"THE DOLANS ARE CHEAP."
"Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro have been in place too long."
"The organization is stagnant."
There aren't any bits that are older and more tired in Cleveland sports. The narrative needs to be buried. Your Cleveland Indians are the most stable and well-run franchise in town and it isn't close. I know all about the Cavs, but despite boasting one of the best records in the Eastern conference and a star-studded roster, nobody would say that the last four years haven't been chaotic. Even this season, the new coach was on the ropes within two months, the roster has been overhauled, and one of the "new big three" still doesn't seem happy. But I am not here to talk about the Wine and Gold.
The Dolan family ownership has entrusted Shapiro and Antonetti to run things the way they see fit and have not interfered. Yes, I am quite aware of their budget restraints, but it is not as if the Indians are the only team in Major League Baseball that operates this way. The front office does everything within their means to put a competitive product on the field. The lack of a billionaire, a "my team is my toy"-type owner, has Antonetti and his lieutenants in a constant state of creativity.
Drafting well and hitting on a few low-cost, low-risk/high-reward free agents are of the utmost importance. Criticizing the lack of high-impact first round draft picks would not be unfounded. The list of flops is long and not so distinguished. But Antonetti has made his bones building the rosters of the Terry Francona-era Indians through shrewd trades. The casual fan seems to just gloss over all of this because "they don't sign big name free agents."
Swimming in that pool is fools gold. The praise for the Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn signings was through the roof during the spring of 2013. Eighteen months later, the calls to trade both players to get out from under their contracts were equally as loud. The real props should go to the front office for the deals that built this club into a contender.
If you ask any baseball "expert" where the strength of the 2015 Indians lies, it's with the starting rotation.
And how was that group built?
Back at the trade deadline in 2010, Antonetti was in the middle of a three-team deal that sent the rock of the rotation, Jake Westbrook, to St. Louis. Outfielder Ryan Ludwick went from St. Louis to San Diego. Kid Chris had a list of a few San Diego prospects to choose from and settled on a right-handed starter named Corey Kluber. Oh, and by the way, Paul Dolan signed off on paying Westbrook the balance of his 2010 salary — $2 million — to give Antonetti his choice of prospects from that list. But yeah, keep going with that "Dolan's are cheap" narrative.
All Corey Kluber did was turn himself into the 2014 AL Cy Young award winner, not to mention the Indians have him under club control through his prime years. Kluber cannot become a free agent until after the 2018 season.
Behind Kluber is Carlos Carrasco, who enters 2015 after a breakout second half where he looked every bit as dominant as Kluber. The Tribe was patient with him and his work with pitching coach Mickey Callaway and former bullpen coach (now Tampa Bay manager) Kevin Cash translated into huge success. Carlos's bullpen worked gave way to a spot in the rotation that he finally grabbed around the throat. Carrasco became an Indian in 2009 at the trade deadline as well.
Former Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee was pitching his way out of the Tribe's price range, so with a year and a half left on his deal, Antonetti and Shapiro felt as if they had to maximize their asset. Up until last season, the deal looked like a complete bust, but now, the Indians look like winners as the 28-year old Carrasco has finally started to live up to his billing as a potential top of the rotation starter.
Maximizing assets has become something of a specialty for Antonetti.
Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is another example. A year before he hit the market with his agent Scott Boras, the Tribe sent him packing during the offseason as a part of another three-team deal.
This one netted the Wahoos their current number three starter, the intense gamer Trevor Bauer (see Page 23) and set-up man Bryan Shaw. Reliever Matt Albers also came over in that deal and was a key member of the 2013 bullpen that helped the Indians get to the playoffs. Heck, even the starting pitcher slated for the home opener, Zach McAllister, was acquired in another steal of a deal, from the New York Yankees for the forgettable Austin Kearns. That's 80 percent of your rotation brought in from the outside.
The position player version of Kluber in 2014 was Michael Brantley. Here was a guy who finished third in the AL MVP voting and let the Indians in seemingly every statistical category. Dr. Smooth has become one of the best all-around players in the American League and does so with a quiet confidence. How he became an Indian was another great pull by the Tribe front office.
In 2008, the Indians were falling out of the race, and ace starter CC Sabathia was all but out the door in his contract year.
The Milwaukee Brewers were in "go for it" mode and made an offer that Shapiro and Antonetti could not refuse. Their top power hitting prospect, Matt LaPorta, and a prospect to be named later were the bait, and a deal was struck. The caveat was this: The Indians were given a list of four top Brewer prospects to choose from. If Milwaukee made the playoffs, the Indians could choose the player. If they missed out, the Brewers chose. Sabathia performed at an MVP level and pitched his team to October. The Indians picked their guy. His name? Michael Brantley.
Around the same time Sabathia was shipped to Milwaukee, Tribe third baseman Casey Blake was sent out west to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Coming back to Cleveland was AAA reliever Jon Meloan and an A ball third baseman turned catcher named Carlos Santana. The word on Carlos was that he was a hitting machine and a decent athlete who could become elite behind the plate. Fast forward to 2015 where the switch-hitting Santana protects Brantley in the middle of the Indians lineup as their first baseman.
Behind those two studs will be Brandon Moss, a true 30-HR power bat who was acquired this winter for prospect Joey Wendle. Moss has looked terrific this spring, showing no ill-effects from off-season hip surgery. Antonetti dealt from a position of strength. Wendle was stuck behind the likes of Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Erik Gonzalez, and uber prospect Francisco Lindor in the pecking order of middle infielders in the organization.
In a sea of great trades, Antonetti's "Citizen Kane" was a deal that at the time, barely registered on the radar. On November 3, 2012, super utility man Mike Aviles and a AAA catcher/third baseman/first baseman named Yan Gomes came to Cleveland for reliever Esmil Rogers. Aviles was thought to be the key to the deal, a "Francona guy" as well as an insurance policy at shortstop should the Indians decide to move on from incumbent Asdrubal Cabrera. Gomes was added as filler with some upside. Two years later, Gomes is arguably the best catcher in the American League (led all AL catchers with a 4.4 WAR), a wizard with the glove and a beast with the bat. Aviles is the perfect role player off the bench who has been used all over the diamond by Francona and lauded for his leadership.
Did I mention that the Indians bought Rogers from Colorado in 2012 for $850,000? Not a bad way to spend that money. It turned into an All-Star catcher and a quality utility man/clubhouse leader.
Antonetti and Shapiro have done a terrific job of building this roster. The majority of the core has come through these trades. You wouldn't be seeing a playoff contender today without them.
Three years ago, after the firing of Manny Acta, Paul Dolan immediately backed Shapiro and Antonetti and told the fans to be patient. The stability is to be lauded. They stayed the course, hired Francona, and watched as their core developed.
This is a playoff team, ladies and gentlemen. Now is the time to embrace them.