Making the playoffs shouldn’t be taken lightly as a fan of a small market team in the current Major League Baseball marketplace, but it’s time to grab ahold of a moment that doesn’t come often for the Cleveland Indians.
The Indians made the playoffs.
I know there will some that will take that as an incredulous affront to their afternoon Tribe reading, especially based on how far these Cleveland Indians had to come in 2013.
I get that.
But I’ve suspended disbelief, remember?
Don’t get me wrong here. There’s always going to be a joy with regular playoff baseball. It really is a gift to any baseball fan, from New York to St. Louis to Boston to Cleveland. Playing games in which every single play makes a major difference in the outcome is such a stark contrast in a league that plays out over 162 games; over nine months, over 270 or so days.
It’s like running a marathon, then forcing top finishers to run a sprint after the marathon is over to decide the winners.
But I’m sick of “making the playoffs” being the ceiling.
I’ve mentioned the dichotomy of the Cleveland Indians’ culture before here in my little space of internet, with the older Indians’ fans following the team through years of dreadful baseball before the 90’s renaissance, and newer fans knowing near greatness as those 90’s teams twice made it to the World Series before falling short.
Both sets of fans know the same pain though. It’s that agony of not winning the championship.
The World Series Championship.
When you mention Championships in Cleveland, the same thoughts run through every fans’ head, whether you are a Browns fan, or a Cavs fan, an Indians’ fan, or all of the above. It’s that melancholy mix of bitterness and hatred and self-deprication that comes with being born into the fandom that can’t seem to make the final push, and win the final game.
That feeling really comes out when newspapers and media outlets are touting the Red Sox victory in Boston during the 2013 World Series as ending nearly 100 years of misery of not clinching a World Series in Boston…at home.
I had an actual conversation with a 22-year old Boston fan that said I don’t get it. “The Indians had won the series at home in 1920.” He actually said that.
When I reminded him that the Red Sox had won the Series in 2007, and 2004, he said, “It’s not the same.”
I assured him that he was 100% right (I was, however, impressed that he knew the Indians won the 1920 Series in Cleveland), but not for the reasons that he was stating.
I’d be perfectly content with the Indians winning a World Title on the moon, or in a backyard, or in Australia, or really, anywhere.
It’s almost funny that Indians fans’ and Red Sox fans had much in common up through 2003.
My how things have changed.
“…but at least the Indians made the playoffs,” my young friend said.
You’ve all heard that same phrase more than once in your life.
When isn’t making the playoffs enough?
For me, it’s now.
This is generally where you get the calm and the cool and the collected jumping into the conversation, talking about the realities of baseball.
This is when we hear about the stark outlook of being a team owner in Cleveland.
We all know that Cleveland is a small market team. We all know that the Dolan’s have a salary ceiling. We all know that you shouldn’t try and buy a World Series championship.
This is when we start talking about the brilliance of Andrew Friedman and his model in Tampa Bay.
This is when we start talking about the brilliance of Billy Beane and his model in Oakland.
This is likely when you start talking about the brilliance of John Hart and his model in Cleveland in the 90’s.
There’s much difference in the three teams I just mentioned, but I’ll get to that in a second.
I understand that Cleveland is a team and a city that isn’t rolling in cash. We don’t have billion dollar owners, and we don’t live in a city that supports the team enough to justify yearly payrolls entering the top 25% of the league.
We all understand that, and I agree with it for the most part.
The Cleveland Indians just shouldn’t be in the market every year for high priced free agents. The Cleveland Indians just shouldn’t be in the market every year, to break the bank.
The Cleveland Indians need to control their finances, and ensure that they can compete year-after-year-after-year.
That’s what the Rays have managed to do over the past several years. From 1998 through 2007, the Rays had never managed to win more than 70 baseball games. In 2006, however, things began taking shape for the future of the franchise.
That’s the year the Rays hired Andrew Friedman, who began reshaping the Marlins utilizing advanced metrics, along with an innate ability to listen to his manager, and his player development system.
Friedman, now 37, so the fruits of his labors pay off beginning in 2008, when the Rays won 97 games and made it to the World Series. They lost that year, but the rays have been in the running every year since, winning 90 games in five of the past six seasons.
They still haven’t won a World Series.
They have arguably the best general manager in baseball.
They have arguably the best manager in baseball.
They have several phenomenal talents on their team.
They just can’t seem to break the barrier of being good…and being great.
There are many reasons for this, and most are similar to the Indians.
