Saturday, May 31, 2008

Becoming Unhinged

If anyone was worried that the dismal performance of the Cleveland Indians has gone unnoticed by manager Eric Wedge, worry nevermore. With each passing loss, Wedge is coming far closer to becoming unhinged than at any point since he took over as manager in 2004.

The latest evidence was on display after Wednesday afternoon’s loss to the Chicago White Sox when a visibly angry Wedge uncharacteristically challenged relief pitcher Rafael Betancourt, claiming essentially that Betancourt is afraid to pitch inside.

That Betancourt is underperforming is hardly news. Heck, it means he fits in well with this group of underachievers. That Wedge has taken his complaints public, however, does qualify as genuine news on any number of fronts.

First, blasting a player publicly is something either a rookie manager or an icon does. Wedge is neither. He may be a veteran manager, but he doesn’t have the gravitas or resume of a Jim Leyland in Detroit, for example, to pull it off just yet. By showing what some would say is his human side, Wedge began a walk on a slippery slope in new shoes with wax paper on the soles.

A manager fills many roles, from babysitter to Godfather. But first and foremost, the players have to believe that the manger is like a Secret Service agent, ready to take a bullet for them if necessary. When the manager starts firing the bullets instead, the dynamic is inverted. Put it this way, do you think Betancourt believes that Wedge has his back? To the extent that there’s a sliver of doubt in their minds, the players will now be that much more cautious with Wedge. It’s not one of those good problems to have.

Second, as awful as Betancourt and the bullpen have been, you could have won a small fortune wagering that to the extent Wedge would lose it publicly it would be because anyone of his hitters just killed another rally by swinging at another ball four. Think about Wednesday’s ninth inning. Wedge, playing small ball with a team ill equipped to handle the task, watched, in order, Ben Francisco and Victor Martinez fail to get the tying run home from third base.

When Wedge has talked about the team’s offensive problems, it’s been mostly in a generic sense, complaining that “the hitters” keep giving away at-bats but generally not focusing on any particular player. To the extent he’s spoken about anybody, it’s been in even, measured tones about Travis Hafner and the need to get him going in the right direction.

One aspect of Wedge’s attack on Betancourt that is particularly intriguing was the statement that Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis have been making the same points over and over again to no avail. It’s similar to Wedge’s statements that he’s talked with the hitters numerous times about their approach, again to no avail.

In some sense, it suggests that the players, for whatever reason, are beginning to tune out Wedge and his staff. Wedge admitted that Betancourt isn’t listening and it’s pretty clear that no one’s much listening to hitting coach Derek Shelton either, given how the ninth inning unfolded on Wednesday.

By taking on Betancourt as he did, Wedge unwittingly presented his general manager with an issue that probably wasn’t yet on his radar screen but probably should have been: that Wedge may be starting to lose the clubhouse. How true that ultimately is will undoubtedly be the key to the way the rest of this season unfolds. Right now, it’s doubtful that Mark Shapiro sees this as anything more than isolated examples involving one or two players. But if the struggles continue, Shapiro is going to reassess that premise. And if he thinks that team is no longer listening to Wedge or his staff, then Shapiro will have a bigger problem to deal with than whether or not to dump Andy Marte.

The guess, though, is that if the clubhouse is being lost, it’s not by Wedge but by Shapiro. Wedge is just the convenient target for a boatload of frustration stemming from a variety of failures, not the least of which was Shapiro’s inability to upgrade an offense that was struggling long before this season started.

Essentially, Shapiro stood pat on an offense that last year was too highly dependent on the long ball to produce runs. Forget about runs scored, the Indians struggled on offense last year and the players know it. It was masked by the emergence of Asdrubal Cabrera late last season, but most should recall that until Cabrera arrived, the Indians looked every bit as woeful as they do now for significant stretches, which is no surprise because it’s largely the same players.

Shapiro entered this season adhering to certain assumptions that, at the time, seemed pretty reasonable: that Hafner’s 2007 was an anomaly, that Cabrera and Sizemore would be even better and that Franklin Gutierrez looked poised to make a huge jump as well. Unfortunately, not a one of them has worked out so far.

In many ways, 2008 is turning out like 2006. Having gotten painfully close the previous season, Shapiro once again resisted the urge to make any major changes. Just as they did in 2006, the players this year seem to have taken note and responded in the most negative way possible, by failing to live up to any reasonable expectations. Instead of being energized by the confidence in them that they’d be even better, they seemed to have taken Shapiro’s minor offseason tweaks as a lack of commitment.
There’s no way of really knowing of course what’s deep in the psyche of most of these players. And whether or not it’s too late to save a season that’s hemorrhaging hope by the inning is a matter of opinion that ultimately will take another 50 or so games to confirm. While this season may not end up amounting to much, it won’t be a total loss if Shapiro is now able to learn the lessons he didn’t learn following the 2005 season, that rare is the team that can improve by standing pat.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Feet in the Fire

This time, it wasn’t the weather.

There were just over 35,000 in attendance at Sunday’s game at Progressive Field between the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers. A decent crowd, certainly, but well short of a sell out on an absolutely perfect day for baseball on a Sunday of a long holiday weekend. For good measure, it was kids’ day, meaning that Junior and Squirt could run the bases afterward, assuming Ma and Pa hung around long enough.

If Indians general manager Mark Shapiro needed any more proof that interest in this team is waning quickly, then most certainly his bosses will let him know that the 8,000 or so who didn’t bother to buy a ticket Sunday made a far louder noise than anything that could have possibly been generated by those who did bother to show up.

