Friday, September 29, 2006

Blind Spots

It was either a slow news day or Plain Dealer sports editors thought that columnist Bill Livingston finally had something interesting to say. How else to explain the fact that his column this morning appeared on the front page, above the fold. Usually you have to dig into the bowels of the sports section for Livingston's bland insights.

But rather than focus any more effort on Livingston's usual shortcomings, in this one instance let's turn our attention to what he actually had to say. Livingston used his soapbox to try and draw some parallels between Browns GM Phil Savage and Indians GM Mark Shapiro. In particular, he seems to find that each governs from a potentially fatal blindspot. With Savage, it's his alleged failure to sign a credible backup to quarterback Charlie Frye, particularly considering the abuse that's been heaped on Frye by opposing defenses. With Shapiro, it's his failure to notice that manager Eric Wedge simply can't motivate his players to perform at a higher level.

Let's exam each premise. Starting with Shapiro, we too have raised a similar issue as has others. (See "Eliminating the Variables", September 13, 2006). But Livingston doesn't necessarily come by his argument honestly. It's no secret that Livingston isn't much of a Wedge fan and never has been. So using still another column to knock the Indians manager is hardly groundbreaking analysis. It's fair to posit the question about Shapiro's loyalty to Wedge, but to try and answer it by simply suggesting that because Livingston can't recall a single instance where Wedge's managerial skills actually helped win a game hardly proves the point. With limited exceptions, such as Grady Little's decision to stay with a tiring Pedro Martinez in the World Series, baseball is always the most difficult sport to determine, at any given moment, the impact of the manager.

What, exactly, has Phil Garner, manager of the Houston Astros, done to turn his team into a second half sensation? Was there one specific moment, as Livingston craves of Wedge, or is it a combination of factors? The question answers itself much in the same way as it does with respect to Jim Leyland and the Detroit Tigers. The point is, we think, that you have to examine the body of work and not the individual moments to discern the patterns.

You can fairly criticize much about Wedge. Did he stick with Aaron Boone too far past his expiration date? Did he wait too long before publicly calling out Jhonny Peralta for his lack of professionalism? But if you're going to do that, you have to likewise give him credit for the development of phenom Grady Sizemore in this his second full year in the majors. While the Indians whimper into the off-season, Sizemore continues to play at a high level and has, in fact, raised his game even more in the last few weeks. Certainly at least some credit has to go to Wedge on that score.

We're not here to necessarily defend Wedge, but rather to point out a hack job when we see one. We get that Livingston doesn't like Wedge, so be it. But the truth of the matter is that Wedge remains and intriguing enigma, whose true abilities may never be known as long as he continues to ply his trade with the Indians. Until we have decent, well-financed ownership that gives the GM the ability to acquire players of greater depth and talent, Wedge will continue to earn a pass, whether deserved or not.

As for Savage, we think here too that Livingston misses the point. It's easy to assume that Savage is satisfied with backup quarterbacks Ken Dorsey and Derek Anderson since little effort has been made to sign anyone of a higher stature. But we think there is a bigger card being played. The last thing a young, developing quarterback like Charlie Frye needs is to have that seasoned veteran (such as Trent Dilfer) sitting on the bench, looking over his shoulder. In that scenario, your starter is always one bad pass from the fans and the media clamoring for the backup. It's always been true that the fans favorite quarterback is the one not starting. We think, given the Browns rather thin talent level anyway, that much of this season is about firmly rooting Frye as a legitimate NFL starting quarterback in the minds of everyone--from the opposing teams, to the players in the huddle, to the fans, to the media, and to Frye himself. No one expected the Browns to challenge for a playoff spot this year, anyway. Isn't it better, then, to use this year as a springboard for the next several? At least that's the theory.

If the Browns had signed, for example, Kerry Collins, many in the media and in the stands would be screaming to put him in. And how, exactly, would that make a difference anyway, except to further retard the development of a long-term quarterback?