Some of it is market. Some of it is lack of attendance. Some of it is the most heralded part of their system…the give and the take of controllable, big-money players.
They deal with the reality of the game, and they do it well.
But to get to the series, they have to be perfect.
Friedman really perfected the system that Billy Beane put in place starting in 1998.
Using the same methodology that the Tampa Bay Rays put in place years later, the A’s began to build a winning team.
The A’s began winning, and winning a lot starting in 2000. They made the playoffs four straight season, winning more than 90 games all four years, and winning more than 100 twice. They won 91 and 88 games in 2004 and 2005, but failed to make the playoffs. They’d return in 2006, but were swept out of the ALCS.
The A’s struggled after that year, showcasing the issues of having to be perfect with your balancing of salary and stars.
In 2012 and 2013, the A’s returned again, losing in the ALDS both times.
The A’s were able to give and to take, and were able to make it to the World Series buying when it was necessary, but never buying too much.
They haven’t won a World Series either.
In many ways, the model that Beane and Friedman use were hybrids started by John Hart in the early 90’s.
Both teams sign they youngsters through their arbitration years, as Hart did, and then try and tack on one or two years of their free agency period.
That’s where the similarities end.
Hart, who is criticized by some as not being as effective as many make him out to be…which is ridiculous by the way…had his eye on one thing.
Winning the World Series.
Now, I’m not saying that Friedman and Beane don’t, or Antonetti for that matter.
What I’m saying is that John Hart seemingly would have sold his own family to make the Indians better back in the 90’s.
He had advantages.
For one, the Indians were selling out games…and lots of them.
For another, there were far less financial restrictions back then.
The Indians were in the top 10% with regards to payroll, and were loaded offensively.
Hart though, never stopped trying to improve the team.
Sure, his drafts were terrible…and ultimately, that cost them as the 90’s came to an end, and as the 2000’s began.
It left the team with massive holes when free agents walked.
That’s where Beane and Friedman took the next step.
They deal their players before they walk, garnering as much compensation as they can…and it works.
Their clubs win more often than they lose.
But they never make that final move. They stayed within their constraints, and were and are very successful doing it.
Hart could have cared a less about constraints, and in many ways, Jacobs allowed the Indians GM to do what he wanted.
There was never an offseason in which the Indians were contending for the top free agents. There was never a trade deadline that went by without the Indians making overtures to improve their team.
What cost Hart in the end?
He just couldn’t get that stud starter.
But boy did he try…and try…and try…
Again…a different time…and a different way of doing things.
I do want to add this to the discussion.
I’m in no way saying that the Oakland A’s or the Tampa Bay Rays or that Billy Beane and Andrew Friedman weren’t doing everything under their power to win the series.
They also absolutely made deals throughout the year to improve their team’s chances, as well as to give them commodities to trade later to enhance their teams.
I’m also saying teams like the Rays, A’s and our Tribe have a much more delicate path than the Detroit Tigers, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.
I actually think this is something I’d like to delve in further in the future. These teams have been to the edge. What has kept them from taking the next step…while taking the steps that they did to get to the edge.
That will take more than a three-thousand word piece, and take more than one article…but could help in figuring out the realities of teams utilizing the same model winning the World Series, while remaining financially responsible.
Consider a point that my friend Paul Cousineau used to bring up often at The Diatribe: The Big Market teams have the ability to outspend everyone, and are also incorporating the same strategies that the small market teams use to try to overcome their big spending.
Talk about a vicious cycle.
I have taken you down a path, away from my initial topic, but I’ve done it for a reason.
As we come back full circle, let’s rejoin the current Cleveland Indians…and remember…we’ve suspended disbelief for a few moments.
The Cleveland Indians are a team that had an incredibly satisfying 92-win season. It ended with a loss in the wildcard playoff game, but after feeling as though things were going to be bad for a long time, there absolutely was satisfaction in the drive to the playoffs.
Now it’s time to set the stage higher.
Now it’s time to employ John Hart’s outlying philosophy.
As I mentioned before, Hart was really the founder of the current base structure of the small market philosophy. You have to sign youngsters to long term deals if you can, and then build from there. No, you NEVER put all of your money into one player, which is why players like Albert Belle was allowed to leave, and also likely why the Indians dealt away some others.
That’s still in place here in Cleveland.
That’s not what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is the mentality that had the Indians stalking Curt Schilling, Jack McDowell (before they actually got him, when he was old and bad) and Chuck Finley (again, before they actually got him, when he was getting pummeled by his wife).
They were players for Randy Johnson, and according to Hart, were “two minutes from acquiring him.”
