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The 2010 Indians: Waiting For Next Year

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 an Indians fan, I spent the entire winter in a deep funk.  Maybe deeper than most here, but maybe not.  I passed on a chance to do an Indians 2010 Annual, got my family moved and situated, got myself healthy.  I focused on being a dad and running my business.  Both things are going great, by the way, so great that I've been forced to wonder just why exactly I would even consider devoting my time to the punishment that following and writing about this team had become.  From the introduction to last year's Annual through the last installment of "Fire Everyone!", I wrote a whole lot about last season's Cleveland Indians.  Maybe I'd written enough.

We've been bad before, of course.  Really bad, and for decades.  Obviously.  But the disappointment of the 2009 season was unprecedented.  We started out as the division favorites -- not by a mile or anything, but favorites nonetheless.  More than that, we started out as a team carrying out a plan to contend for the next two-to-six years in a row, maybe taking a year off here or there to reload, depending on how the ball bounced.  Maybe we'd make the playoffs twice, maybe even three times, by 2014.  Maybe we'd be in the hunt four years out of six.  Something like that.

So it wasn't that the season was thoroughly tanked by June (though it certainly was).  We saw that in 2006 and 2008, not to mention almost every season from my birth clear through my 24th birthday.  No big deal, that.  No, the real bummer — the unique and profound bummer — was that we'd already more or less tanked 2010 as well, and probably 2011.  Beyond that, the systemic, economic weight against the Indians looked far heavier than it ever had before, and the overall competence of the front office looked far lighter.

Somewhere between the haze of the deathless stretch run and the humiliation of a Sabathia-Lee matchup to see which snotty trust fund kid was going to win all the marbles, it became reasonable to wonder if we had any shot at all, next year, the year after, or anytime in the next decade.  Where is the smart money, I wondered, on the Indians' chances to make the playoffs between 2010 and 2016?  What's the over-under on playoff berths?  Is it 2.0?  Is it 1.0?

Which is more likely:  That we'll make two or more trips to the postseason in the next six years, or that we'll make zero?

Again, it's not just being terrible.  Been there, done that.  It's the disappointment.  The Indians of our youth were a bad organization, but from 1994 to 2007, we learned a new lesson.  We learned that the Indians could have a great organization, a smart organization.  The Indians could employ people who were capable of building a winning ballclub.  It was possible.

After 2009, it's fair to wonder if it's really still possible.  To wonder if our front office isn't good enough.  To recognize, soberly, that despite incremental improvements to the game's economics in the last two labor deals, the deck is stacked against the Indians even more severely than ever before, with no real end in sight.

Naturally, it must also be said, I did this to myself.  I set out to make the case that Shapiro should be fired, almost entirely as an intellectual exercise.  I ended up convincing myself that this front office may really have a critical deficit that isn't apparently going to be fixed anytime soon.  I set out to write, for Yahoo!, about the experience of being an Indians fan, watching that World Series Game One matchup.  I found that I couldn't write an article about that turn of events without stating the single, most essential truth behind it:  It was a complete travesty, and it was rooted entirely in the game's economics.  (The regular Yahoo! guy wrote a puff-piece about how proud Carl Willis was to see it.  My take:  Carl Willis can blow me, and he's more likely to actually do that than to coach a good bullpen.)

And then, when it was all over, I had to sit through days and days of knee-jerk hagiography of the Yankees, while waiting for any of the national media to report just once on the fans of 20-odd other teams who were losing what Selig called "hope and faith," as the Yankees bought and paid for their 28th title.  I never saw that story on ESPN.  No, they were too busy kneeling before the phallus of New Yankee Stadium, presenting another box of championship cock-rings, which are apparently large and shiny enough to obscure the shriveled testicles of a roster that, in a better world, would be held up in disgrace.

Before I lose the plot here entirely, my point is that with no outrage in the media — over what the Yankees did, how they did it, and the nation of baseball fans they did it to — then there's little chance of the system changing anytime soon.  (Just look at the dicking around Selig and his latest blue-ribbon panel have been doing.  Rather than addressing the core problem — a system of built-in monstrously unfair advantages for a handful of massive-market clubs and doubly so for the Yankees — they want to concoct a system to accommodate the game's economic hegemony.   When your team sucks, they can can choose to be in the same division with the Yankees — you know, for the ticket sales! — and then move out of the division when they might be good — you know, because the Yankees of course will be even better!  The worst part is, these people apparently think this is a serious idea.)

So is it really that bad for the 2010 Indians?  No, it is not quite that bad.  Short term, it's not as bad as our local scribes think.  But it isn't good, either.  We do not need for three or four things to break our way in order to have a mediocre team, as Ocker has written.  We are probably going to be mediocre, with only an average number of things going right and wrong this season.  The real problem is that if we're not mediocre, we're more likely to be bad than good.

I think there's something important about the Indians that the projection systems are not catching.  Not really about the Indians per se, but about clubs with vulnerable pitching staffs.  Yes, the lineup is probably going to be good.  It might merely be average, as it was last year, but it's just as likely to be one of the best in the league.  No big revelation there.  Every projection system that I've seen essentially projects individual performances and then aggregates them.  I think this works perfectly well for hitters.  I think it does not work all that well for pitchers.