It’s a combination of things, to be sure, but ultimately when a team can’t score runs it’s frustrating, irritating, but above all else, boring. A great pitching performance like C.C. Sabathia’s has a certain beauty that is always underappreciated, but it isn’t even close to enough Novocain for the pain this team is inflicting on its fans. At bat after at bat, called third strike after called third strike, the institutional failures hang over this team like a lethal mushroom cloud.

The regression analysts among us, and there are plenty that actually work for the Indians, will tell you that even a team that can’t hit can’t hit this bad. True. But if the upside isn’t all that high, where’s the settling point: 4.5 runs a game instead of 4.1?

You could use Sunday’s game as a microcosm for the season thus far, but really it’s just the latest in the assembly line that’s been punching out one bad game after another. Particularly in these last 10 games, any loss but Friday’s, an aberration if ever there was one, provides an appropriate snapshot. Sunday’s loss was set early, when the Indians loaded the bases with one out in the second inning and couldn’t find a way to get even one run in. Ben Francisco topped the ball, creating a force out at the plate. He could be forgiven because, frankly, he’s the only player hitting these days.

But up came Travis Hafner and his latest opportunity to disappoint. He met expectations, flying out to center field, sucking the life once again out of the team and its fans. If lack of self-awareness is a disease, Hafner is suffering from a particularly acute form. His post-game quote was a gem: “It seemed like we had a chance to score runs all day. But we couldn't find a way to get runners across the plate.” If by “we” he means “I” and by “all day” he means “all season” then it’s accurate. Otherwise, it seems a tad unfair to call out the collective.

There was a host of one of post-game call-in shows that suggested that despite the struggles, Hafner has to stay in the number three spot in the order. No need to take the host to task. It’s actually a common sentiment, actually, borne out of the school of thought that Hafner will eventually come out of it.

Not to go all negative by throwing around a bunch of facts, but it’s been over a year already and nothing about the way he’s swinging the bat suggests there is anything to come out of. Still, giving him the dwindling benefit of an ever increasing doubt, if he’s going to come out of it, let him do it in Buffalo and let it be for the rest of the season. Assuming there’s no collective bargaining restriction, Hafner should be on the next Trailways to Buffalo. If it works half as well for him as it did for Cliff Lee, then he’ll surely earn his way back on this team next spring.

The thought of demoting Hafner has to have crossed Shapiro’s mind at least once for each of the 600 or so at bats since his spiral began. But there are a number of factors at play from the personal to the practical. Hafner has been in the big leagues since 2002. As recently as the 2006 season, he was the face, the future of the franchise. He has a long-term guaranteed contract worth millions. Psychologically, making that kind of move would probably be perceived as a negative in the clubhouse, perhaps more so than his constant failures at the plate. In short, in the context of sports, it’s a difficult decision.

If Shapiro’s frustrated, what must be going through manager Eric Wedge’s brain? If this were anyone but Hafner, he’d have stapled his backside to the bench, next to Andy Marte’s, in late April. But Wedge understands the political ramifications at play and knows that navigating this storm is where a manger really earns his money. Which is why the safe course is to stay the course.

At some point, though, if the Indians as a team keep batting around the Mendoza line and scoring runs like they were the Seattle Pilots this will come to a head unless Shapiro makes a move first. Wedge isn’t simply going to put his own job in jeopardy for the sake of Hafner’s ego. Shapiro will either have to bail him out or the two will collide. A transcript of that conversation would be an instant bestseller.

The only other option, at least in the near term, is the very convenient disabled list. With a supposedly chronic shoulder and/or elbow problem, Hafner’s a candidate for the DL every day he shows up for work. It would hardly be a shock if he ends up there soon followed by an extended rehab stint in Akron and Buffalo. It’s a decent organizational compromise to an obviously thorny issue. If it doesn’t work, then the transition to Buffalo for the rest of the season isn’t as tricky.

Ridding the team of Hafner, even in the short run, doesn’t solve all of the other problems. But it does give them a kick start. Most importantly, what it really does is tell the rest of the team that the money may be guaranteed but their spot on the roster isn’t. If you don’t think that’s a message that needs to be sent, then watch Jhonny Peralta sleepwalk his way through a game some time. The season isn’t lost yet, but it will be unless someone’s feet actually get held to a fire.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The NFL, the Union and the Bottom Line

It didn’t come as much of a surprise that the NFL owners earlier this week opted out of the collective bargaining agreement. After all, the owners have never been shy about doing whatever it takes to maximize their profit margins. What is somewhat surprising, however, is that the NFL Players Association seems nonplussed by the whole matter.

Maybe that’s due to the fact that any impact of the owners’ action is still a few years out. What’s also emerging is that the union, while perhaps not encouraging the owners action, aren’t all that unhappy about it either and you can thank the latest overpaid unproven rookie, Matt Ryan, for that.

In an interview on ESPN Radio earlier this week, Players Association president Kevin Mawae, a center with the Tennessee Titans, sounded like anything but a union representative when discussing what’s been a lingering hard spot for players and owners alike: the skyrocketing value of first year contracts for NFL rookies, particularly those of the marquee variety

Mawae told ESPN’s Colin Herd, “as a guy who has been in the league for 14 now going on 15 years and being around other veteran guys, for a young guy to get paid that kind of money and never steps foot on an NFL football field, it’s a little disheartening to think of. It makes it tough for a guy who’s proven himself to say ‘I want that kind of money’ when the owners, all they’re going to say is, ‘Well, you weren’t a first-round pick.’”

