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Marte sits, smart team gets dumber

You would think, as a stymied prospect, that the best place you could possibly be is backing up a guy who is the the worst-hitting starter in the league at your position, and one of the worst fielders as well — not to mention, he's in the last year of his deal, while you're with the team for the long haul.  Hell, forget playing time, that other guy will be lucky if he doesn't get DFA'ed, right?  Right?

No — not if you're Andy Marte.  That other guy is apparent manager's pet Casey Blake — and let me emphasize, I really hate saying that, "manager's pet."  I hate resorting to that kind of reductionist cartoon characterizing of players or managers, because it can keep us from seeing small moves for what they really are, and from working harder to understand the reasons behind large moves.  But really, at this point, what is there left for us (or Andy Marte) to think?

And in a way it's even worse than that, because Blake doesn't have to sit to get Marte in the game.  Blake plays a fine first base and is also a very capable outfielder, something the Indians seem to have forgotten.  That makes five spots in the lineup that Blake could occupy — 1B, 3B, LF, RF, DH — and as it happens, the Indians have struggled to find production in all five of those spots, with the worst OPS in the league at 3B, the second-worst in RF, the third-worst at DH, and the fourth-worst in LF and at 1B.  Not one of our regaular corner players (Garko, Hafner, Gutierrez and Blake) boasts even a meager 700 OPS, and even Dellucci and Francisco are putting up numbers that are merely league average, and below-average for left field.

So you would think, as a stymied prospect relegated to providing depth from the bench, that when your team is struggling at all five possible positions where you could indirectly or directly provide depth, that you would be getting a ton of playing time.  But no.  The Indians have shown no interest in playing Blake in the outfield this season, despite the fact that he's been one of the league's best defensive outfielders by many measures and one of the league's lesser third basemen.  And yet, the Indians have been desperate to get offense, and Shapiro has admitted not having any real explanation or solution.  They're willing to try anything, shuffling the batting order, resting guys in slumps, dumping Michaels for Francisco, even Jason freakin' Tyner, "the Neifi Perez of outfielders."

Basically, they're willing to try anything except giving Andy Marte a real shot.  Which is odd, because just a year ago, they were willing to try that.  Back in 2003, Brandon Phillips got 300 at-bats, starting 82 games out of 94.  Just last season, Josh Barfield got 390 at-bats, starting 106 games out of 113.  Marte, however, got just 39 at-bats and 12 starts last season before going on the DL, and he's never gotten another chance.

If the plan wasn't to give Marte playing time in the event of struggles at 1B and 3B and LF and RF and DH ... then what the hell was the plan?

By last week, even before the confusing Tyner move, the local media had noticed the absurdity.  At a press conference to announce the un-big Francisco/Michaels moves a week ago, Shapiro was unexpectedly pelted with vaguely tough questions regarding, and I quote:  "Is there a chance, like you're plugging in that young guy, I mean, for the heck of it, Andy Marte?"  Shapiro responded that "what we're waiting for is for him to get the opportunity" and that maybe — maybe — Wedge would consider "playing some different guys."   It was, frankly, hard to tell what he was trying to say, other than nothing.  Shapiro seemed to be ducking responsibility for the whole affair, pretending that he and his subordinate Wedge aren't directly in charge of doling out the opportunities on this club.

Wedge did start Marte for both of the next two games at third base, with Blake resting for the first game and moving over to first base for the second.  Marte did his increasingly familiar routine of playing very fine defense, often hitting the ball hard but only rarely getting an actual hit.  The fans were amazed — could Marte finally be getting a real chance?  Could the new plan be to get Marte two or three starts per week, maybe even four or five?

No.  Wedge's new plan was to play Marte twice (possibly to placate the boss), then sit Marte in favor of Blake for the next few days, then get romanced in by a couple of clutch hits from Blake, and then possibly not give Marte any more playing time than before.  Marte got a third start in seven days on Monday, but it seems likely that he only got it because of the rain-forced double-header — otherwise, he might have gone another 8-10 days without starting, rather than just five.  As it is, he was lifted for Blake late in that game, for no strategic reason whatsoever, other than just liking Blake better.  It sure as hell wasn't for his defense.