In other words, there is a cumulative effect to inadequate pitching that is far greater than mere aggregation reveals.

I'm talking about a cascade of performance and health failures in the rotation that end with Jeremy Sowers getting another ten weeks to put up a 6.50 ERA in the majors this season.  The same kind of sequence of events that ended up with Tomo Ohka in the 2009 rotation.  I'm talking about the likelihood of something that happening, given the significant possibility of our having zero starters that make it to 160 IP this season.  When a pitching staff goes bad, the whole is even more miserable than the sum of its miserable parts.

I'm also talking about Aaron Laffey and the continuing failure of this organization to build a league-average bullpen.  Nothing has killed us over the past six seasons like our bullpens — it is our one, clear-cut example of Indians Exceptionalism.  Moving Laffey to the bullpen is a reflection of two things that should be obvious from an objective reading of the data.  One, that Laffey has limited upside as a starting pitcher — in particular, limited upside as an innings-eater, which is what we really need from our starters at this point.  Two, that the Indians need him in the bullpen purely so that they can make an attempt — an attempt! — to have something better than an utter catastrophe there.  Again.

And that, in a nutshell, is what the projections are missing.  I do not believe for one second that 10,000 coin-flips later, the average result for the 2010 Indians is 79 wins.  No way.  I think there is a significant chance that the pitching collapses entirely.  I think out of every possible result, quite a few of them involve a truly great lineup that can't get slug its way to more than 75 wins.

So where does this leave us, as Indians fans heading into the 2010 season?  Are we facing a season like 2003 or 2004?  I don't think so.  I think we're looking at 1992, coming off a truly awful season, with a bunch of promising talent in the farm system.  Only this time, there is no new stadium around the corner, and there is no economic boom on the horizon.  The Indians will not be hip in a few years; if we're lucky, they'll be edgy.  Just as surely as Jobu can't hit a curveball, there is no revenue salvation coming in the next few years.  We will not have a top-five payroll, probably not even top ten.

So it's gut-check time, my friends.  We may well have two 76-win seasons coming our way now, but they won't be followed by a jump that brings us within 10% of the Yankees payroll.  If we win, it'll only be because the moves our new GM made worked out really well, and that may or may not happen.

Are you ready for that?  Ready to love Indians baseball, just because it's Indians baseball?

Ready to follow individual players and root root root for a mediocre team, repeating every year that maybe, just maybe, we might just put it all together next season?

Are you ready to savor young, budding players like Cabrera and Santana, cheer on stars in their primes like Sizemore and Choo?  Are you ready to do it knowing that we're probably not going to playoffs — probably not this year, and probably not next year either?

I'm not here to rain on anybody's parade, honest.  I just think we need to face up to the redefinition of Indians fandom that lays before us now.  We are not following the new, improved version of the Billy Beane A's.  We are not the new, zippy Tampa Bay Rays, only with more fans — yes, we do have a lot more fans than the Rays, even now, but they're not buying season tickets.  We are a small-market club in a declining town, run by an organization that's pretty great at some things, but certainly not at everything.  We have plenty of talent, but a lot of it is still in the minors, and nobody's afraid of us.

There are two things we have going for us as fans, however.  One, low expectations.  Rank-and-file Cleveland fans are expecting a win total in the low 70s.  We'd be smart to join them; I can't see any possible upside to expecting the team to approach .500 any more closely than that.  If we make a run at something, we can treat it like a minor miracle — which is, in fact, what it will be.  Two, we can say good-bye to the front-runners.  Let's be honest, we were sick of those people anyway.  Many LGT readers came of age with a winning ballcub, and of course there's nothing wrong with that.  If they're sticking around, though, they're about to be initiated into what it really means to be an Indians fan.  They shouldn't kid themselves.  We probably aren't at the start of something great — unless by "great" you mean devotedly following a team that's going to lose, over and over again.

And you know what?  Maybe that is what we mean by "great."  That is what many of us have done for most of our lives.  We've been Indians fans, and they've been terrible — and it's been great.  The Indians have up years and down years, mostly the latter.  We stay the same.  It's part of who we are.   This is how we were raised, and God help them, it's how we're raising our own kids.

So go ahead, get yourself excited about the 2010 season.  There's plenty to see here, just probably not a playoff berth.

Let's see if Cabrera and Choo can get themselves to an All-Star Game, and if Sizemore can get back to 30-30, or even better.  Let's see if Carmona and Hafner can somehow get back whatever it was that once made them so ridiculously good.  Let's see if Westbrook can revive his career, and if Huff can get one started.  Let's see Carlos Santana throw out a runner in the top half of an inning, and then put that first moon shot deep in the seats in the bottom half.  Let's see Rondon get knocked around in his first big-league start, and then throw a shutout in September.  Let's see Chisenhall, Hagadone, Gomez and the rest.

Let's see all the things that you couldn't make up if you tried but are going to happen anyway.  It is still baseball, after all.  Still the sport of working men, philosophers, poets, and warrior-statisticians alike.  And these are still our Cleveland Indians.