That may sound like sour grapes, but there was more: “And I know there is sentiment around the league amongst the players like, ‘Let’s do something to control these salaries and control these signing bonuses’ and things like that, and I know that’s something that the owners are talking about and I’m sure that’s going to play into this round of negotiations for this collective bargaining agreement.”

If you just substitute “owners” for “players” and “players” for “owners” in that last comment, you’d swear it was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell talking. But coming from Mawae, you get the strong sense that the Union sees some opportunity themselves with the recent turn of events.

To be sure, this is an owners’ initiated re-opener of the labor agreement even though either side could have pulled the trigger. Despite the problem the players have with rookie salaries, it would have been political suicide for Gene Upshaw, the union’s executive director, to even suggest opting out of a contract that guaranteed 60% of gross revenues just to make a point about the Matt Ryans of the world.

But Upshaw also knew it would never come to that because the owners all along planned on doing the dirty work. When the latest contract was signed in 2006, it literally had to be rammed down the throats of many of the owners. In fact, it’s not all that inaccurate to suggest that the only reason the owners actually approved the deal was in deference to former commissioner Paul Tagliabue who already had announced he would be retiring. Many owners didn’t like the new deal mainly because of the increase in revenues guaranteed to the players, but with a re-opener they were willing to swallow hard in order not to embarrass Tagliabue or otherwise tarnish what was shaping up to be an impressive legacy. It was Tagliabue, after all, who brought labor peace the last time the players struck. He also brought unprecedented growth and the attendant riches. He deserved the bone the owners threw him, even if they would have rather aimed it at his head.

The problems owners identified with the current contract at its inception have only grown worse, at least in their minds, and in no small part have been exacerbated by the economy. Their own costs are rising, like everyone else’s, and while 40% of consistently increasing overall revenues is an impressive amount, it’s not as good as, say 50%. The owners now estimate their labor costs at $4.5 billion, which is pretty serious money in any language. If they could shave even 5% of that back, it would mean another $225 million or so in their pocket. It’s certainly enough money to fight about.

Of course, scaling back even at a seemingly modest 5% isn’t an easy ask and absent compelling circumstances there really isn’t a reason for the union to consider it. And right now, the fact that the owners aren’t making even more, as opposed to actually losing money, isn’t likely to move the “compelling circumstances” needle much for the players. But here’s where the interests do converge: rookie salaries.

The owners have said for years that they favor a rookie salary scale, which the union has mostly resisted. Smartly, the owners haven’t pushed it and instead have just gone about letting agents drive up rookie salaries while at the same time decreasing the available salary cap space for every one else. Over the last several years players have watched time and again teams cut veteran players in order to free up cap space and now, finally, they’ve are starting to see the light, as Mawae acknowledged.

In other words, you can start to see the makings of a deal. Of course, it will take more than just this redistribution of the salary cap space to make the players willing to cut back their share of the revenues. Another idea being floated already is the elimination of one or two preseason games and the concurrent expansion of the regular season. This benefits the players because they get a salary check for regular season games but only a small per diem of around $1,000 for preseason games. Even if the salary is divided up over 17 or 18 games rather than 16, that’s still far more money than what they get now for a meaningless preseason game.

When it comes to union matters, the average player is like the average auto worker. The only bottom line is the bottom line. The issue to them isn’t the share of revenues as much as it is what their paychecks look like. Of course the two are inextricably linked, but how the money gets to them isn’t nearly as big of a concern as the fact that it got to them.

For the near term, don’t expect much to happen. Though the union and the NFL claim that there is still three years of uninterrupted football on the horizon, it’s really two. There’s enough incentive on both sides to get a deal done and not get to that third year because while it will lack a salary cap, it also will lack a minimum salary. Anyone who thinks one of the owners will go off the reservation and spend frivolously that third year isn’t much of a student of the business side of this game. Far more likely is that spending will go precipitously.
In the interim, expect a muted amount of saber rattling and posturing. Also expect clear thinking to prevail. The one thing the owners and the players in the NFL have always understood far better than the counterparts in the NHL, for example, is that in their sport they really do have a hen that lays golden eggs. Far better to feed it then kill it and start from scratch.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Specter vs. Goodell, Again

What’s the sound made by one hand clapping? Probably the same as the one generated by the majority of football fans over Sen. Arlen Specter’s continued grandstanding on the so-called Spygate matter.

This past week, golf pro Matt Walsh, the former videographer for the New England Patriots, emerged from his Hawaiian hideway to spill whatever beans were left to spill about his taping escapades to, in order, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Specter, the New York Times and HBO. Next week, he’s due to meet with Virgil, the maintenance man in my building.

Of course, Walsh didn’t really have anything new to say, except that he unwittingly made the Boston Globe look even more foolish (no small feat) by denying that the Patriots had secretly taped the St. Louis Rams’ pre-Super Bowl walk-through. In short order, he did confirm what had already been known and offered his thoughts on the ethics of it all after, of course, compromising his own by repeatedly taking money from the Patriots for something he says he knew was wrong at the time.

The lack of anything new didn’t stop Specter from continuing his overblown rhetoric on the subject, again invoking the notion of revisiting the NFL’s antitrust exemption, a cage Specter has rattled before. He wants an independent investigation, a congressional inquiry and, perhaps, a public flogging. He reserved judgment on what action to take next depending on the reaction of the fans. What’s the proper senatorial reaction to a yawn?