Marte's ten plate appearances this week were the most he's had in any ten-day period since last May.  In the week Wedge used him the most, he still had less playing time than any position player except Jason Tyner, who has only been on the roster for one day.  Marte already has fewer at-bats this season (22) than Ben Francisco (25), who has been on the roster only 12 days compared to Marte's 44.

So when Marte, famously a slow starter, came up to the plate in the first inning on Monday, bases loaded and two outs, in his first start in five days and only his 23rd trip to the plate in 43 days ... was there any doubt at all that he wasn't going to get a hit?

It would be fair for newer readers to ask, why all the fuss about Andy Marte — doesn't he suck?  The fuss about Marte is that:

  1. We don't really know if he sucks, because
  2. he's never gotten a chance in the big leagues for more than a few weeks at a time, and
  3. we don't have any third baseman under contract for 2009 and only one solid  but unspectacular prospect a couple years away, and
  4. Marte might just make for a totally decent option for some part of the next five seasons, and for dirt-cheap salaries at least through 2010, not to mention
  5. it's not like Casey Blake is actually good,

so it wouldn't exactly kill us to find out if Marte maybe doesn't really suck, would it?

Never mind what we gave up to get him — that's a sunk cost, it doesn't matter.  What does matter is Marte's potential as a player, and since he's under team control for five seasons, without  having to pay him free agent dollars, his potential value to the team is essentially five times greater.  Even players who are merely serviceable as starters create a signfiicant hit to the payroll — Aaron Boone was making about $4 million as an Indian, and Blake is making $6 million right now.  If Marte stays with the team, he likely will make less than $10 million total, for the 2008-2011 seasons combined.

Marte was once considered an elite prospect, consensus top 10 in the world, and what has happened since then has mostly been trades and injuries and being forced to spend a third year in Triple-A.  Many prospects experience a jarring transition after being traded to a new organization, and Marte was traded twice in the same offseason.  And Marte certainly would not be the first recent Indian to put up disappointing numbers when asked to repeat Triple-A an extra time — Ryan Garko and Brandon Phillips had almost identical regressions, but when they finally got their chance in the big-leagues, both proved that their first full Triple-A seasons best represented their true ability.

That won't necessarily be the case with Marte, but there's no reason to think it won't.  Prior to the trades, prior to being asked to repeat Triple-A — twice — Marte had an impressive and consistent track record, succeeding in his first year at every minor league level, and at exceptionally young ages.  Statistically, these are compelling markers of future major-league success — not just that he marched through the minors successfully, but that he did it in his late teens and early 20's, rather than in his mid-20's.

Marte's minor-league track record is better than Ben Francisco, Franklin Gutierrez or Ryan Garko's — his numbers at every level are as good or better than theirs, and he achieved those numbers at younger ages.  Francisco's nice 2007 season in Triple-A, at ages 25?  Marte posted the exact same OPS, 878, in his first Triple-A season at age 21.  Remember how Garko tore through A-ball and Double-A in 2004, at age 23?  Marte blew through those levels at ages 19 and 20 — and was a standout defender, too.  Gutierrez spent the bulk of two seasons in Double-A, ages 21-22, and another two in Triple-A, ages 23-24, and never approached Marte's numbers at either level.  Yet Gutierrez and Garko's opportunities on the big-league club have dwarfed Marte's, and Francisco seems to have moved ahead, too.

As for this season, not only is it a meaningless number of at-bats, but Marte obviously isn't being put into a position where he or any young player would likely succeed.  The Indians themselves have said many times that it's a special skill to be able play effectively with limited playing time, and it's rare to find that skill in a young player who never got a chance to break in.

In the short term, at least, the only slightly reduced playing pattern seemed to work for Blake, who had a strong set of games following a couple of days rest.  But even if we could agree that this is a strong strategy going forward — favoring what works for Blake over what works for Marte — at best, it just perpetuates the organization's failure ever to prioritize the long-term with respect to Marte, and ultimately with respect to the position of Third Baseman.