If Livingston had posited, instead, that Savage has a blind spot when it comes to quarterbacks, in general, there at least would be a credible argument. Savage's old team, the Ravens, have been poorly served at this position for years. But when you consider the Ravens, it makes sense for them to toss Kyle Bollar aside in favor of a clearly aging and deteriorating Steve McNair. The Ravens defense is Super Bowl-worthy, there is talent in some of the skill positions on offense and thus resting your playoff aspirations on Bollar would be ridiculous. But in doing so, the Ravens know full well that they'll pay the price, perhaps as early as next season. McNair will not be able to last, physically, and when it comes time to go back to the cupboard, it will be bare.

We don't know if Charlie Frye is closer to Jake Delhomme or Trent Dilfer. Only time will tell. But blaming Savage for accurately assessing the Browns chances this year and then using the season to set the table for later years hardly seems like a crime. In fact, it seems like prudent long-term planning, something that has been sorely missing from this franchise since it returned.

But we are glad that Livingston got this once chance above-the-fold. It did remind us that if anyone has a blind spot, it's the editors of the PD who continue to thrust Livingston on an increasingly suspecting public.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Talk About Your Disappointments

Given the clearer view that hindsight always provides, ask yourself which team in baseball was more disappointing, Cleveland or Chicago?

We've chronicled the mess that was the Indians seasons several times. In doing so, we've analyzed ad nauseum what went wrong and why. We've also beat into the ground exactly why the Indians season was doomed from the start when cheapskate owners Larry and Paul Dolan shortchanged the team and the fans by not delivering the promised dollars once the team was on the cusp. And we've beaten the stuffing out of the notion that the expectations heaped on this team were unrealistic because they either ignored or greatly minimized the impact the Dolans cheapness would have. So in retrospect, and while it may be fashionable for commentators like ESPN's John Kruk to say, we don't believe the Indians are the most disappointing team in the league. Far from it.

That honor (?) has to go to the Chicago White Sox, last year's World Series champs. Everyone recalls how the Sox laid waste to all that got in their path in last year's playoffs. In the offseason, they enlarged their budget, further strengthened their pitching staff, traded for Jim Thome and dropped team malcontent Frank Thomas. Of all the off season moves made in the league, the consensus was that the Sox got stronger and were poised for another championship.

So what happened? Thome had a remarkable resurgence, although so too did Thomas with Oakland. The point though is that the White Sox received greatly increased production from the DH position. In fact, the White Sox offense was strong all year. They also didn't really have any major injuries to speak of, which is usually what causes a juggernaut to fall short. In the end, the Sox pitchers stunk, particularly their starting pitchers and particularly later in the season. There are many theories as to why this occurred of course, chief among them being last year's long season and subsequent short off season. But in the end, they didn't get it done and couldn't run down hotter, but less talented teams like Detroit and Minnesota.

We can cry and moan all we want about the Indians, and we've done plenty of that. But, again, the expectations for them this season were unrealistic for the reasons noted and thus, in context, it is hard to consider them a major disappointment. But the expectations for the Sox were realistic. In that context, it shouldn't be Joe Giraldi, manager of the Florida Marlins who should be looking for a job next season. It ought to be resident loose cannon Ozzie Guillen, manager of the White Sox. His team, the strongest in the majors from top to bottom, simply didn't produce. Of course, Guillen is the quintessential "players manager", whatever that means, and so he'll get a pass for at least another season.

Monday, September 25, 2006

You Want Consistency?

With the possible exceptions of Roger Brown's column in the Plain Dealer and the collected works of Madonna, there is nothing less interesting than an NFL head coach's weekly press conference. That being said, we did find a few nuggets in Romeo Crennel's press conference this morning.

For example, Crennel told the collected media that the Browns need to be more consistent, as if this holds the key. To us, he sounded like the weekend golfer trying to explain that the if he could just be more consistent, he'd be a scratch golfer. Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." And in that mythical quest for consistency, Crennel, like that weekend golfer, simply drifts further to truly understand what really ails this team.

The problem with this team is not a lack of consistency. The problem with this team is is too much consistency. The uneven performance of this team, like last year's team and every incarnation of the Browns since they returned to the league, is entirely too consistent. They can't run. They can't block. They can't stop a team when it matters most. They tease, they taunt, the produce, they fail. If you want to dissect them on a play by play basis, you'll see incredible consistency. In fact, they are so maddeningly consistent owner Randy Lerner could set his Rolex to it.