The strong guess is that if Goodell had to do this all over again, he would have conducted a more thorough inquiry the first time around and, for good measure, hung on to the evidence, if only to appease the conspiracy nuts. The fact that he didn’t only gave blowhards like Specter and a handful of New York Jets fans ammunition they didn’t need or deserve.

But that issue aside, lost in all the bluster is perspective. Taping a coach’s signals may be against the NFL operating manual, but on the scale of infractions, it trends far more toward driving 85 in a 65 MPH zone than it does armed robbery. In political terms that Specter can understand, it’s more akin to letting your feet wander in an airport bathroom stall than it is to lying to Congress about why you fired certain U.S. attorneys.

Even more to the point: what exactly is the purpose of Specter’s ongoing interest? The salient facts are known. The Patriots were punished, head coach Bill Belichick was fined. If some like Specter aren’t satisfied with the level of the punishment, personally I wasn’t happy with the way Specter didn’t make former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testify under oath to explain illegal wiretapping, but you don’t hear me continuing to bitch about it.

The saber rattling against the NFL by Specter is really nothing new and really has a deeper purpose. For context, remember the whole Philadelphia Eagles/Terrell Ownes mess? Specter stuck his nose into that as well, calling the Eagles vindictive after it sent Owens home for the rest of the season for basically placing the team under the bus and driving it over them himself. At that time, Specter too threatened to hold hearings on the NFL’s antitrust exemption. Over Owens? That should have been the tipoff.

On the surface, the Ownes situation and now Spygate make Specter seem like an overly obnoxious fan with a bit of a God complex. But if you look just below the surface, the real issue for Specter in Spygate and, for that matter, the Owens case, revolves around the NFL’s antitrust exemption and how it is negatively impacting one of his biggest campaign contributors, Pennsylvania-based Comcast.

Comcast, like a lot of cable operators wasn’t too happy when the NFL decided to re-up with DirecTV a few years ago instead of allowing cable systems to bid on the package. But things got far more interesting when the NFL Network rolled around. The reason the most of the country doesn’t get the NFL Network, at least on basic digital cable, has to do with some arguably poor marketing decisions by the NFL. When the NFL put up a package of eight late-season games for auction and then awarded the package to its own NFL Network, Comcast was fit to be tied, I tell ya because its Versus network was a bidder as well. In retaliation, Comcast moved the NFL Network from the basic digital tier to a sports tier available to subscribers for an additional fee. This, in turn, infuriated the NFL, and the parties are in a cold war over it, with the NFL filing a complaint against Comcast before the Federal Communications Commission. Meanwhile, the NFL Network is frozen out on most cable systems.

It’s always dangerous ground when taking sides in a fight between multi-billion dollar entities. Let’s just say that neither side is as innocent as it claims and neither is on the side of the fans, only the money. But these are big boys and they can settle their own disputes and don’t need Specter, doing Comcast’s bidding, getting in the middle of the food fight.

What Specter and his benefactor Comcast really want is the removal of the antitrust exemption. This would then make it illegal for the NFL to pool its broadcasting rights and bargain with the various networks, thus allowing operators like Comcast a real opportunity to bid for local broadcast rights in several markets. The NFL, for obvious reasons, likes things just the way they are. Indeed, the antitrust exemption is at the heart of the league-wide revenue sharing scheme that has benefited both the individual owners and the league for years.

Specter has been mostly an able legislator throughout his career, but his fight with the NFL isn’t even principally based. To this point, Goodell has been mostly polite to Specter, taking the high road by not mentioning the Specter/Comcast relationship. But just like the Owens/Eagles mess, Goodell knows that Spygate will fade. What won’t, though, is the underlying issues between the NFL and cable systems like Comcast and Time Warner.

Goodell knows that the real secret to getting Specter off his back is to solve his problems with Comcast. But NFL commissioners are also rumored to have a bit of a God complex as well, thus further minimizing the chance that these problems will get resolved anytime soon. In the interim, fans better get used to every so often hearing again about Spygate, Son of Spygate, and whatever other –Gate Specter can invent. With the kind of money that’s really at stake, neither side is obviously interested in trying to win this battle with moderation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Playing the Odds

It’s easy to think of players as transient commodities. And as the years go by, free agency and salaries caps only emphasize the point. But every once in awhile, a player actually has a point.

I believe it was philosopher/pitcher Jim Kern, formerly of the Cleveland Indians vintage mid to late 1970s, who said that in Cleveland the first thing they do when they have a guy with talent is trade him for three guys who don’t. In Kern’s era, that was true and if you want chapter and verse, drop me a line. In those days, the Indians were a shoestring franchise swimming in debt and housed in a dank cavernous ballpark that kept people away in droves. The only positive is that the bleacher seats were 50 cents and they gave away tickets if you had straight As in school.

But that was then. At least since the early 1990s, the Indians have actually resembled a franchise with a coherent strategic plan that has only veered off course intermittently. Yet hardly a day goes by when some Rick from Brunswick isn’t proposing trading an established star for three prospects. Indeed, there is no shortage of fans imploring general manager Mark Shapiro to trade C.C. Sabathia before he skips town in free agency after the season. Better to get something than nothing, the thought goes.

