begin with. Jake Westbrook, a solid contributor for most of this decade, missed a season-plus after elbow surgery, not that he was irreplaceable. Carmona has never been able to match his 2007 season, and the Indians have suffered from some awful bullpens. Plus it now looks like injuries might be derailing Sizemore’s career.

But those things happen in baseball, and you can’t paint them as being just awful strokes of bad luck that did in Cleveland’s chances of ending a long World Series drought.

What’s awful for Indians fans is that when a title was within reach, the team refused to stretch any more than it did to grab it. Instead Cleveland waited for good luck to carry it to a title, and it didn’t happen.

Chris makes a number of valid points, but I see his top line as proving the essential point: a team that managed to identify, and trade for, so many good young players to complement their homegrown talent is unlucky to have gotten a single playoff appearance out of it. And I continue to be amazed at the regression of the players from that 2007 team.

Okay, Fausto Carmona was pitching on borrowed peripherals. That I can see. And I know relievers can be mercurial performers. But look at guys like Rafael Perez- 1.78 ERA, 62/15 K/BB in 60 2/3 innings, Jensen Lewis, even Rafael Betancourt-chances are at least one of the three, particularly the first two, would become an elite closer. But no- they failed to maintain even strong middle relief status since then.

And Grady Sizemore? A 24-year-old signature star in center field? His OPS+ is 100 even in his age 26-27 seasons so far, and he looks like he is either injured, done, or both.

Never mind Franklin Gutierrez, who’d be an awfully good center field option right now with Sizemore out, instead patrolling the grounds for Seattle.

And that doesn’t even get to C.C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez or Cliff Lee- the last of these someone not even a factor on the 2007 team.

In other words, a team so good at identifying talent has managed, over the past few years, to try and keep the players who flamed out, and dealt the ones who have continued to be productive. A roster filled to the brim with young talent in 2007 is astonishingly sparse in 2010.

The Indians deserved better, even at their reduced payroll.

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