If the Browns really want to do something for this city and their fans, they could stop being so damn consistent. Start with getting better players. Find better coaches. Find a methodology that raises the overall level of performance of everyone, from the ticket takers to Randy Lerner and everyone in between. Quit making excuses on why we have to consistently suffer this lack of performance game in and game out, year after year. In short, break some eggs.

The other nugget we liked was Crennel's rather dismissive attitude toward the welfare of quarterback Charlie Frye. In short order, Crennel basically said that a lot of guys get "bumps and bruises" and otherwise have to play in pain, so too does Charlie because, as Crennel noted, that's life in the NFL. Crennel did not that they need to get this fixed but otherwise didn't seem all that concerned.

Well last we looked, the bench was rather thin at this position. Frye is young and tough, but so was Tim Couch. Couch took so much abuse while in a Browns uniform, his career was abruptly cut short. Only now do the Browns look like they may have a successor. But if Frye goes down, and he will, is there anyone out there that thinks Ken Dorsey can lead any team to a win? You think the dawgs are angry now? Just wait. Just wait.

Finally, while utterly predictable you had to marvel at Crennel's obligatory praise of how hard the team played and while they didn't get it done, there were many positives. That's the problem, isn't it? We've become so conditioned to accept poor performance, we're grateful for a performance against another non-playoff team that fell one point short. If we never break out of that mentality, then we don't deserve a championship team. And more likely, we'll never get one.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

You Want Controversy?

It's always the bad teams that generate the most controversy. Always. And it's always the bad teams that seem to have everything going wrong at the same time. Always.

The controversy surrounding the Cleveland Browns is not so much newsworthy for its substance as it is for its duration. This is a story that seems to repeat itself year in and year out with this team. The coaches change, the players change but the story line always remains the same: the Browns can't seem to find their way out of the abyss. Ever.

And while the Browns make easy, if not good, copy for the mainstream media these days (and we've contributed our share as well), don't let this little item go unnoticed, Cleveland Fans: The Atlanta Braves have just signed closer Bob Wickman to a one year, $6.5 million extension.

We asked this question a few weeks ago and we'll ask it again today: why did the Cleveland Indians trade Bob Wickman? It's not as if the team is overflowing with candidates to fill the role. In fact, it's not as if the Indians have any candidates to fill this role. This year Wickman has 30 saves in 34 save opportunities. With the Braves, he is 15 of 16 in save opportunities and has a rather fine 1.19 ERA.

Indians GM Mark Shapiro may be part of the new breed of baseball geniuses but the last time we looked, Braves GM John Schuerholz was hardly washed up. While the Braves will miss the playoffs this year for the first time in 15 years, much of that is attributable to the fact that before Wickman, Braves relievers had blown 20 saves. If Wickman had been with the Braves all season and had blown, say, only 10 of those saves, the Braves would be coasting to the playoffs today as the wild card. If he'd have save, say 18 of those games, the Mets would be in the fight of their life for first place instead of sitting back sipping champagne.

So Schuerholz did what a good GM is supposed to do, fill in the hole. Schuerholz sensed an increasingly desperate Shapiro needing money because of cheapskate owners and pounced. And now Schuerholz has already taken one major "to do" off his post-season list. Meanwhile, Shapiro's list just grows longer and longer.

We could argue this matter a hundred ways and none of them will ever look good for the Indians, Shapiro or the Dolans. For example, it's not as if Wickman is overpriced. At $6.5 million, he's salary-friendly to all but the most frugal of teams, like Kansas City or Florida. And it's not as if he's either old (he's 37) or has lost his effectiveness. A pitcher able to secure 30 saves is a valuable commodity. Tell us who, on the Indians current staff, has that kind of ability? If you've watched any games since Wickman was traded, the answer is as obvious as it is frustrating.