Whether or not that really is true depends in large measure in perspective and a healthy amount of speculation and flat out guess work. The tipping point, though, is clear. The Indians status as contender or pretender as the trading deadline approaches is the key. And given how the Central Division has played out thus far, the only things likely to be certain by July 31 is that the Kansas City Royals will be mathematically eliminated and that Indians manager Eric Wedge will have moved Travis Hafner to eighth in the lineup and increased his off-days to three times a week.

That means that despite the fact that this team is mediocre offensively, it likely still will be in the hunt as the trading deadline nears. If that is the case, any issues regarding Sabathia’s free agency should rightly be put on the back burner. The far more immediate goal has to be to get into the playoffs and make a run at that elusive World Series title. The baseball playoffs in particular are not necessarily about the best overall team, but the best team at that moment. A weaker team can and often does prevail, underscoring the importance of getting in. Making the playoffs is never a sure thing, but a team with Sabathia stands a far better chance than a team without him. And a playoff team with Sabathia has a far better chance of winning it all than a playoff team without him, last season’s Red Sox series notwithstanding.

Demanding that Shapiro trade Sabathia under that scenario isn’t like buying one less Grande 2% Latté from Starbucks so you can add a few pennies to junior’s college fund. It’s one thing to plan for the future; it’s another thing to do it at the complete expense of the present. Why be stuck in an endless loop of almost? Here’s a novel approach: win a World Series first before you start worrying about how to win the one after that.

The one trait of the modern ballplayer well worth emulating is the uncanny ability to live in the present. So much of a player’s future is out of his control that the only way to deal with it is to not deal with it. That same philosophy holds forth in the discussion surrounding Sabathia. Any fan that seriously believes that foregoing an attempt this year to win in order to consummate a trade for prospects that may or may not help the team win at some indeterminate time down the road is the kind of person I’d like to play poker against. So busy would he be figuring out how to minimize his losses so he can go all-in on the royal straight flush he’ll never draw, he’ll never know he’s being robbed blind in the interim.

On the other hand, if the Indians are out of the playoffs by July, the discussion changes but not necessarily the conclusion. Sabathia, perhaps at the union’s urging, has decided not to engage in any contract discussions during the season. If he does hold to that, any team looking to trade for Sabathia knows at best they’re securing that final available fractional interest in a time-share and not buying the whole beach house. The cost for that interest will depend on a number of factors, the most important of which will be the number of other teams looking to secure that same unit with so little time left in the season.

But other factors are likewise at play. A team renting Sabathia essentially faces the same fate the Indians would by not trading him at all. Under baseball’s draft rules, Sabathia would be considered a Type A free agent. The team that ultimately loses Sabathia to free agency receives a sandwich pick between the first and second round of the draft along with the highest available pick of the team with which he signs. If that pick is one of the first 15 in the draft, then the compensatory pick is that team’s second round pick. Figuring the actual value of this compensation falls much closer to wild than educated guess.

Put yourself in the shoes of Shapiro for a moment. When deciding whether or not to pull a trigger on a trade he has to weigh the prospects being dangled against the value of the compensatory picks. Not easy. Put yourself in the shoes of the general manager from the team interested in trading for Sabathia knowing that they may not be able to sign him at season’s end. Not only do you need to feel pretty certain that he’ll get your team into the playoffs, but you also must feel like whatever you’re giving up is worth the potential short-term gain. The added dimension is that you also have to consider what kind of compensation you’ll receive if Sabathia signs with another team. Again, not easy.

From a fan’s perspective, these internal machinations aren’t likely to get much notice. Baseball, under its long term strategic plan to alienate every last fan, makes sure that its draft is far more mysterious and far less understood by the average fan than the NFL draft. Of course, college baseball has a tiny fraction of the following that college football has and thus its top players are much less known. But Major League Baseball could do more to educate the fans but it doesn’t in large part to marginalize the influence of agents. Far better, I suppose, to keep agents at bay than cultivate the fans.

This lack of transparency is really what fosters the misperception that holding on to a player like Sabathia and losing him to free agency is equivalent to receiving nothing in return. On the other hand, fans understand trades even if they have to be educated on the value received since it is generally in the form of prospects.

Consider two quick examples, Jim Thome and Bartolo Colon. When Thome left in 2003, the Indians received two compensatory picks that turned into Brad Snyder and Adam Miller. Currently, Miller is the Indians top pitching prospect while Snyder is still considered a viable outfield prospect, though 2008 is probably his make or break year. But in each case, neither player has yet to contribute at the big league level and it’s been five years since Thome left town. In the case of Colon, who was more a salary dump trade than anything else, the Indians received Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee in return, all three of which are at the major league level.

What both examples do reveal is that while making a trade seems like the surer course, it depends on the circumstances. In most cases, it’s often years before the verdict is actually rendered and even then it’s likely to be inconclusive. All this does then is take you back to the place we started: live for the moment. The opportunity for the immediate gratification of the playoffs is the horse to ride in on. Besides, given its history, betting on the future is always the sucker’s play in Cleveland.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Audacity of Hope

When things are going well, you never expect it to last, especially in Cleveland. When things are going poorly, you never think it will end, especially in Cleveland.

Witnessing the remarkably similar trajectories of the Cavs and the Indians lately it seems like each team is stuck in an endless loop of missed layups and strike outs. The only reason to keep watching is because, like pounding your head against the wall, it feels so good when you stop. That’s what happens I guess when you have a supposedly playoff caliber baseball team playing sub .500 ball because it can’t hit and a playoff basketball team in danger of being swept because it likewise can’t hit.

