Jim Ingraham , Morning Journal Writer
The architect of the mess the Indians' 2006 season has become is the first to blame the architect for the mess the Indians' 2006 season has become.
Tribe general manager Mark Shapiro admits he's not happy with his own performance this season, nor that of his manager, coaching staff or players.
Call it a collective failure. The All-Star break, which begins Monday, is typically a time for teams to take inventory on the first half of the season. The season may only be half over, but the Indians are completely out of the American League Central Division race.
In the following interview, Shapiro discusses some of the reasons why that has happened, who is to blame, what can be done to fix what is broken and why most Indians fans continue to be obsessed with the notion that the Indians will never be winners because their owner is too cheap.
QUESTION: What have you learned about this team in the first half of the season?
ANSWER: On the positive side, the core of young talent that we had hoped to build around has largely performed pretty well. It's been an affirmation of the young guys we believed in and have rewarded and tried to build this thing around.
The other side of things has been a reminder that you can't predict everything, and what makes the game extremely fulfilling is what can also make it so challenging, which is the lack of predictability. The defense and pitching. It has not been as good as we had hoped, or had expected, based upon last year.
Q: Would that be the two biggest disappointments to you, the defense and pitching?
A: Yeah, I think so. Offensively we've been good enough to be the team we need to be, to be a contending team. Particularly from the bullpen and some of the starters' inconsistencies. The defense and pitching go hand in hand. One is feeding off the other negatively.
Q: You can't anticipate things going bad, but even if you had that ability, there's not a lot you would have changed, is there?
A: No. And that's what's the most frustrating thing. I go back through the offseason and under the operating realities that we've got, which is basically financially, I'm not sure I would have done anything differently. It's exacerbated by the division we're in. There are a lot of divisions in baseball where we'd still be a good streak away from being within striking distance. So it's exacerbated by what's happened in the division. Two teams who have the best records in all of baseball. And another team that's among the best teams.
I said from day one of spring training that I thought any one of four teams could win our division. I just didn't expect that the one that wouldn't be in the running would be us. I still feel like what we've got here is enough to build upon for multiple years, but I do feel like the landscape has changed, and that's probably the most mentally challenging thing. We have to re-invent what's around the core, and we have to set our sights higher to win the division.
The original goal of the original plan that we set out to achieve in 2002 was 88 to 90 wins is good enough to get us in the running every year. Well I'm not sure 88 to 90 wins -- it's still not a failed year -- but that's not good enough to get us in the running right now, with the depth of our division. And I don't think the Twins, who won the division three years in a row, would win this division this year or last year.
Q: In spring training you said that you thought if Detroit stayed healthy they had the best lineup in baseball.
A: Yeah. But what's been most surprising in the division, and therefore could be the most frail, is that the Tigers have gone from 26th to one in pitching. That over a four-year period you're 26 to 30, and then go to one? That's not within the realm of consideration when you're making your plans. So if there is a potential area that might not be as strong as it looks, that could be an area.
Q: Are there other areas that you point to and can say ''that's why the Tigers are where they are?''
A: Their payroll went up, consistently, over a period of time. And they've got good players. They've stayed healthy. That's what I said in spring training, that if they stayed healthy they could be pretty good. Kenny Rogers -- and we were on him, too -- has had a great year, and they've got some young pitchers they've mixed in who have been pretty good, too. So they've got everything going right together.
Q: The bullpen has obviously been a big problem for you this year. If you had to do it over again would you still make the same decision not to re-sign Bob Howry?
A: Not unless we didn't bring Bob Wickman back. Which means we wouldn't have Wicky, we'd only have Howry. It still wouldn't have changed much for this year. Four million dollars? We're not going to pay setup men $4 million. We can't. It's not that I'm against that, it's that I'm against that with a payroll where ours is. We can't allocate those dollars to a setup guy. I want Bobby Howry. It's not that I don't want Bobby Howry. But you cant have Bobby Howry when someone pays him $4 million.
Q: The way the game is today, a lot of games are decided by the bullpen, so why do so many teams still try to cut corners in what they pay relievers?
A: Because there is no team, there is no general manager, there is no one who consistently builds a good bullpen year in, year out. There are reasons for that. One, the best bullpen guys get overworked. So the next year they're usually not as good. Two, your sample size (for evaluation purposes) is smaller than a batter, where you have 600 plate appearances, or a starting pitcher, where you have 200 innings. With a reliever, you're basing your predictions on 60 or 70 innings. You're just not going to be as good. You're not going to be as accurate. And, three, these guys are bullpen guys for a reason. They usually have some flaw that didn't allow them to be starters.
