If you follow a team long enough, there are just some truths you know. They may not be things you can necessarily prove or even things that the team would readily admit. But you know them nonetheless. And most of the time, unfortunately, the truths are as harsh as they are bitter.
When Art Modell owned the Cleveland Browns, for example, you just knew that the team would find a way to fall short in big games. Maybe it was because Modell tried to hard to bring a winner to town and thus misallocated his dwindling resources or maybe because he was too impetuous or maybe it was a little of both, but Browns fans knew they were always going to be disappointed under Modell one way or another. His decision to move the team to Baltimore was just the crowning blow.
With the Cleveland Indians these days and under this management, the list seems to be growing ever longer. First up is closer Joe Borowski. Irrespective of the fact that he saved 45 games last season, Indians fans know it would be a mistake to rely on him. They literally cringe at the thought of his getting the ball in a crucial game seven.
USA Today on Wednesday ran a feature on Borowski and Todd Jones, the Detroit Tigers closer, both castoffs of the Tampa Bay Rays and somewhat twin sons of different mothers. The point is that neither is an elite closer by conventional standards, which is the key to the fans indifference to their accomplishments.
According to Indians pitching coach Carl Willis, Borowski apparently has lost some velocity on a fastball that wasn’t all that fast to begin with. Whether or not that is alarming is a matter of context. Borowski, like Jones, doesn’t rely on heat. He relies on location and disrupting a hitter’s timing in order to get outs. He’s been relatively successful in that regard, but with him until the final out is actually registered you’re never really it ever will.
The situation with Borowoski actually reveals another truth that Indians fans really know. No matter what manager Eric Wedge or general manager Mark Shapiro might say to the contrary, you just know they’ve never really had much confidence in Borowski either. In fact, you really get the sense that the worst thing about last season to Shapiro and Wedge was not losing to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series but that Borowski led the league in saves. It kept them from looking elsewhere in the offseason. The USA Today story just highlights why they lack confidence in Borowski and in that, though, they’re not alone. As the USA Today story notes, both Borowski and Jones have been released twice.
The fact that Borowski wasn’t brought in to close out the Indians lone win in Anaheim earlier this week was chalked up by Wedge as more related to starting pitcher Jake Westbrook’s pitch count than the fact that Borowski had colossal meltdown the night before. Sure it was. Which brings up another truth, this one regarding Wedge.
Despite his age, Wedge is an old school by-the-book manager. The next time he goes with a gut instinct over what the Big Book of Managerial Strategy tells him to do will be the first time. That’s why his not using Borowski the other night was so significant in terms of underscoring his lack of confidence in his closer.
Any Indians fan can tick off at least a dozen instances off the top of their heads when a more instinctual manager than Wedge would have stuck with a pitcher with a hot hand over bringing in the next reliever in line simply because he was left handed as was the next batter. This isn’t a knock on Wedge necessarily so much as to highlight the disingenuous excuse he gave for not using Borowski. Fans aren’t that stupid, nor would they even necessarily disagree with Wedge or Shapiro about Borowski. So why sugarcoat it? It’s almost as if Wedge is afraid to reveal that there is more to him than the sum of his parts.
Just as Indians fan know that the support of Borowski inside the front office is shaky, they also know that Shapiro will continue to fall short in his quest for a more classic closer. It’s what he does. As important as that role is, Shapiro’s priorities have always trended more toward starting pitching and middle relief. When you’re wrestling with the kind of budget Shapiro has to work with each season, filling out the roster becomes a matter of priorities that all can’t get filled. Invariably, Shapiro will talk himself into spending money elsewhere even as he craves the next Goose Gossage.
Another thing that Indians fans just know is that Shapiro and Wedge have a preference for veteran role players rather over young players, almost irrespective of pedigree. To an outsider, this may seem like a ridiculous proposition and for proof they’ll point to center fielder Grady Sizemore and even second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. You can argue this one all day with the guy on the barstool next to you if you want, but Indians fans would tell you and they’d be right that both Sizemore and Cabrera were reluctant additions that have worked out.
More typical of the kinds of players Shapiro and Wedge are more comfortable with are Jason Michaels, David Dellucci. At this point, most fans can no longer distinguish between Michaels and Dellucci. For the record, Michaels is the one with the lifetime .277 average, Dellucci is the one with the .260 average. Both are what might be termed “nice” players, but neither is anything special nor will they be capable of sporadic good play. Either is the kind of player that tends to fill out a major league roster, but having both of them isn’t exactly a luxury. It’s more an indictment.
Watching Wedge put both in the lineup recently is the quintessential Wedge being Wedge. Rather than watch a young player like Franklin Gutierrez struggle Wedge apparently much prefers watching established mediocrity do the same thing. Maybe they’re good in the clubhouse. At least that’s the excuse fans were fed when it came to Aaron Boone and Trot Nixon.
Another place this kind of veteran over youth thinking is playing itself out is in the Tribe’s fourth starter, Paul Byrd. Whether either Shapiro or Wedge want to admit it publicly, the fans know that Byrd is pretty much done. He can still get hitters out for the most part and will still give the team a bunch of innings, but what’s really the point?
Byrd was 15-8 last season, which is somewhat like Borowski getting 45 saves, so the case for not using Byrd isn’t easily made on the surface. But just as there are always those pitchers that never seem to get run support, Byrd was one of those pitchers that always seemed to throw on the days the Tribe’s offense came alive. His 4.38 ERA last season wasn’t particularly impressive so something else must have gone right.
What the fans really know about the Byrd situation, indeed the whole veteran presence thing that Shapiro likes to tout, is that this is a budget issue masquerading as a philosophical imperative. If there is one thing Shapiro has specialized in since he became general manager, it’s taking a flyer on some other team’s previously injured castoffs. They cost less than premier free agents and thus the risk/reward equation is tilted much more favorably toward the Indians. This is all well and good, for as far as it goes, but when the roster starts filling up with these kinds of players at the expense of developing the prospects the team otherwise highly touts, it gets a tad frustrating to the average fan.
But for all these truths that Indians fans believe are self-evident, there is only one question they’re really interested in having answered and that is when, if ever, the skies will clear, the seas will part, and they’ll get their World Series pennant. It’s never easily answered, of course, but a good start will certainly come when the Indians stop living up to the truths that aren’t so much setting them free as holding them back.