To appreciate the depths of the Indians offensive struggles, just know that David Dellucci is now batting third. To appreciate the depths of the Cavaliers struggles, just know that the only person shooting worse against the Celtics than LeBron James is Anderson Varejao.

It would be nice to think that this is just a rough patch that will straighten itself out. To be sure, for every valley comes a peak. But if that’s the only lesson to be learned from this stretch, then the disappointment is bound to linger. The parallel struggles of these Cleveland teams are as revealing of their fundamental flaws as they are frustrating.

For the Cavs, James may have picked a vastly inappropriate moment to suddenly go cold, but he hasn’t suddenly turned into the basketball version of Travis Hafner. He’ll be fine. You know it, he knows it and the Celtics know it, too. The only real question is whether it’s in time to salvage the series. If not, then undoubtedly it will be in time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing. But even as James will come out of it, that doesn’t mean that the Cavs will suddenly emerge as a serious NBA title threat. There still remains the matter of the relative merits of head coach Mike Brown.

You know that a theory has entered the mainstream when the guy in your office that still plays way too much Dungeons and Dragons is now talking about the Cavs’ offensive schemes under Brown. In the past week or so, people who couldn’t tell the difference between Delonte West and Jerry West are suddenly insisting that the extent of Brown’s knowledge about offense begins and ends with giving James the ball and telling him to make something happen.

Actually, that isn’t far off. Too often it looks like the only reason that anyone other than James scores is because James is an unselfish player with an amazing basketball I.Q. and an uncanny ability to find the open man he can’t even see. If James were like Gilbert Arenas, no one else on the team would average more than six points.

Brown unquestionably thinks defense first and that emphasis has actually paid off in much more tangible ways than many fans think. The Cavs in general and James in particular are far better defensively as a result of Brown and it is this ability that has helped carry the Cavs through what otherwise would be fairly lean times, particularly this season.

But the truth about the Cavs is that they are still a talented but flawed team with a decent but flawed coach. Whenever this season ends, and it looks like that might be sometime mid next week, Brown will undoubtedly have his state of the team press conference where in sum he’ll conclude that this team will be far better next year once it has a full preseason to work together.

He’ll be right, but if the introspection stops there, look for early playoff exits around this time each year Brown remains in charge. Whatever work remains to be done on the player acquisition front, and there is some, at least as much work remains on offense irrespective of the players. Brown’s simplistic offensive schemes are like that boat that’s been sitting on blocks in the neighbor’s driveway for the last six years. Both need to be junked. The statute of limitations has long since expired on an offense that begins and ends with James holding the ball at the top of the key playing one on one with the defender.

Playing good defense in basketball is every bit the table stake that having good pitching is in baseball. But it’s not the only variable in the equation. Without some semblance of an offense, you end up with, well, the Indians. Like the Cavs, the Indians good defense is in the form of its top-tier pitching. But offensively, only a division-wide funk is keeping them in the hunt. If any of the White Sox, the Tigers or the Twins gets hot, the Indians will be looking up at a double-digit deficit long before the All Star break comes around.

Just as the Cavs problems of late are causing many to question Brown’s ability, the Indians struggles likewise has many wondering about manager Eric Wedge. The difference, though, is that there really isn’t much Wedge can do other than what he has been doing to get the team going offensively. It’s not as if there are new plays to design. Unless general manager Mark Shapiro finds a different mix of players, Wedge has nothing much else to do but juggle the lineup, start runners to avoid the double play and give up outs trying to sacrifice runners over into scoring position.

The truth about the Indians is that they, too, are a talented but flawed team. Indians fans remember the bashers of the late 1990s and assume that this team is similarly configured. But go up and down the lineup and the only way you could reach that conclusion is by focusing more on potential than results.

Consider Grady Sizemore. He’s young and appears to have a huge upside, but you also can’t ignore that he’s still a lifetime .280 hitter who’s trending down not up. Last season, he walked more and hence improved his on-base percentage, but the only other offensive statistic that was better than the season before was RBI. He had two more in 2007 than 2006. Jhonny Peralta is in the same situation, except his descent is in its second season. The rest of the lineup, save for Victor Martinez and Hafner, falls into one of two categories: young and still establishing a baseline of performance or old and mediocre. Martinez is steady and seems like he’ll always hit and Hafner, well, enough keystrokes have already been made describing his plight.

Maybe it hasn’t yet been reached, but at some point potential has to actually translate into results or else Indians pitchers will continue to lead the league in tough-luck losses. It’s no longer a question of waiting for 40 or 50 games to get in the books, it’s a matter of actually looking at the last couple hundred games and facing reality.

That’s actually the real problem and the real truth. Cleveland fans are among the most cynical and bitter anywhere in the country, but it is a veneer that goes only a quarter inch deep. At their core, they remain ever hopeful and purposely naive. Maybe it’s the defense mechanism that’s kept them sane these many years but unfortunately it can’t change outcomes for the Cavs or the Indians. Like drug or alcohol addiction, the first step is for the fans and the teams to acknowledge the problem.

Monday, May 05, 2008

62 Million Reasons to Find an Answer

It’s reasonably accepted in baseball circles that good pitching tends to beat good hitting. It’s why general managers build teams from the pitching mound out. But following the Cleveland Indians this season, particularly in the last seven days, what we’ve learned is that it’s equally true that bad pitching also beats bad hitting.