I'm not saying there is not an elite group of 30 to 40 -- total, in all of Major League Baseball -- bullpen guys that are predictable from year to year. But after those elite 40 guys, it's. . . it's. . . well, look, there's a $200 million dollar payroll team on the field (the Yankees, vs. the Indians last week). Two hundred million dollars. Kyle Farnsworth has been terrible. Scott Proctor has been terrible. They have one guy in their bullpen.
Chicago has one guy in their bullpen, but it doesn't matter. It's their starting pitching. The White Sox philosophy of building a good bullpen is to build dominant starting pitching. Our bullpen was really good last year because our starters were getting us into the seventh inning every night. Our bullpen is good now, when our starters give us seven innings. It's when you have to pitch your middle relievers so much -- that's not good. Middle relievers aren't meant to be in there that frequently. And last year our middle relievers were good. They kept us in games. That's why we had so many one-run losses, the middle relievers allowed us to stay close. Games didn't get away from us.
Q: The fluctuation in your team from year to year, is any of that caused by the fact that you have to make calls on players, deciding whether or not they are core players, you have to make those calls earlier than other teams. Is that a hindrance?
A: When we make a call on a core player, it's not just based on one season. We used to do that here. We don't do that now. It's based on a track record in the minor leagues. Does our market force us to make calls too early on core players? No. Our market forces us to explore multi-year deals for core players, whereas, for example, if I was in a bigger market it might be more advantageous to go year to year with almost everybody. The downside with that is it would cost more money, the upside would be you're not going to get stuck with any bad contracts and you maintain more flexibility.
I guess you're probably pointing toward Jhonny Peralta. At the end of the year we're going to look up and Peralta's going to have had a good offensive year, a disappointing defensive year, but nothing that he can't address and get better at. The less money you've got, the more efficiency you've got to have in your payroll, meaning the more younger players you've got to have. And the more younger players you have, the harder it is to contend. It's a very simple equation. Not impossible, just more challenging.
Q: A lot of your team's problems with base running and poor fundamentals frequently, on other teams, get laid at the doorstep of the manager. Where do you draw the line between the manager and the players as far as who is most accountable for that?
A: I don't try to assign accountability. To me they are collective failures. Ultimately, for it to get better we need to get the players to take ownership of those things. To understand that they are important. To understand that while they get paid for many of the offensive statistics, that we win games by them doing those other things well. It's up to the staff to communicate that. It's up to the players to take ownership of that. And it's up to us to pick players who can make those adjustments physically and take ownership of it. So it's a shared accountability. It's not one group.
Q: Are you happy with the way Eric has managed this year?
A: I'm not happy with anyone's performance this year. None of us are happy with our own performances. Mine, Eric's, the players'. Very few players, other than (Travis) Hafner and (Grady) Sizemore, really. But that doesn't mean that I'm unhappy to the point I'm looking to make changes. I look at Eric as a vested member of our group and a leader that is going to help us be what we're going to be.
The key thing to get out of this year is we need to have learned something from what we've gone through thus far. We need to get better from it. We need to make this be part of our experience in becoming the team we're going to be. If that doesn't happen, then this was bad, this was catastrophic. If that happens, then this is part of our foundation. That's what we need to insure.
Q: How do you look at the last two years and decide which one is the apparition and which one is the real team?
A: Well we've progressively gotten better every year until this year. So we're probably a team whose internal expectations were never to win 93 games last year, and our expectations this year was probably to win between 88 and 93 games, knowing if everything went well, again, we could win 93 or 94 games. I still think when the year ends we'll be an above .500 team. If our bad years are .500, or a little better, that's OK. That's the reality of this market. As long as we retool, build around the core and get better the next year.
Q: Ownership here takes a lot of heat from the fans. Does that bother you, and what do you think is the biggest misconception on the part of fans regarding the Dolan family?
A: I think the misconception the fans have is based upon the history that (the Dolans) bought the club at a moment that was inopportune for them. It had nothing to do with them. Because our previous owner (Richard Jacobs) wouldn't have run the club any differently than they have run it. Maybe he (Jacobs) would have been a little more sparing in payroll than in the initial years that (the Dolans) owned it.
But it bothers me because I see them spending the money where it needs to be spent. It bothers me because they are good people to work for, and good human beings with good values. Again, the payroll is what the payroll is. They choose to run the club operationally the way they choose to run it operationally. They are not cheap. They spend what we make. I've never felt limited beyond the realities of our market and our revenues.