So in the end, all that really happened is that the Dolans saved a little money off this season's payroll. Unless they plan to cut further next year (which is always a possibility), they saved nothing off next year's payroll. They have to spend Wickman's money just to stay in the same sad shape they were in going into this season. But look on the bright side, we did get Single A catcher Max Ramirez. And he did hit .292 this season. And he is only making about $50,000.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Aged Beef

We had a spirited debate yesterday about whether this stinking fish that is fast becoming the Cleveland Browns needs to be chopped off at the head. In other words, did the Browns not learn from their history and, by hiring Romeo Crennel, repeat the mistake that was Bud Carson.

On one side of the debate is that Crennel is an "aged" coach and history shows that these lifetime assistants who get their chance late in life are rarely successful. On the other side of the debate is that Crennel has a decent pedigree and deserved his shot.

In seeking to solve this dilemma, we noted this article posted on This is a website maintained by the NFL Coaches Association and in its lead article it touts the attributes of Crennel, Nick Saban and Mike Nolan. It describes the three as tough, defensive minded, and keen on teaching the fundamentals. It also describes all 3 as being great motivators. As for Crennel, it singles him out as being a "players coach", which presumably is someone who is uniquely understands the players and responds accordingly.

Part of the debate on Crennel has to do with the reputation that the article notes. At this point, and giving due credit to a huge talent deficit, the Browns are not very physical and they aren't fundamentally sound. And, more importantly, they don't appear to be highly motivated, Kellen Winslow, Jr. notwithstanding. In other words, if this is Crennel's stock in trade, he's having trouble translating personal attributes to the larger collective.

But more to the point, it's clear that the Browns went outside the trend, way outside the trend, in hiring Crennel. Right now, there are only four head coaches--Art Shell with the Raiders, Marty Schottenheimer with the Chargers, Joe Gibbs with the Redskins, and Bill Parcells with the Cowboys, who are older than Crennel. Tom Coughlin with the Giants is the same age. Mike Holmgren with the Seahawks is a year younger. What's important to note, though, with this group is that they have been in the league, as head coaches, for many years. Except for Gibbs, each is on at least his second NFL team as head coach and, except for Shell and Parcells, was younger than Crennel when they got their most recent job.

For the most part, a typical NFL head coach, even one with fairly extensive experience, is is his late 40s or very early 50s. Bill Cowher, for example, is 49. Brian Billick is 52 as is Herm Edwards. Bill Belichick is the dean of this group at age 54.

In perusing the list even further and delving into coaching backgrounds, it's clear that most teams when hiring these days find either an experienced head coach (who is still typically younger than Crennel) or a young, up and comer. For example, Eric Mangini, in his first year with the Jets, is 35. Mike McCarthy in Green Bay is 43. The aforementioned Mike Nolan is 47. Nick Saban was 53 when he was hired by Miami, but he also was a long-term major college head coach.

The closest parallel to Crennel comes from an equally moribund franchise, Detroit. Head coach Rod Marinelli is 57. His prior coaching experience, like Crennel, was as an assistant. He spent 10 years molding Tampa Bay's defense and was a longtime position coach at several colleges.

This begs the question as to whether Cleveland and Detroit management are simply contrarians or idiots. Rather than pursue a path that's been successful for others, they deliberately go after aged beef that's never served as the entree. Whether either deserved a shot as a head coach earlier in their career is hardly the point, at least to the fans of each franchise. Both coaches were arguably beyond their expiration dates when hired and, given each franchise's struggles, both in retrospect probably would have benefited greatly by following the path of hiring a dynamic newcomer. Neither did and both clubs are struggling.

All of this starts leading down a very scary path: that Crennel (and Marinelli) is closer to becoming Bud Carson then he is to becoming Bill Parcells. And while we could care less about the fate of the Lions, fans of both clubs know full what what this really means-- a new coach and another rebuilding program is just around the corner.

Perhaps the Browns really did give up too soon on Butch Davis.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Got Your Back

Having someone's back just doesn't mean what it used to.

Just one week ago, Browns tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. was defending over matched offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, declaring, "We've got his back and he has ours. It doesn't matter what [anyone] says." (from the Plain Dealer) That didn't last long.

