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Springtime Storylines: When will the Indians be finished with their rebuilding phase?

Mar 23, 2011, 3:15 PM EDT

manny-acta-indians Getty Images

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Another rebuilding year in Cleveland.

The Big Question: When will the Indians be finished with their rebuilding phase?

After three consecutive .500-or-worse seasons, including 93 and 97 losses in the past two years, the Indians have surprisingly little to show for a rebuilding effort that included trading away established stars CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez in the middle of their primes.

Not only do Manny Acta and company look very capable of losing another 90-plus games this year, aside from stealing superstar-in-the-making Carlos Santana from the Dodgers in a trade that may go down as one of the biggest heists in MLB history surprisingly few long-term building blocks have emerged in Cleveland. Some of that has simply been bad luck, as injuries wrecked Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and one-time elite pitching prospect Adam Miller.

However, none of Andy Marte, Chuck Lofgren, Trevor Crowe, Jeremy Sowers, and Michael Aubrey panned out as prospects, Franklin Gutierrez, Jeremy Guthrie, and Brandon Phillips were let go before they emerged as valuable big leaguers, and now even Sabathia trade centerpiece Matt LaPorta‘s upside is in question. Santana is a stud, Shin-Soo Choo is one of MLB’s best, most underrated players, and Lonnie Chisenhall, Alex White, Jason Kipnis, and Drew Pomeranz are a good group of top prospects, but Indians fans had to be hoping that the losing would be over by now and/or the traded stars would yield a more impressive next wave of talent.

So what else is going on?

  • I drooled over Santana while selecting him as one of my breakout picks for 2011, so instead of repeating all of that praise I’ll simply note that perhaps the most important aspect of the Indians’ entire season will be keeping him healthy behind the plate. He has a chance to be an MVP-caliber player at a premium defensive position, and while the rest of the long-term cupboard may not be as fully stocked as hoped a switch-hitting, on-base machine catcher is an awfully good block from which to start building.
  • This might be Sizemore’s final season in Cleveland, as the Indians hold an $8.5 million option on him for 2012. At his peak Sizemore was worth twice that much and he’s still just 28 years old, but his production has dropped dramatically, he missed most of last season with significant injuries, and will begin this year back on the disabled list. And even if he gets healthy and is playing well the Indians could be tempted to trade him.
  • Similarly, while Choo and Fausto Carmona are under contract through 2013 and 2014 respectively the Indians may decide that cashing them in for more prospects makes sense if they feel like the current team is another couple years from contending. Of course, if Sizemore, Choo, Carmona are all playing well alongside Santana the Indians may be respectable enough to balk at blowing things up again.
  • Despite being a very smart guy with some interesting ideas Mark Shapiro’s stint as general manager was ultimately underwhelming, but I’m very optimistic about his successor Chris Antonetti and in general the Indians have done their best to be ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, sabermetrics, and even social media. They’re on the right track–including an impressive 2010 draft–but some half-decent luck also wouldn’t hurt.
  • Acta’s choice of headwear, as always, will be the best in the league.

So how are they gonna do?

Kansas City’s presence in the AL Central should make it fairly easy for Cleveland to stay out of the cellar, but it would take an awful lot of things breaking right for the Indians to make a run at one of the top three spots in the division. My guess is they’ll show some relatively modest improvement from last season’s 69 wins to somewere in the mid-70s while having some very interesting decisions to make at the trading deadline.

  1. bigtrav425 - Mar 23, 2011 at 8:18 PM

    I live in the Cleveland area and a tribe fan.It has been disgusting to say the least since the Dolans and Shapiro took over.From head to toe,drafting,scouting evaluating,etc etc.How Shapiro has kept his job(until this yr) is one of the biggest mysteries in sports.He has had maybe 3 good moves his entire tenure (which is about 10 yrs give or take).The Dolans NEED to sell the team,until that AND Shapiro goes we are not going to be that good.Shapiro’s trades have set us back time and time again ,more so the recent ones aka Cliff lee and C.C….Shapiro should never get another GM job just for his Lee trade alone it was so bad…Grady to me has always been overrated.He is nothing more then a 5 hitter with a lil speed and defense.He did have a few good yrs but not great by any means.They have also have been obsessed with moving guys around,not giving them real chances etc etc.Its just a mess and its depressing.Only thing that can save us soon is some luck

    • dnc6 - Mar 23, 2011 at 9:47 PM

      What original and insightful analysis. Maybe 3 good moves? Trading for Sizemore, Lee, Phillips. Getting Hafner, Choo, Cabrera, Santana. We’re talking about 5 home runs right there. Then they’ve been able to pick up guys like Millwood and Pavano on the cheap and get more than useful innings. The success of this team has been hampered by injuries to some of the guys mentioned in this article. Also, its still too early to judge the Sabathia and Lee trades, and even if it wasn’t, those two were gone in free agency, so I have no idea where you get the idea that the trades set the team back. Also your view on Sizemore is laughable. The guy was 4th in WAR (according to B-Ref) from 2005-2008, he’s had some serious injury issues and may never get back, but he was that good when healthy. And since all they need is for Dolan to sell the team, please list all the billionaires who are just lining up to buy a small-market MLB team in a shrinking market (Cleveland’s population is at its lowest point since 1900).

      • mikeinthevine - Mar 24, 2011 at 5:36 AM

        Paul Dolan, is that you?

      • writtenbyross - Mar 24, 2011 at 6:49 AM

        Trading for Sizemore, Lee, Phillips. Getting Hafner, Choo, Cabrera, Santana. We’re talking about 5 home runs right there.