It was the mentality that had them interested in a second baseman, starting with Chuck Knoblach, and finally settling on Roberto Alomar.
There wasn’t a price that Hart wouldn’t pay to win him a World Series.
It never worked, but this team was perhaps Randy Johnson away from winning that World Series title. They just couldn’t get the starter when they needed him the most.
But they were always there.
Yes, it was a different time, and the Indians certainly can’t make those plays every year.
But there comes a time when for one solitary year, the Indians should take that next step.
Sense be damned.
This team hasn’t won a World Series since 1948.
This town hasn’t won a championship since 1964.
It’s time someone goes against the grain and makes the moves that will get it done.
The Indians made the playoffs…
…and they aren’t far from contending for the ultimate prize.
What do they need?
Now, you can make a case that they need a bona fide ace. You can also make a case that they need a big bopper in the middle of the lineup that plays either right field or third base. You can also make a case that they need some help in the pen, although not as much as I think the Indians let on.
The problem is clear.
The Indians are going to be at their threshold.
The Indians are going to need to stay at $80 million or even $90 million if the right players are available.
The Indians don’t have much wiggle room.
They spent most of their money last year.
The Dolans have always purported to be Cleveland Indians fans.
They should understand this more than anyone else.
It’s time for the Indians to make this team a legitimate contender.
In 2005, the Indians won 93 games and didn’t make the playoffs on the last day of the season. This team was good. What was their response? They allowed Kevin Millwood to go. They allowed Bob Howry to go. They replaced Millwood with Paul Byrd, and re-signed Bob Wickman.
In other words, they did nothing.
In 2007, the Indians were a game away from the World Series.
In other words, they did nothing.
Of course, in 2008, the Indians began their small-market shuffle when they dealt CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers. They would continue this trend for the next year, dealing away Cliff Lee, then Victor Martinez.
They wouldn’t hit on many of those deals, and the team’s decline continued as they missed with drafts as well.
The moment was gone.
But it’s back right now.
The Indians have the foundation of a champion. They have youth and they have veterans. They have a nice foundation for a really good rotation. They have the makings of one of the best lineups in baseball.
Arguably, they are already one of the best lineups in baseball.
It’s time to get rid of the term arguably.
Do it for one year.
Take the next step.
I’m not saying blow the payroll into oblivion. I’m not saying go the route of the 1997 Florida Marlins…or maybe I am…I have suspended disbelief for today’s piece.
Will it work? Can the Indians win the World Series in 2014?
Terry Francona thinks they can….but past that, can they really?
I don’t know, but Albert Einstein once said that “doing the same thing over and over against and expecting different results” was the true definition of insanity.
They can’t repeat the mistakes they made in 2006 and 2008, and to some extent, what they did after they traded for Ubaldo Jimenez. They have to do something to break the mold.
They are so CLOSE.
It’s time for the Indians to break mold and build up from this foundation, and not expect the foundation to meet the gap between the 2013 team and winning the Series.
It’s not going to happen.
They have a manager that can lead them through the playoffs. He may be the best manager in the game.
They have a general manager who clearly is chomping at the bit to bring a title home.
They have an ownership group that are fans of the Indians first, and have stated several times how they understand it’s not always about a profit.
They have a minor league system that can give the team support as the year progresses, with both players and trades.
They have coaching staff that may be as much or more respected than the manager that hired them.
This really IS a Tribe Town, but let’s make it title town.
Bring this town the World Series it deserves.
Let’s strike while the iron is hot.
I don’t want to hear excuses anymore.
I don’t want to hear the folks that talk about “staying good for several years.”
I want a championship, and I want it now, and if it means there’s a down year or two or three after, so be it.
It’ll be worth it to taste the champagne after the final game of the season.
Mark Shapiro has talked an awful lot about windows of opportunity. Well Mark, the window is wide open here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario. How about we blast the door open and take our shot.
Give Antonetti the go ahead.
Let Francona grab the final pieces we all know he’s asking for.
Who will that be? Are the players in the market place that the Indians can sign or trade for that can make a difference?
There always is, even if it there are obstacles.
Don’t let a few million cost this team the immortality of being World Champions.
There’s gotta be profit in that, right?
Tribe Time really can be in 2014, and as we all know…these moments are few and far between. Players get older. Manager’s clocks are ticking (they always are). Contracts start winding down.
That’s not gonna happen next season. This thing could hit high gear.
Let’s just hope the suspension of disbelief doesn’t end with the period on this sentence.