Around the fringes, people keep talking about the Indians’ offensive woes like it is the economy. Management, in the form of manager Eric Wedge and general manager Mark Shapiro, is reluctant to admit the recession that’s evident to everyone else, but it is now willing to at least concede that there has been some sort of slowdown. Well, recognition that a problem exists is always helpful, but Shapiro isn’t going to be able to paper over it by mailing out refund checks to the hapless that paid good money to watch bad baseball this past week and then skip town.

In a historical context, the Indians haven’t suddenly rediscovered the 1970s. But if you want to use history as a teacher, then just know that the last time the Indians went through a stretch like this they fired the hitting coach. Which raises the question, is current hitting coach Derek Shelton in trouble?

Following Sunday’s shut out to the terminally futile Kansas City Royals, Wedge said that everything was open for evaluation. Most of the ensuing discussion focused on the players, the lineups and darn near everything else but Shelton. If the team is really going to do something more than the usual gestures like changing the lineup and calling up a player or two, then Shelton is fair game. And if Shelton is fair game, then he has reason to be worried, for about 62 million more reasons than you think.

It was just under three years ago when Shelton replaced Eddie Murray under nearly identical circumstances, at least on the surface. It was early June and the Indians were hitting .243 as a team, a figure which is actually one point better than the Indians current team batting average. When Wedge fired Murray, he said “it's not just about right now, it's just about what we feel is best for our ballclub today, the future and long term. From an offensive standpoint, I feel we can do better. But it's not just about Eddie Murray. I just felt that we needed to make a change and I felt this was best for our ballclub.”

That move by Wedge was still one of the best managerial moves he’s made. Being freed from the shadowy grip of the moody Murray, Indians hitters across the board responded. By season’s end, the team’s average was .271, nearly 30 points higher. They were also fourth in the league in runs scored and third in on-base percentage. It was an onslaught that continued throughout 2006 as well. But as 2007 wore on and now nearly a quarter of the 2008 season in the books, the drop in production has been dramatic.

Clearly Indians hitters were more welcoming to Shelton, at least at the onset. But at this point, it’s almost as if you could simply substitute Sheton’s name in Wedge’s quote about Murray and make it fit equally as well. That doesn’t mean that Shelton is entirely to blame for the current woes, but it’s undeniable that the team has been in a hitting tailspin for most of the last 200 games.

The real onus for the offensive struggles appears to be focused far more intently on Travis Hafner, but that doesn’t take the heat off of Shelton. If anything, it increases it. Enough has already been said about Hafner’s struggles to fill the library in his hometown of Jamestown, North Dakota, which may not be saying much actually. And ignoring the roadside psychology of those who are prone to diagnose a problem they couldn’t be more ill-equipped to evaluate, the larger truth is that the correlation between Hafner’s so-called slump and the Indians overall offense is nearly perfect.

Certainly, Hafner’s personal lack of production accounts for a big part of the team’s dip. But it’s not just the lack of hitting. The real problem is the stench that Hafner’s struggles create on the rest of the lineup. There are such things as team slumps, but when the one guy more than any other in the lineup that’s paid to hit no longer can, all it’s done is increase the pressure on every one else. Other than catcher Victor Martinez, who is a hitting savant like Manny Ramierez but without similar power, you can literally see every other player in the lineup trying to do too much, time and time again..

If Ryan Garko, for example, swings any harder, his large intestine is going to pop out of its casing. Casey Blake seems to walk to the plate feeling like he has to defy his career stats and hit .350 and 40 home runs when the Indians would be far better off if he’d just get to those career averages. Asdrubal Cabrera just seems lost. Jhonny Peralta appears bored.

This is where guys like Shelton are really supposed to earn their keep. Wedge continues to bemoan not just the lack of hitting but the inability of his hitters to put themselves into good hitters counts. He’s been critical, too, of the lack of adjustments that his players are making from at bat to at bat and from game to game. The simple question is whose fault is that? Not to carry the analogy too far, but Shelton is somewhat akin to a football team’s offensive coordinator. If a team supposedly has the right players—and Indians management has made it clear that it believes it has the right players—then blaming the players only gets you so far. Time to turn to the one calling the plays.

But if you’re Shelton, where do you start given that there’s only 24 hours in a day? You could attack the symptoms, like Garko, Blake, and the dynamic duo of Jason Michaels and David Dellucci. You can try and straighten out Cabrera before he loses confidence. You can even given Peralta an extra can of Mountain Dew with his pre-game meal. But first and foremost, if Shelton is astute at all, his energy will be expended in figuring out if Hafner is salvageable. Right now the Indians have about $62 million committed to Hafner through 2013 and if he continues to hit like Bob Uecker then his deal will be a bigger albatross around the Indians neck than Barry Zito’s contract will be with the San Francisco Giants. If Hafner isn’t going to make it, the impact on the team and ownership won’t stop reverberating for the next decade.

Given the size of that investment, the Indians will dump Shelton long before they change course on Hafner, even as he’s become baseball’s equivalent of golf’s David Duval, a major winner who now can’t break 80. If Shelton doesn’t understand this calculus and find a way to right the biggest ship of all soon, then his inevitable firing in early June will actually be well deserved. The only problem, though, is unlike in 2005, an immediate resurgence doesn’t appear nearly as likely.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Costas Then

There’s a debate raging and kick yourself if you missed it. It’s not the on-going Jeremiah Wright/Barack Obama saga. Hard to miss that since it’s been on the cable news spin cycle for several straight days. The same goes for the faux outrage over the Miley Cyrus pictures that seems to have parents in a twitter even as they help crash Vanity Fair’s web site itching for a peak. The debate I’m talking about is the old media and the new and its impact on sports journalism, itself a somewhat oxymoronic term.