In a few well-considered moments yesterday to reporters, Winslow said that he now thinks coaches "may be holding us back a little bit." But that wasn't all. He openly questioned the play calling, both during Sunday's game and yesterday. ``That's exactly what it is,'' Winslow said. ``I think we're being a little too conservative right now. We just need to unleash it. You know, why wait? It was a division game and we're 0-2, so we have nothing to lose.'' But that wasn't it, either. According to the story posted by Akron Beacon Journal reporter Patrick McManamon (who last season was house shill for the Browns web site), Winslow acknowledged openly venting his concerns to coaches on the sidelines Sunday. As McManamon noted:

"In the loss Sunday in Cincinnati, Winslow came off the field several times on third down as the Browns went to a three-receiver, two-back set. Winslow talked to Crennel on the sidelines when it happened in the third quarter.
`I talked to him during the game, and he said he'll take care of it,' Winslow said. `So I'm pretty sure it's going to be taken care of.''
Winslow also said he had talked to tight ends coach Ben Coates, apparently before the game.
`Nothing's changed,' Winslow said. `I don't understand it.'
Winslow did not mention Carthon, but said: `There's so much talk. It doesn't even matter sometimes. It's just up to them (the coaches).'
The Giants run the same system as we do. The Cowboys run the same system as we do. And (Jason) Witten and (Jeremy) Shockey are on the field on third down,' he said of their use of tight ends. ``I just don't understand why I'm not on the field sometimes.'

Normally, we're pretty team oriented and don't much care for the self-promotion that underlies most complaints to the media. We think it hurts the team. But in the case, we make an exception and join in the comments by Beacon Journal columnist Tom Reed. First of all, there is significant truth underlying the comments. We've said it before and will continue to say it: it's not so much the play calling but the overall lack of game plan that is the most appalling. The Browns have been well short of play makers since their return. They finally get a few and then put Carthon in charge of making as little use out of them as he can. How else to explain the puzzling absence of Winslow in several key third down situations on Sunday?

Second of all, as Reed notes, it's about damn time someone in that locker room showed some leadership. Head Coach Romeo Crennel may not like the fact that Winslow is outspoken, but he has to admire his willingness to be so. And it would be a serious mistake for Crennel to write this off as merely the opinions of another egocentric athlete looking to achieve a performance bonus. Winslow may have a high opinion of himself which the few games he's played may not quite warrant, but for anyone who has seen the first two games, he's clearly been the only offensive standout. And it's pretty clear, too, that Winslow isn't just speaking for himself. There is absolutely no spark or inspiration in the players. That comes from a complete lack of confidence that their coaches are putting them in a position to succeed. And unless addressed immediately, it will seep into the performance of the defense, as well.

Expect Crennel to continue to publicly support Carthon and to drop veiled criticisms of his players, just as he did by suggesting that Winslow isn't all that polished of a player yet. Privately, though, may be a different matter. We note that Crennel also told the media that he has asked the coaches to simplify the schemes on both sides of the ball. This is code, we think, for telling them to let the players play. If Crennel isn't fed up with Carthon's miserable performance the last two weeks, then Crennel is complicit as well and should be sharing the same hot seat with Carthon.

Monday, September 18, 2006


We could spend any number of words, sentences and paragraphs on the Cleveland Browns, but what would be the point? What, too, would be the point of further chastising the sunken Indians?

Still, does anyone need any more proof of what Travis Hafner means to the Indians? Since he went down with a broken hand, the Tribe is averaging over one run per game less. A back-of-the-napkin calculation, based on the Tribe's recent trend without Hafner, reveals that projected over a whole season, they'd be near the bottom in runs scored. In other words, they'd be hanging with Tampa Bay. And while we'd expect them to win more than a third of their games over a whole season even without Hafner, it's interesting to note that they are 5-10 since Hafner went down.

In other words, this just makes our case of a few weeks ago regarding how truly valuable Hafner has been to the Tribe and why he deserves serious consideration for most valuable player, despite the otherwise miserable season on the lakefront.