        Even giving him the benefit of the doubt he was GM for nine years. Seven “home runs,” (you said five but listed seven) in nine years is not a great track record. And let’s look closer at those six:
        – Phillips wasn’t good for the Indians, he wasn’t a “home run” until after Shapiro gave him away.
        – Granted injuries (and perhaps coffee mug karma) took down Sizemore, I’ll give you him
        – Hafner was only good until the crackdown on steroids (I love the guy, my dog’s name is Pronk, but it’s pretty obvious),
        – Lee was traded as soon as he became consistently effective
        – Choo was most likely pure luck, who saw him coming?
        – Cabrera hasn’t proven anything, not sure why he’s on the list
        – Santana hasn’t been in the bigs long enough to declare success

        Shapiro started out well, but since the playoff crumble he’s been treading water and throwing off weight (weight = talent that costs money). Yes, he has an owner that doesn’t spend money but so do a lot of other GMs that do a lot more with what they have.

        The fact that you still have the passion to defend this team is commendable, but also delusional. As an Indians fan I’ve gone into a state of despair. The Browns have more hope than the Tribe at this point.

        The team is bad and unless there’s six or seven simultaneous prospect breakout years, it’s not getting better any time soon

      • dnc6 - Mar 24, 2011 at 11:54 AM

        Lee, Phillips and Sizemore came in one move. Separate them, put them together, whatever. That trade was a slam dunk success. The rest of your statements are ludicrous. Hafner was only good until the steroid crackdown? Check your dates. The crackdown began in 2004, with punishments in place for 2005. Go check Hafner’s 05 and 06 numbers. Choo was luck? The team gets blamed when something unexpected goes wrong, but when something unexpected goes right, they don’t get credit? Cabrera has put up 8 WAR going into his age-25 season and the Indians control him for another 3 years. They got him for the last 3 months of Eduardo Perez’ career. Easily a success so far. Santana may flame out terribly, but he’s already been worth more than the half season of Blake that the Indians gave up.

        And joe cleveland fan still apparently drinks the Browns kool-aid no matter what. The Browns fired a coach after 2 or so years on the job, and are going to be building almost completely from scratch. We’ve seen how success that model has been for the Browns for the last 11 years. Meanwhile the Indians have a FO in place that has rebuilt a team to a WS contender in about 3 years. I know Indians’ fans may have a tough time remembering past the last two years, but this team has shown it knows how to rebuild.

      • writtenbyross - Mar 24, 2011 at 12:32 PM

        I’m not going to get into an argument about anything else, but the statement about the Browns wasn’t that I thought the Browns were going to be successful, it was a statement about how pessimistic I am about the Tribe.

  2. writtenbyross - Mar 24, 2011 at 6:51 AM

    I maintain that whichever team wins the Cleveland vs Columbus exhibition at the end of March should get to be the MLB team.

  3. kmgannon - Mar 24, 2011 at 7:13 AM

    As a longtime Tribe fan myself, my sense is that Shapiro’s trading abilities were decisively hampered by two things: desperation and the resulting lack of leverage. In other words, teams knew Cleveland would be trading Sabathia and Lee, and Shapiro did not have the type of leverage he would have liked, I think, to squeeze maybe a Mat Gamel or Kyle Drabek into those deals. I’m disappointed in most of the prospects that came over in recent deals (Santana being the exception), but I also don’t think that there was any way to have done much better. With owners like the Dolans, and retrenchment being the rule of the day, other teams can sit back and wait, knowing that it’s not “if,” but “when,” Cleveland’s hand will be forced. It’s really pretty remarkable how the organization has ceded any leverage they might have had over to potential trading partners. That takes some doing, and it comes from the top. That’s what really discourages me as a fan.

  4. ptho16 - Mar 24, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    Alleged “fans” can blame the Dolans all they want for the Indians not spending, but the truth of the matter is that no owner is going to take a loss on their product. If fans went to games, the Indians would have a lot more money to spend on the team. Why do you think they were able to spend in the 90s? maybe the 500+ sellouts in a row had something to do with that? I wish I still lived in Cleveland and could go to games at the Jake (it will never be progressive field to me). Their season ticket packages are pretty good deals. I actually talked to someone who works for the Nationals last week, and they were saying you could probably make a pretty good return on your investment if you bought Indians season tickets (which are buy one get one free by the way) and just sold all the marquee matchups.

  5. bigtrav425 - Mar 24, 2011 at 11:19 AM

    Cabrera is average,As is Choo(is numbers only stand out because he is on a bad team) and the Colon trade,Hafner and Santana trade were the only “hits” i was referring to.Altho a special consideration to the Millwood signing…Does anyone remember David Delluici(sp?)? The CC trade or Non trades he turned down,the Cliff lee and Martinez trade? those are just the more recent ones that come to mind i can promise there is more if i dug deeper.Also we as tribe fans would go more often IF the team wouldnt be so inept at what they do.When they bought the team they promised to keep it competitive or to spend money as long as tehy were winning and they have NOT kept that promise and its just gotten worse so thats why we dont go (along with economy in all fairness but me being included in the economy failure would find a way to go to games) .Last yr we finished with over 90 losses and what does the Dolans do? the promote everyone!! What kinda business is that???!

    • dnc6 - Mar 24, 2011 at 12:00 PM

      Choo is average. That is pretty much your opening line. And you want people to take the rest of your post seriously? Remember the Colon trade, how long did it take to see those guys start to pan out? 2.5 years. 2.5 years from the Sabathia trade is now, and from the Lee trade will be 2012. Give these guys a chance to pan out before you hammer them. The Indians spent money when they were winning, and Tribe fans barely came out for 90 win teams, and couldn’t be bothered to watch a .500 team.

      • jayclvlnd - Mar 31, 2011 at 2:26 AM

        If by “barely came out to watch the team” you mean have the longest sellout streak in baseball then you might be right. Talk about ignorant.

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