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The 2010 Indians: Why You Should Watch

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Sometimes you have to lead with your shoulder
Sometimes you have to lead with your shoulder

Just over a week ago, Jay put together a fantastic, and fantastically depressing, piece entitled, "The 2010 Indians: Waiting For Next Year."  Jay's opening line puts the whole piece in context:

I might as well call this one "Why We'll Lose" -- and there won't be a counterpoint tomorrow, either.  Not from me, anyway.

As I read Jay's argument I saw it resting on two fundamental observations, the overwhelming inequality of baseball in the 21st century and a top-down failure of Indians leadership, and leading to one obvious conclusion - the Indians are slated for mediocrity with catastrophic failure a much greater possibility than unexpected triumph. I am predisposed to be sympathetic to this view.  Indeed, I myself have expressed many of the same views.  In our "Fire Everyone" series last season, this was my closing line in a piece on Eric Wedge:

The decision to fire Wedge now is the right one, but it is in itself a failure, although it is a failure not of Wedge, but of Shapiro.

Despite this, I reject Jay's argument.  I sympathize with it, but I find it reads more like a diary entry from someone recovering from a profound trauma rather than a rational argument from a necessarily irrational fan of sport in general and the Cleveland Indians in particular.  2010 may very well suck for the Indians.  In fact, it is very likely destined for mediocrity (even prior to the destruction inspiring first week).  In more words than is necessary, I am prepared to argue that the Indians leadership remains a reason more for optimism than pessimism, and that structural inequalities within baseball lie outside the arena of "how do I enjoy this season" type questions.

The question of the Indians leadership is complex.  Like Jay, I feel the evaluation of the front office and coaching organization of a baseball team is several steps above my pay-grade.  But I will take the same tact Jay took in his argument against Shapiro & Co.  Back in his "Fire Everyone: Mark Shapiro" piece, Jay set up his metric for evaluating the organization as follows:

Having said that, I can tell you why Shapiro should be fired in one word:  Talent.

The most fundamental reason you should enjoy this season while it is here, enjoy watching the games, enjoy following the boxscores, enjoy day-dreaming about possibilities, rests on one word: Talent.

The Indians have as much young talent in the organization right now as they have had anytime in my lifetime.  Most likely they have more of it.  This does not mean they will inevitably develop a lineup laced with Hall of Fame caliber talent as they did in the 90s with Belle, Ramirez and Thome.  Contrary to Chuck's assertions, those kind of low probability events, the acquisition and development of one of baseball's all-time greats, simply can't be predicted or expected.  When it occurs, it is a product as much of chance as of positive underlying fundamentals.  If you do a Lexis-Nexis search of "future hall of famer", the resulting trainwreck of failures is almost more impressive than the achievements of those who were properly identified.  Indeed, it doesn't even change the reality that the Indians are right now slated for mediocrity.  But mediocrity comes in many forms, and the Indians are without any doubt the good kind of mediocre.

At its best, mediocrity in baseball is slow death.  From a fans perspective, it is being told you have six months left of life and those six months are going to have more bad days then good days.  Most of the time.  But the Indians mediocrity is more a function of unrealized and uncertain futures than of mediocre talent.  While he is currently situated firmly in our bullpen, we are not a team composed of Jamey Wrights.  We have a team that might be more likely to experience catastrophic failure than stunning triumph this year, but the reality is it is a team whose ceiling is stunning triumph.  Stunning triumph achieved on the backs of youth.

In some ways it is surprising that Jay - Jay who continually emphasizes the importance of age and position - seems to be missing the fact that the Indians are blessed with young talent in the right places. We have an in his prime, All-Star, poster-boy CFer.  We have an in his prime, 5-tool, unrecognized All-Star RFer.  We have a pre-prime, on the cusp of All-Star status SS.  We have a 24-year old starting second baseman (and if he doesn't pan out his replacement is 25).  We have a just turned 24-year old superstar in the making catcher, just waiting to unleash himself on AL pitching staffs.  We have a true, first round scouting, makeup and performance guy at first base, displaced from LF only because of the 22-year old who is playing there.  And then there are a few guys floating around the minors...a lumbering lumberjack with a bat, and a sweet-swinging, scout drool inducing 3B.  And we have pitching...