But what we really found amusing is that now Eric Wedge is mad about the pathetic defensive efforts, particularly in the infield. We noted the other day Jim Ingraham's fine column calling Wedge to task for any number of sins, including their poor fundamentals. It's interesting to note that only now, with mostly rookies and September call-ups in the line-up, that Wedge has taken the Tribe infielders to task for poor play. We suppose, in one sense, it's never too late to close the barn door. On the other hand, we remember Tigers manager Jim Leyland calling to task publicly his whole team after an early season belting by this same Tribe. Shortly thereafter, the Tigers responded and have gone on to lead the Central ever since. Maybe now that Wedge is so publicly upset with poor defense, the Tribe will respond by having the best record in baseball for the last 14 games. Don't count on it.

And if you're looking for solace from the Browns as the Tribe fades quietly into the background, don't count on that either.

For truly offensive behavior, look no further then the on-coming train wreck that is fast becoming the Cleveland Browns season. Only two games into the season and they actually look as though they've regressed from last season. They have absolutely no hope of even being competitive with the Baltimore Ravens this weekend, so next week we'll be talking about their 0-3 start.

The way in which they are losing is what's so alarming. In their first game, they were simply unprepared, an unpardonable sin for the first game of the year. Yesterday, they at least look prepared for their weekly ass-whipping. To paraphrase General George S. Patton, on their first drive yesterday the Bengals went through the Browns like crap through a goose. Frankly, the only thing that kept the Bengals from scoring 50 points was the Bengals. They had all the elements. A 300-yard passer. A 100-yard rusher. A 100-yard receiver. In context, how did they not score 50?

On the offensive side of the ball, we guess it's good that Charlie Frye didn't get sacked. But perhaps the Bengals simply didn't try. Why should they? It's clear at this point that the Browns under Maurice Carthon have absolutely no idea what they are trying to accomplish anyway, so why risk injury when the Browns will simply self-destruct? They have a few good players--Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow, Jr., Reuben Droughns. But each week Carthon finds new and clever ways not to use them. Heck, Carthon saw fit not to include his premiere tight end, tight end!, in on numerous third down situations. And these weren't all third-down and long situations. One of the key measures of any offense is third-down conversion rate, something that the Browns have been last or near bottom since their return. This season is shaping up the same way and the finger now points to Carthon. If Carthon survives even the first half of the season, we'd be amazed.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Elminating the Variables

We've noted before that for all the turmoil that has surrounded this year's Indians team, Manager Eric Wedge has been mostly given a pass by the mainstream media. In our view, Wedge is a problem to be addressed only after the cheapskates who own this team give GM Mark Shapiro enough money to be competitive.

But we liked the courage of Jim Ingraham, Tribe beat reporter for the Lake County News-Herald who finally took the Wedge issue head-0n. Ingraham lays out the case that one of the more pressing and vexing problems for Shapiro to address is exactly why Wedge's teams the last two years play their worst when the expectations are at their highest. As Ingraham notes, last season the Tribe mostly slid under the radar until the last week or so of the season when they had a chance to finish off the White Sox during their freefall. Instead, the Tribe went 1-6. Then, this season, when expectations were at an all-time high, the Tribe played some of the worst baseball imaginable. It wasn't until it didn't much matter that the Tribe started winning with some regularity.

Hard to argue with someone whose absolutely right. Ingraham goes on to further support his case by noting that Wedge mysteriously fails to hold players accountable for their performance, which arguably just sends a message that the kind of mental mistakes that have defined this team are acceptable. We agree wholeheartedly.

At times, Wedge seems so intent on being a players manager that he has failed to establish for his troops the fine line between success and failure in the grand sense. Certainly you can't overreact to every mistake made in a long season. But there is a point where you have to hold the team leaders responsible for their actions. We've noted that Wedge seemed to take on Broussard unfairly while remaining silent on the constant mistakes of others. But it's always been clear that Broussard wasn't a core player and his beating up on Broussard hardly sent a message to the others. Had he, for example, taken on Aaron Boone early and often for his monumentally poor defense, Jhonny Peralta early and often for his monumentally poor defense, offense, and mental approach, Victor Martinez early and often for his inability to throw out a base runner, then maybe, just maybe, the others would have responded more positively.