Bob Costas, on his usually insightful HBO show, Bob Costas Now, took the debate front and center the other night with a variety of panels and commentators, the purpose of which I guess was to shed light on this emerging topic. It informed little and entertained even less. If you could get through the whole episode, and gosh why would the average person want to, the underlying theme that emerged was the old school sports journalists complaining that blog writers just need to get off of their lawn

Debates like these go on every time a new technology begins to mature and the arc is always the same. You have the so-called traditionalists suspicious of anything new that potentially threatens to invade their comfort zone going up against the early adopters who often lack an appreciation of history and generally come across as smart asses. It may seem like a recipe for interesting television, but in terms of providing any real insight you’d be better off watching an episode of Family Guy.

By this point, Costas has become like MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann in that he has a ready stable of go-to pundits to author ghost opinions that are designed to make the host look neutral while still getting his real point of view across. A Costas symposium these days wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by either Charles Barkely or John McEnroe to explain the plight of the victimized modern athlete.

But Costas really outdid himself by inviting Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August, to parry against Will Leitch, the creator of the internet site Deadspin. As a backdrop, though, recognize that Costas himself caused somewhat of a stir himself a few months back by essentially denigrating sports bloggers with an incredibly broad brush. In an interview with the Miami Herald (no longer available on its web site), Costas came across as someone with a stick in his colon because the emerging trend doesn’t just violate most of the basic principles of responsible journalism, but that it, in his words, “confuses simple mean-spiritedness and stupidity with edginess.” (A summary of the interview can be found here.)

Thus came Bissinger, a veritable buzz saw of opinions, laying waste to virtually everything and anything about sports blogs in a way that Costas could only dream about. His vitriol was so widespread and so complete it was actually hard to discern his overall point. From what I could tell, he doesn’t like, for example, the profane nature of many blogs and he made this point as forcefully and profanely as he could. He’s no fan of the fact that many of the postings are done anonymously, the opinions offered by cowards who won’t use their real names. For good measure, he also thinks nearly everything on these sites is poorly written, lacking in insight, and authored by a bunch of boobs, misfits, and idiots.

Deadspin’s Leitch, representing the new guard, actually came across as the adult in the room. He didn’t defend some of the more ridiculous examples that Bissinger cited but neither did he find it necessary to point out that these examples didn’t represent the level of electronic discourse any more than People magazine represents the level of printed discourse.

Costas did his best to appear as the moderate voice, reminding Bissinger in a “there there” fashion that from time to time there is some insight to be gained from bloggers, even if you have to dig through 10 layers of cow dung to find it. How could Bissinger disagree? He couldn’t so he didn’t. But if Bissinger came away with a more complete picture of his nemesis he didn’t let on either.

And then there was the odd sight of Braylon Edwards of the Cleveland Browns sitting with these two wearing a look that suggested “what am I doing here?” Edwards said, I think, that he reads the various internet sites but didn’t seem to have a strong opinion one way or the other about much of anything. The guess here is that he was invited because he’s one of the bigger loudmouths in sports. Instead he used the opportunity to finally shut up. If Edwards thought this might be a tryout for a media gig post football, he needs to get back in the weight room, so to speak.

In addition to the Bissinger/Leitch carnival, there was another somewhat similar panel about athletes and the media. It featured the aforementioned McEnroe along with former New York Giants running back and current NBC commentator Tiki Barber and Selena Roberts, columnist for Sports Illustrated. It was less theatrical than the Bissinger segment but basically it made the same points.

Roberts didn’t directly attack the internet like Bissinger, but she made it pretty clear that all of this attention has made athletes much more guarded and made her job much more difficult. She complained, for example, of the obstacles placed in front of her just to interview LeBron James about his relationship with Jay-Z. Without saying it specifically, she let it be known that ultimately it was the reader that suffered because she was not able to bring her special insight to bear on such a hot topic. Ah for the old days when a beat writer could sit in the hotel bar with Mickey Mantle and knock back shots until 4 a.m.

Perhaps what neither Bissinger nor Roberts really understands is that the paradigm in sports journalism has shifted permanently and no amount of old-school whining is going to much change that. For a variety of reasons, sports fans find their opinions and insights on what they see to be every bit as valid and credible as the next person’s, even if that next person has a journalism degree from Columbia.

That doesn’t mean that they won’t read someone else’s opinions, but they don’t necessarily feel compelled to do so either. Nearly every game in every sport is televised and if you miss it there are almost limitless options to view the highlights. This allows the average person to understand just as well as anyone else why Travis Hafner can’t hit. The ready availability of even the most esoteric of statistics allows the average person to gain his or her own insights without the need of a third-party journalist. And for good measure the celebrity-obsessed culture in which we live hasn’t magically by-passed the sports world. A picture of Matt Leinert using a beer bong is going to get more views than still another Costas article about how allowing a wild card team in the baseball playoffs is brining about the decline of modern civilization. Sometimes you just have to give the public what it wants instead of what you think it needs.

It would have been much more helpful if Costas, Bissinger and Roberts were focused less on turning back the clock and more on carving out their space in the new media as a way of remaining relevant. By living up to their traditional roots and bitching about the shrinking readership of traditional newspapers and the proliferation of cellphone cameras, it only made them seem less relevant.