It may not be in fruition at the major league level (and based on the first week of results it is not), but the Indians are loaded with pitching talent.  In the comments to Jay's original piece I made the comparison between the current Indians team and the 1993 version.  As I said above, we are unlikely to recreate that offensive talent.  Likewise, as the discussion below will make clear, we are unlikely to sign the complementary pieces (Murray, Justice, Alomar) that made those 90s teams so fun to watch.  But as someone who came of age during the 90s era of Indians baseball, what we have now that we never had then, is pitching.  Layers of pitching.

Baseball is a game full of paradoxes.  One of them is that while there is no such thing as a pitching prospect, good pitching staffs don't develop without pitching prospects.  And typically, lots of pitching prospects.  From Columbus to Mahoning Valley this season, the Indians minor league affiliates are loaded with pitching talent.  We witnessed two of the most recent acquisitions, 2009 draft 1st rounder Alex White and 3rd rounder Joe Gardner, debut impressively.  And the thing about these pitching prospects is they aren't the high achieving, scout-hating variety.  These aren't a collection of Jeremys (Sower and Guthrie).  These are big guys, who throw hard, and who get nasty movement on their pitches.  These are guys who get Ks.  These are guys who get discussed on those inane prospect blogs.  And most of them will fail.  But that is what is amazing.  Most of them can fail, and we'll still have a huge group of talented major league pitchers.  Not today, and not tomorrow, but not far off.  I love offense and hitters, but I'd trade Albert Belle for a guy who could neuter the opponents 1-9 with regularity.  When the 2007 team took off we were in the midst of planning space for Adam Miller...maybe with Chuck Lofgren thrown in for kicks.  And that was about it.  We have about three Adam Millers now, and about 10 guys who would slot in ahead of 2007 Lofgren.  At a minimum. 

And the current Indians talent is not a product of luck.  It is a product of active choices made by the current front office.  And the front office is in place.

The second piece of Jay's arguments, baseball's inequalities, is harder to rebut.  Actually, I don't expect to rebut it.  It is true.  Baseball is set up for New York, and a select few others, to succeed, and for the remainder of the league to crawl over each other for the lottery tickets to knock off Goliath.  It would be nice if that changes, but I really don't expect to have any role in changing it.  Baseball is not a democracy.  I don't believe we vote by buying tickets. And the Cleveland Indians are not likely to respond to any sudden movement by paying for substantial major league improvements.

What I am hoping is that you accept my argument that the issue is irrelevant.  It is not irrelevant to the product on the field or the standings come October.  But is irrelevant to how you approach the game as a fan.  We root for Cleveland because they are Cleveland.  Some of us were born there and had mothers and fathers who passed on the birthright.  Some of us, myself included, moved there at a young enough age so as to be baptized in baseball by Cleveland.  Some of us, by chance, have simply inherited the Tribe.  Whatever the path, we are not pink (or green) hat wearing fans who root for Cleveland because, and solely because, they win.  We are Cleveland.  We are fans.  Period.

I said in the comments to Jay's piece that equality is simply a subject you don't ask questions about.  You can't.  Rather you take it as given that when your team succeeds it has overcome obstacles that people from places like New York, Boston and LA don't even know exist.  So when you see that disappointment in their eyes you know part of what you are looking at is the fear of looking upon a reality they were unaware of and a world that has come upon them with their back turned.  And we love it.  Or at least we have loved it.  We loved it in New York in 2007 and 1997.  We loved it in Boston in 1998.  We will love it again sometime sooner rather than later.

So watch Cleveland play baseball this year.  Watch them play.  Watch them knowing that some of the young guys you are watching will fail and won't be part of the future.  But some of them will succeed.  These guys aren't the next Belle, Thome and Ramirez.  They are the next themselves.  They will create their own path and for a few of them that path will be greatness.  What you are witnessing this year in Cleveland is a birth.  Births only come once.  Each player only has one moment when you realize that they are the real deal.  In fact most players never even have that moment.  But there will be more than one of those moments in Cleveland this year.  You don't want to miss them.