All this is hard to say because we also firmly believe that the miserly and uncompetitive budget that the Dolans presented Shapiro after last season sent shock waves through the clubhouse that management just didn't care. Whether Wedge could have done anything about that is hard to say. Whether anyone short of the Dolans could have done anything about it is equally hard to say.

In the end, we're willing to give Wedge a pass for this season. While he may very well be the culprit, we'll never know until we eliminate the other variables. And as long as we have the Dolans to kick around, those other variables will always remain.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Show Me the Money

We liked the Akron Beacon Journal's take on this weekend's sports developments. As we've just noted, the Browns were a bust in a truly scary way--they were completely unprepared for their first game! The Buckeyes were terrific in a truly gratifying way--they were completely prepared for their biggest game! But the Akron Zips were terrific in a wholly different way--you could actually watch them take a giant step forward by beating a BCS team.

But what's really on our mind is a question we still can't answer: why did the Indians trade Bob Wickman? At last look, Wickman had 13 saves for the Braves, a team that like the Indians isn't going anywhere. The Indians got a low-level minor league catcher in the exchange which is about right since neither team knows whether either player will be around much longer.

What the trade of Wickman really was about, and GM Mark Shapiro has basically hinted as much, is money. And, most significantly, saving money. The figuring must be that since we won't be getting into the post-season anyway, what's the difference how many games we actually win. In other words, if we're going to lose anyway, we might as well do it as cheaply as possible.

But the problem with that line of thinking is that cheapskate owners Larry and Paul Dolan are still charging full price for the games, which seems a tad disingenuous if not outright unfair. But this particular fraud isn't even the biggest one being perpetuated on the fans. It's the oft-repeated mantra from no less than Paul Dolan himself that saving this money helps us be in a position to compete next year.

Really? How so? As we've said previously, the Indians aren't saving real money to spend next year. They're just shaving this year's payroll. There is little evidence that the Dolans will plow it back into the franchise. If they didn't this season when the Tribe was on the verge of returning to elite status, then when would they? Put it this way: even if the Dolans surprise everyone and spend all the money they saved by shaving payroll this season, that only gets us back to the undersized payroll we started with. And as we've also said previously, the Tribe's budget was hardly competitive anyway. The Tribe is fourth in the standings in the A.L. Central and fourth in payroll as well and losing ground each year. The Tribe will have to go well in excess of their payroll at the beginning of the season, not the end, to even get back into that race.

In short, explain again to me why the Indians traded Bob Wickman?

Preparation C

We've been on vacation for a few days and our batteries are now freshly charged. We only wish the same could be said for the Browns.

Coach Romeo Crennel's charges looked woefully unprepared for their opening game, which is about the worst thing that can ever be said about a team. Any objective observer knows that this team lacks depth and only recently began acquiring players with some talent. So in that sense, not much in the way of tangible results was expected. But there is no reason for the collapse that was this past Sunday's game. And we're not ready to blame it on the players, yet.

The truth is, the Browns were outcoached in every imaginable way. And it wasn't just on game day, either. They were woefully unprepared, which is the most puzzling development. It's not like this was week 8 in a long season. Crennel and his coaches had all summer, indeed all offseason to get ready and this is the best they could do? The mental errors made by the players all speak to a lack of preparation by the coaches so before Crennel goes pointing to things like Jeff Faine pushing Two-Ton Ted Washington all over the field as the reason the defensive line allowed 170 rushing yards, he ought to first look in the mirror and figure out why he sent this team in this shape onto that field.

Speaking of coaches, if there is anything more puzzling then the lack of preparation, it is how Offensive Coordinator Maurice Carthon has retained his job. It's not the play calling so much as the lack of overall plan. We'd be shocked if anyone could articulate exactly what the Browns were trying to do when they had the ball. Crennel said they got away from RB Reuben Droughns in the second half because of the lack of success in the first half. But the game was close throughout and to abandon their best running back speaks less of a plan than it does of panic. From where we sit, Carthon is on the hot seat and deservedly so.

