When the Cleveland Indians announced that they had dismissed manager Manny Acta last week, reaction around the blogosphere was generally quite negative. The criticism was not about firing Acta, per se—most writers seemed to think that parting ways with him was the right move. Rather, the frustration was caused by the related news that GM Chris Antonetti’s job was secure.
It’s been a disappointing season for the Indians, and that’s putting it mildly. In a season that was supposed to see Cleveland in the playoff hunt—the opening of the so-called “window of opportunity”—the Indians entered this week 25 games under .500 and having lost 44 of their last 61 games.
As a result, many fans and writers (including here at Wahoo’s on First) have called for Antonetti to be dismissed. Opinions differ over just how much Antonetti is to blame and what he should have done differently, but the common underlying premise of the argument for firing him is: The 2012 Indians simply aren’t very good, and Chris Antonetti is the one who put this team together.
There’s no question that Antonetti should be held accountable for his mistakes in putting together this team, and to his credit he has publicly taken responsibility for the Tribe’s disappointing season. But the Indians’ collapse wasn’t his fault, and his performance as general manager over the last two years does not merit his losing his job.
Let’s turn the clock back six months to the beginning of the season. How did this team look? In case the last few weeks of misery have tainted your memory, the answer is: pretty good. Of the 12 Indians writers who participated in our preseason poll, 10 expected Cleveland to finish .500 or better. Half expected the Tribe to win 85 or more games, and there was a good case to be made that the roster had a ton of undervalued upside.
No one saw greatness in the Indians’ Opening Day lineup, but at the very least most writers and fans expected this team to be in the playoff hunt for the majority of the season. Antonetti and his staff are some of the most knowledgeable baseball people on the planet (if you’re working in a front office you have to be doing something right) and their opinions should be held to a higher standard than those of us fans, but the point is that Antonetti had good reason to think that he had done his job well.
One could try to blame what’s happened since on any number of organizational problems: bad scouting, bad coaching, bad player evaluation. But the real culprit is bad luck—most of what’s ailed to the Indians this year has been unpredictable, and thus it’s unfair to lay the blame at Antonetti’s feet.
Take the case of Derek Lowe. The trade for Lowe was arguably Cleveland’s biggest move of the offseason, and it’s safe to say it didn’t work out—he got rocked to the tune of an 8.80 ERA over the course of his final 12 starts with the Indians. Skeptical Tribe fans were quick to say “I told you so” about his collapse, but those naysayers missed the point. Lowe’s problem in Cleveland was that he struck out only 41 batters in 113 innings pitched—an unprecedentedly low rate for him and less than half of the pace he’d posted in 2011. There was no way anyone could have known that Lowe would implode because there was no way to predict that part of his skill set would spontaneously combust.
Or Casey Kotchman. The team’s highest-profile free agent acquisition last winter proved to be a major bust, struggling to the tune of a .231/.282/.336 triple-slash while playing a premium offensive position; at -1.4 wins above replacement, FanGraphs has him as the fifth-worst player in baseball. But as with Lowe, there was no reason to expect Kotchman to be this bad after he hit .306/.378/.422 in 2011. Some regression was certainly in order, but that just meant he was likely to be somewhere in the vicinity of a league-average hitter. There was no reason to think he’d be this bad.
Who expected Johnny Damon to get on base at a below-.300 clip? Who expected Ubaldo Jimenez‘ ERA to settle above 5.50? Who thought Grady Sizemore would suffer a spring training injury and miss the entire season? That the Indians acquired and planned to give significant playing time to these three players is a popular talking point among those who are frustrated with the Indians’ front office, but one could not have reasonably projected those moves to work out this badly.
Go through the Indians’ roster from different points in the season and you’ll have no trouble coming up with more than a dozen players who drastically and unexpectedly tanked in 2012. Lowe, Kotchman, Damon, Jimenez, Sizemore, Justin Masterson, Jason Kipnis, Josh Tomlin, Roberto Hernandez, Jack Hannahan, Carlos Santana, Shelley Duncan, Aaron Cunningham, Dan Wheeler, Jeanmar Gomez—the list goes on. Perhaps you expressed concern about Sizemore’s health or pegged a couple of those guys as overdue for down years, but could anyone have reasonably expected them all to bust?
That’s at least 15 players who have slumped, if not utterly collapsed, in an Indians uniform this year. Yes, Antonetti and his staff on the inside should be better at assessing the talent on his roster than we who are on the outside. But we’re talking about more than half an active roster’s worth of players suffering their worst-case scenarios at the same time. How could Antonetti have ever seen that coming?
In essence, this is about the difference between a bad decision and a good decision that doesn’t work out. Trading for Lowe was a good decision that didn’t work out. Signing Kotchman was a good decision that didn’t work out. Even exercising The Artist Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona’s 2012 option looked like a good decision at the time. If someone steals your new car the day after you but it, that doesn’t mean that you erred when you decided to sign the papers.
This isn’t to say that Antonetti’s record is flawless. The two trade deadlines over which he has presided are blemishes on his tenure as GM—dealing two top-rated young arms for a struggling Ubaldo Jimenez in 2011, and failing to deal lucrative trade chips like Chris Perez this year—and the fact that the promised “window of opportunity” seems to have been smashed reflects quite poorly on the organization. But firing Antonetti as a referendum on the 2012 season would be a mistake—this team’s collapse was out of his control.