There are many interesting things about following a small market team, but my favorite is probably seeing novel solutions to problems they face and the daring moves that result from this. There’s just so much less margin of error than if you’re the Yankees or Dodgers, who can make the wrong signing and just paper over it with money.
When a team like the Indians does the wrong thing, it turns into the Bourn/Swisher Error, or the Hafner Debacle, a millstone around the neck of the franchise for years. When they dare to do and it works out, you end up with Andrew Miller. Regardless of what it is, they have to make these moves because otherwise they get lost in the shuffle, plowed over by the inexorable might of the coasts and their money heaps. And there’s nothing worse than a mediocre small market team. Then nobody even remembers you. Relevancy is paramount, and daring moves bring this. At their best or their worst, The ebbs and flows are major with the Indians. It’s exciting, and makes even the off-season one of interest and intrigue.
Being bold as a poor team is a necessity. As time goes on and the rich get richer and people move out of Cleveland as they keep doing, the Indians get in a deeper and deeper financial hole. But for the fan that pays attention that’s not a bad thing, not all the time. And big swings don’t look it at the time, but we’ve seen shift toward them in the last few years.
For much of the first decade of the millennium, we saw the Tribe try to go the middle road in the draft, sticking to college pitchers and near-MLB ready players. All that did was dig a David Huff-shaped hole they had to work out of with miserable pitching. Maybe this was the lesson that got us to where we are now. They realized they need to gamble, to see what happens. That’s what Francisco Lindor is. As a draftee it was all potential, nothing realized. Even two years ago nobody knew what he’d be. He’s barely even grown. Even when he was debuting he wasn’t supposed to hit like he has, just be Andrelton Simmons with a slightly louder bat. That went better than expected. But he cost something major for them - a first round pick. This is a big swing. This is what the Indians should be doing every draft.
Perhaps that’s the real difference between Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti. As much as the “Shaponetti” amalgamation swept cynical Indians fandom over the last decade or so, it’s a stone cold hard fact these are two different people. Different parents and everything. Even if they work together, their philosophies aren’t mirrors. Since 2010 when Antonetti got the GM title, the Indians have consistently gone with prep players early in the draft, a stark departure from the past. Meanwhile, from 2000 to 2009, when they had high picks, it routinely went on college guys. Seeing what they did in 2015, drafting Brady Aiken, that’s the very definition of big risk, big reward. If he goes right, he’s an ace. Or his arm explodes from his weird UCL. We have to see.
Even in trades, it must be big risk, big reward. It made sense to trade CC Sabathia when they did, but what about Cliff Lee? In another time he could have been the Gaylord Perry of the late 2000’s. Could have put butts in seats during some likely lean years. But the Indians took a shot, and ended up with Carlos Carrasco. Who wasn’t really the keystone of that deal coming back from the Phillies, but in the end, it worked. They collected lottery tickets where they could and a few paid off.
The problem with a daring front office, as said before, is that it can dig a deep hole very quickly that can’t be worked around. That’s why they need to be judicious, but swift in action. That’s why swooping on Andrew McCutchen should be of paramount importance. That’s why making a perhaps absurd, franchise mortgaging bid on Shohei Otani should be made. Which is impossible anyway, somehow the Japanese Babe Ruth is only allowed to make about $6 million. He’s the kind of guy you break the Federal Reserve for, if you’re trying to be bold.
This isn’t a roundabout way of saying they should go all in with what they have, but something game breaking should be attempted at least. The Wahoo should be popping up in trade rumors all over the place. With the core they have, they almost can’t afford not to.
Whether this daring, this boldness on the Indians part is simply recency bias and they'll fall back to some typical way of doing things, or something structurally special, that remains to be seen. The Athletics have made an entire history, from Mack to Finley to Beane, of doing things differently. Though much of that was driven by receipts rather than making the right roster. And sometimes you trade a future MVP because of personal issues. That’s some straight up Frank Lane business right there.
It’s this need to be daring that bothers me so about Napoli-esque signings. He worked out, but that almost feels like an exception. If there’s one holdover from the old regime, it’s this need to get these older sluggers and hope for the best. Though even as I write that, I realize every over 35 year old is another relatively cheap dice roll. So I immediately walk back on that point. They should roll a die on Carlos Beltran, or Matt Holliday. It worked this past year, twice. At least until Napoli turned into a golem of moving nothingness. That was some strong waffling, huh.
Fortune does favor the bold, as they say. A front office and managerial staff that realize the typical way of doing things is the wrong way, this is what I constantly hope for from the Tribe, or the Rays, the Padres for that matter, any of those little guys out there. Traditionally it’s called “exploiting a market inefficiency”, but I like the idea of a gambling team.
The Indians struck right he last few years and are in the process of jackpotting. Maybe they should spend more of that prospect capital on something shiny and now, to get over that edge. Maybe the ownership can get a “you only live once” attitude for a bit and drop a few zeroes on a guy. Who knows. Either way, the Indians make it interesting when they shoot the dice. The aftermath can be glory or garbage, but that remains to be seen.