This isn't to give a pass to the players, but we need to keep in mind the bigger picture. If this team is going to ever transfer its promise to success, the coaches will have to do a better job, fast. As always, it's easier to replace a few coaches then an entire team.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Devaluing the Most Valuable

The sun is setting earlier. There’s a slight chill in the air. You can just feel the seasons beginning to turn, which can only mean one thing: it’s time for the media to turn its attention to baseball’s award season. We’ve noticed a definite uptick in activity lately on this front. There’s an article in this week’s Sports Illustrated discussing the candidates for the various post-season awards. It’s a topic that has received plenty of airtime from the gamut of local yahoos to folks like Dan Patrick on ESPN Radio.

Perhaps because the National League is awful, top to bottom, this year (which probably means its team sweeps the American League representative in the World Series) that most of the MVP talk has centered around a veritable whose who of American League candidates. For awhile it was David Ortiz until the Boston Red Sox swiftly fell out of contention after being swept in five straight games a few weeks ago by the Dark Star New York Yankees. Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins is becoming a media favorite even as Jermaine Dye of the Chicago White Sox starts his leg kick.

We can’t help noticing, though, that the Indians Travis Hafner hardly garners a mention, except in a “isn’t it too bad” sort of way. Which tells you everything you need to know about the MVP award. This year, like most other years, the award is not for the most valuable player in the league. It’s for the most valuable player on a really good team that will end up in the post season. Which explains why Hafner is, as we said, hardly garnering a mention except in a “isn’t it too bad” sort of way.

There is much good to document about Hafner’s season. Without question, he is the league’s top slugger. He is at or near the top in every meaningful hitting category, from average, to RBI, to home runs, to slugging percentage, to on-base percentage. But will he finish in the top 10 in voting? Probably. But in the top 5? Unlikely. In fact, Jim Thome, will probably get more votes. Which also tells you everything you need to know about the MVP award.

If the award indeed had any meaning, Hafner would get it by acclimation. While most everything else has gone wrong with the Tribe this year, either by design (the refusal of the cheapskate owners Larry & Paul Dolan to deliver to the fans what they promised—a competitive budget, forcing GM Mark Shapiro to scrape the B and C free agent levels and otherwise trade serviceable players) or by chance (the mysterious decline of Jhonny Peralta, the inability of Victor Martinez to throw out a baserunner), Trafner has been consistently good. His slumps have been so minimal that it’s unfair to even call them slumps. He started hitting on day 1 and is still hitting through the abyss that surrounds him. Stated differently, take him off the team and see how far the Tribe sinks into the muck.

But that’s not the issue, is it? The issue is the performance of this team relative to the expectations heaped upon it before the season started that actually becomes a major factor in who will be named MVP. If, for example, the media, the same media that votes on the award by the way, had accurately assessed this team’s chances at the beginning of the year, the season would not look like a failure, relatively speaking, and Hafner would be getting some serious press. You don’t think so? Look at the Florida Marlins. They were pegged for a hundred-loss season and the fact that they are bubbling near but not at .500 is making Manager Joe Giraldi look like a genius and will get him serious consideration for manager of the year. Given what the Dolans have been doing to this franchise, an appreciation of Hafner and the season he is having is suffering from unreasonable and outsized expectations heaped on the team. In other words, how valuable can Hafner or anyone be on a team expected to win 90 games and compete for the top spot in the tough Central Division if that team only wins 70 games. But the truth is, a 70-win season was about the best anyone should have expected. With this late season surge, the Tribe will probably exceed that win total by a few. And the fact that they will is attributable in large measure to Hafner. He has single-handedly kept this franchise afloat despite the best efforts of the Dolans to sink it.

Take it a step further. Is there a team in contention in either league that wouldn’t give up half their pitching staff to acquire Hafner? Cleveland fans look fondly at Thome, but the truth is that at equivalent points in their careers, Thome’s numbers, for average and for power, pale in comparison to Hafner. (Note: we’ll break this down for you in another posting Hafner is young, injury free, and quickly becoming the most-feared batter in the league. In meaningless August and September games, notice how many times Hafner still gets intentionally walked, even with a runner on first base.

But Hafner, unfortunately, will not get serious MVP consideration. Just another in a growing list of things we can fairly blame on bad ownership.