A year ago, when Marte was demoted to Triple-A just days after returning from the DL, apparently because Blake was getting hot, even Marte's partisans had to admit that playing the hot hand wasn't a bad idea.  Marte presumably was better off sulking (possibly) in the Buffalo lineup than rotting (definitely) on the Cleveland bench.  But everyone in the organization, including Wedge, should have understood when they used up Marte's third and final option year in that move, playing hot-hand now (then) meant playing the long-term odds later (now).  Marte's shot at a starting job in 2007, yanked away before he had a chance to prove anything one way or another, should have been restored as an iron-clad rain-check for 2008.

Yet the team has not made good on that strategic trade-off, which seems to run head-long into conflict with the organization's fairly dogged leaving-with-the-guy-who-brung-ya mentality — and, apparently, with Wedge's increasingly notorious hard-nosed-guy favoritism.  The favoritism that had him favoring the exceptionally replaceable Ramon Vazquez over Brandon Phillips.  The favoritism that keeps him from calling out Ryan Garko and Travis Hafner by name for their horrendous failures, as he once did for a much younger Jhonny Peralta (whose main problem, it later turned out, was blurred vision).

Ironically, sophisticated fans who have been accustomed to enjoying the Shapiro regime's deeply savvy sensibilities — its lack of deeply stupid moves — are now forced to endure decision-making that is absolutely the same as favoring the likes of Darin Erstad or David Eckstein — moves those fans have had the luxury of ridiculing for years.  How can it be that Shapiro, presumed to be cut from similar analytical cloth to Billy Beane, now leads a team following a course better suited to Kenny Williams, whom Beane openly called an idiot?  Just five days ago, Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus was singing some of these very praises:

It's been so easy for statheads to like the Indians because they do so very many sensible things. They're stubborn about challenging players to rise to the level of their greatest value, whether that's with Cliff Lee as a starting pitcher, Victor Martinez as a major league-caliber starting catcher, or Jhonny Peralta as a shortstop.

Blake's highest value isn't a position, though; it's performing at a decent level with versatility, giving his team the option to use him in a variety of positions.  The Indians used to preach the value of versatility, so what changed?  It's yet another odd decision that seems to favor Blake's peace of mind over Marte's opportunity.

What's worse, what's best for Blake cannot be assumed to be what's best for the team.  Blake has seduced us with strong weeks before, better than this one, and it hasn't changed his overall performance level.  He had a tremendous opening two months in 2006, and a phenomenal two-week burst in 2007 — yet his OPS since the 2006 break is just 758, and since the 2007 break, it's 688.

It's unclear whether Wedge's decisions surrounding Blake are supported by Shapiro or merely tolerated by him.  It's hard to believe, on the one hand, that Shapiro could be supportive of continuing to give Marte no significant share of playing time, which easily could be shared among seven players at five positions, given Shapiro's reputation for not being stupid.  His comments from last week, though obtuse, did reveal possibly a hint of frustration at finding Wedge's predilections once again at odds with the team's strategic mandates going forward:  "... we have a long-term need at that position as well.  But, I think what we're waiting for is for him to get the opportunity this year ..."

But who is the "we" in "we're waiting for," anyway?  Is it Shapiro and Wedge both, waiting for some unknown supernatural force to give Marte an opportunity?  Or is it Shapiro and his front office staff, waiting for Wedge?  If Shapiro were forced to restate that second sentence without using the weaselly passive voice — "we're waiting for X to give him the opportunity this year" — well, who or what else could it be that "we" are waiting for here, if not Wedge?

It's impossible to say whether Shapiro has a breaking point, some combination of conditions under which he would actually order Wedge to deploy his players in a certain way.  That would be a very un-Shapiro thing to do.  But then again, evaluating players based on wishy-washy characteristics rather than solid principles, doing the same stupid thing over and over again for months at a time — those are also very un-Shapiro things to do.  When it comes to squandering a player who could be valuable to the team long-term, the record is still mixed, and the jury is still out.