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Balls In Play: April 4

This is the first installment of what I hope will be a regular feature. Somewhat more substantive than a "link dump," the almost banal idea here is just to further conversations around the Indians media-sphere, jumping off from material from Pluto, Hoynes, Ocker, Bastian, and Cousineau, among others. Sometimes I'll be attempting an outright course correction, but in other cases I'll just be moving the conversation forward. At some point, we need to get back to that infamous piece of crap Castrovince wrote on competitive balance a while back, but let's not jump right into the deep end just yet. We'll see where it goes.

The DiaTribe: Starting Off on A Lazy Sunday

Regardless, individual performance and development this year will carry the day as no rational Tribe fan is looking for that great leap into 90 wins, just some hope that the Indians are on something close to the right track towards contention. That contention isn’t likely to come this year, but what needs to emerge for the Indians at some point this season is a reason to hope. Given the vacuum in local sports and given which tier they currently occupy on the Cleveland sports ladder, there should be no place to go but up.

Paul writes a great deal more before winding down to this conclusion, including links to a bunch of other pieces on the general subject of the Indians having an "opportunity" to fill some kind of a "vacuum" created by the Browns and Cavs being so terrible. He generally comes back to the old Mark Shapiro talking point that many of us have embraced for years: All the fans need, and ultimately the only thing that will satisfy the fans, is — duh — winning, and it makes no difference how you get there, but you have to get there.

Still, as many have noted before, the difference in slack that fans will cut the Browns compared to the Indians is truly staggering, despite the fact that current Indians management does have at least a couple of impressive accomplishments on its mantel. Has current Browns management ever made any move as dazzling in its (eventual) success as the Colon deal? Have they ever produced a team with the very best record in the game? These are the exact same things we now need the Indians to pull off — producing valuable young players out of trades for veteran aces, and contending at a high level on a limited payroll. Those exact two things were accomplished by the Shapiro regime only a few years ago, yet many fans act as if those things never happened.

So I've been wondering: What exactly is it that makes the Indians such a bummer — or a whipping boy, or a witch to be burned at the stake — to such a large portion of diehard Cleveland fans, including many who purport to be loyalists? Why are Indians executives seen by many as incurable blockheads, and the Dolans as a pox, while the Browns perpetually are seen as just a few little tweaks away from respectability?

Something larger is at work here. The Red Sox fan base was a substantial economic force over decades of profound and bitter disappointment. For Cubs fans, losing was and is a way of life bordering on proud tradition. Indians fans shared that sense of noble futility through the 80s. So why is it that for the Indians fan circa 2010, losing feels so mean?

I think it has something to do with anger — and not anger at the cartoon villain made out of a club owner, but rather anger at being deliberately, systematically screwed. You see, it's one thing to have terrible owners — those old Indians, Cubs and Red Sox all had that — and it's one thing to endure a bizarre sequence of events suggesting nothing less than a curse handed down by the baseball gods — ditto, and doubly so. It's quite another thing, however, to face the realization that maybe we really are screwed in a more fundamental way. That it has something to do with the economics of baseball, the economics of Cleveland, and the economics of the world.

For all the vitriol directed specifically at the Dolan family, and for all the fog of confusion perpetrated on fans by talk radio and writers like Hoynes, at bottom, I think fans have that sinking and quite correct feeling that no change of ownership is going to improve the situation. That no new stadium is going to fill the coffers and fund an All-Star at every position. That no Curt Schilling mantra or timely Dave Roberts steal is going to come along and make this particular problem all go away. That a mere "curse" would be better than what we've actually got.

It's easier to say that the owners are cheap and the management is stupid. That's a far more comforting thought than the truth — that the humiliation of trading Sabathia and Lee in consecutive seasons was the only sane, intelligent choice for ownership or management — which is far more angering than the fiction. Blaming Dolan is easier than abandoning all hope.

So the Browns are merely bad. Maybe their ownership is bad, maybe their management is bad, maybe there's no talent on their roster — but it's temporary. It's not systemic. And maybe the fans realize, on some level, that the Indians really might be bad in a way that's not going away for a generation or more, and we've already waited a very long time. Maybe that's the real difference between the Indians and the Browns, and maybe that's the reason why the Tribe's "opportunity" to win back fans isn't as big as it may seem. 

Ocker: Indians have big hopes, questionable backup plan for LaPorta

The Tribe's deep thinkers might give LaPorta an entire season to ''make it.'' But if that were the case, Hodges, McBride, Goedert and Mills might be the next group of first basemen to get a crack at busting through to the big leagues.

But there is nary a word about any of them. That's to be expected. No sense making LaPorta nervous by announcing that there are minor-leaguers nipping at his heels. Instead, Plan B is Nick Johnson, a 32-year-old veteran who has undergone four operations on his right wrist in three years, the latest at the Cleveland Clinic in February.
Acta has pointedly told reporters that Hafner might be one of the last designated hitters in the American League who does nothing but appear at the plate.

Why does he repeatedly say that? Maybe he just likes to talk about the evolution of the game. Or maybe he is prepping the masses for a time when Hafner is eased out of the lineup if he continues to be a singles hitter.

I can't say that's what's going on for sure. But Acta already has spoken of Carlos Santana getting at-bats at DH to keep him fresh, and that there might be others to spell Hafner. But unless Hafner is still hurt (I don't think he is), how much rest does a guy need whose only job is to bat four times a game?

I've been saving this one for a couple of weeks. I think Ocker is missing the boat on a few key points here.

First, he doesn't seem to know the difference between a prospect and a non-prospect. The reason Mills, Hodges, Goedert and McBride aren't Plan B is because they're Plan D. As a Plan B, each one deserves his own individual expression of incredulity at the suggestion. As in:

  • McBride? Seriously?
  • Mills? Seriously?
  • Hodges? Seriously? Is he even still in the organization?
  • Goedert? Seriously?

Okay, maybe not Goedert. There is a case to be made for Goedert, but, seriously, it isn't much of a case. The sad truth is, we've had trouble producing a halfway-decent, one-dimensional player for this roster spot.

Second, Nick Johnson isn't exactly a threat to anyone. When healthy, he's a threat to post a 900 OPS, but he is rarely if ever actually healthy. The idea that he's here to augment the Non-Prospect Four brings to mind the old George Carlin line: "I never had a 10, but one time, I had five twos."

Third, Ocker is dancing around the awkward truth about Hafner, either because he refuses to see it or has decided for some reason to be delicate about it. Nick Johnson isn't just Plan B for LaPorta, he's Plan B for Hafner, too — both bat from the left side, both struggle with injuries, and both are signed through 2012. Only one of them has any usefulness on defense, and it isn't Hafner. Johnson's 2012 club option would cost $2.75 million, but if the Indians think he's healthy and the club can contend, that would be a small upgrade on a club that has cleared lots of payroll space up to this point.

Ergo, Acta is putting out the organizational talking point that players like Hafner are probably obsolete not just because they might trade Hafner ... but because they might actually _release_ him. I know this is tough for some writers to absorb, but I really believe that if Hafner doesn't improve this season, the Indians will just go ahead and eat the contract — because the fact is, they're eating it anyway. The Indians clearly understand the concept of sunk cost. If they think Johnson or anyone else can do the job better than Hafner, they're going to give that other guy that job.

Hafner has some value even without regaining anything close to his 2005 form. At some threshold, however, Hafner is more of a clog on the roster than an asset at the plate. He's now on a two-year contract, coming off a three-year slump. What neither Acta nor Ocker seems to want to come right out and acknowledge is, he's on his way out — one way or another.