The backdrop of the mid-1990s, which wasn't reality for a Cleveland sports team, that backdrop is why they get judged unfairly. It's more what this team and what this market was for eight years, that's why they get judged so harshly. That, and 50 years of trauma prior to that.
Q: What are the chances of Andy Marte being called up in the second half?
A: We want to get Marte up here at some point. It's just that there are movable parts and pieces prior to that happening. I prefer it not just being September. But he's still a work in progress as well. Nobody down there has said, ''This guy is ready, we need to get him up here right now.'' He had one four-week stretch that was tremendous. But other than that, he's shown that he's a developmental guy. Can we develop him up here? I would hope we can. But he's not a guy who is going to come up here as a polished, finished product. The kind of player he is is a guy who is going to have a transition up here.
Q: How do you look at the situation at catcher for next year?
A: I see Victor (Martinez) being our catcher. He threw well enough last year to catch. He should be able to address his issues and throw well enough to catch next year. Is he going to be a plus arm guy? Never. Is he going to throw well enough to justify having that offense behind the plate? I think he can. He threw well enough last year, and caught the league-leading ERA staff. So for us to build this into a championship team, talk about getting efficiency out of the payroll, if we move those offensive numbers to first base, he's average. Keep him behind the plate and he's a difference maker. From an efficiency standpoint, if at all possible, we need to have him behind home plate. I think you'll continue to see what we've done this year, which is to play him some at first base against left-handed pitching.
Q: What about the potential for trading non-core players prior to the July 31 trading deadline?
A: It's possible. We don't have to do it. We'll look at each situation individually. The Eduardo Perez trade, it may be hard to believe, but even if we were five games up in the standings we still would have had to consider making that deal. That's how much we liked the player we were getting, and the fact that it addressed a need we had. So I think if the right trade is there, for some one-year veteran guys. But if we don't have a replaceable answer -- I felt we did for Perez, between Franklin Gutierrez and Victor playing first, I felt like we had alternatives. If it's a position that we don't have any alternative, of a quality major league player who can give us a chance to win every night, we'd have to be bowled over.
Q: How about your status here. Are you still comfortable here?
A: Yeah. Every situation has its plusses and minuses. I have my frustrating days here. But I have more days where I'm appreciative of having the environment I'm given to work in and to lead. The one frustration for me this year is looking at the division and recognizing what those teams are doing and what it's going to mean for them in revenues and what it means as an increased challenge for us next year. Our division has gone from the worst to the best. I can't control that. But I have to react to that to win. The goal here is to win, not to be competitive. It just means we have to be even better than I originally thought.
Q: Your team has had a lot of blowouts, on both sides. What do you make of that?
A: I think it's tied to some of the mental issues we've had as a team this year. We had a very bad funk, and from that period our team still has not recovered very well mentally. So that when things snowball, we kind of get that feeling back that we had last year, and we roll in those games. And in games that we don't, we kind of feel like we're waiting for something to happen. Can I pinpoint why or where that comes from? No. Am I trying to? Yes. We've lost the swagger we had last year, I know that.
Q: Do you and Eric get the feeling that the players are a little shell-shocked by what's happened this season?
A: Definitely. Yes. Shell-shocked by what's going on in our division. Shell-shocked by why they aren't playing better as a team. I know the baseball mentality is we just need to play and everything will be all right. But there came a point about a month ago that it wasn't all right anymore. We don't just need to play. We need to be better. You have to hit. And you have to catch the ball. Our goal is not going to change. It's to build a balanced team. We're not going to just shift philosophies over night. Our only chance to win is to build a balanced team. That's how we won last year. Top five in hitting, top five in pitching. It doesn't have to be one in pitching and seven in hitting. We need to be good in both. And we need to do the little things as well as we possibly can.
Q: What are the goals for the second half of the season?
A: Our goals are still to win and address the weaknesses that we've had this year, and to continue to learn from this team. And any opportunity that comes up to get better around the core guys, and to bring more of the younger guys up -- we already have (Jeremy) Sowers, (Fausto) Carmona, (Rafael) Perez, (Edward) Mujica, (Joe) Inglett, (Franklin) Gutierrez -- that's a lot of guys who weren't here at the start of the year. Then to have Marte join that group to begin his transition. But to get a good feel for what we need as we head into free agency and trades for next year. Just to find out what we need to do to be better, around our core guys.
Q: Is that the key, to constantly tinker with the group around the core players?
A: Yeah. You need to adjust around the core. We certainly need to build a better bullpen, if possible. We need to start thinking about addressing the holes for next year: closer, second base and third base. Another setup guy. And I'd like to add another bat. Those five or six holes.