Why the Indians Need to Abolish the Word ‘Rebuild’

The Indians front office should aggressively spend the offseason actively eliminating the words rebuild and window from the discussion of the team’s future. They need to respond to every writer who pens a story using the term “rebuild,” and especially target those that try to draw a distinction between rebuilding and re-tooling or regrouping in order to open a new window of competitive baseball with a strong rebuttal. The whole idea of rebuilding and the coinciding mentioning of windows sinks Tribe fans hearts and drives them further and further away from the ticket windows.

The articles are out there. Tony Lastoria’s Should The Indians Rebuild or Retool?, Paul Hoynes’ Do The Indians Rebuild Or Regroup?,  Mark Normandin’s Time For Another Indians’ Rebuild?, and Ken Rosenthal’s Terry Francona May Be A Fit For The Indians, But Rebuilding Is In Order. Heck, it’s even infiltrated our lexicon here at Wahoo’s on First.

Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

As this mentality proceeds to spread across Northeast Ohio, the Indians have been rather passive in responding to it. Nobody is asking the front office to outline their exact plans over the offseason, but every day of mystery allows the narrative to be controlled by those who aren’t responsible for selling tickets, merchandise, and truly creating energy through action. What is controlling the story now are the terms “rebuild” and “window,” two things that do nothing but flame the fans’ negativity and draw them further and further away from the ticket window. Why?

The term “rebuild” crudely implies that all hope is lost for the immediate future, that the only path forward is to cash out the chips and start over, and the front office and ownership are asking for patience from the fans with a promise that the future will be brighter. The goal of a rebuild is to create a new window of competitiveness as the players obtained today will be younger with great potential, will develop together with strong drafting and player development, and will come together in such a way that the team will be able to compete with the high revenue free spending teams.

While it is a truism that it is more difficult for low revenue teams to acquire free agent talent and retain their own stars as they head to the big payday in unbridled free agency, it isn’t a justification to suggest to the fans that a window has closed and a rebuild is necessary. In the words of Jonah Keri:

But far more often it’s [rebuild/window] a bullshit excuse. It’s a vague, faraway goal that always seems several years out of reach. It’s a cover for cheap, greedy ownership, lousy scouting, drafting, and player development, and myopic trades. It’s a weak attempt to placate a fan base screwed over by years of management incompetence and indifference.

The above quote may appear to be a bit crass, but it is the essence behind what many Indians fans feel the front office has been doing for a better part of the last decade. Parsing Keri’s quote reveals the angst of an Indians fan and why allowing the narrative to linger without response will do more harm than good in the long run.

Always pushing a a vague faraway goal that seems several years out of reach.

After the CC Sabathia trade, General Manager Mark Shapiro said that ”We felt like, with the realization of where we were, we thought it was important to put this organization in a position to succeed in the future.” After Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez were traded, President Paul Dolan spoke the words that will continue to haunt

Picture Courtesy Tony Lastoria @photobucket

him with the fan base saying: ”Every four or five years, if we can have a shot at the World Series and compete for the playoffs like we did in ’05, that’s as good as it gets.” He also said: “After we traded Cliff, we had made a commitment toward a new direction for the franchise, At that point, you don’t go halfway. We needed to make moves that put us in the best position to compete as soon as possible.”

How will the front office present trades of Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez, Justin Masterson, or Asdrubal Cabrera this winter? With the same variation of the spoken lines about commitment toward a new direction for the franchise or put this organization in a position to succeed in the future.

Cheap ownership?

There is a rift between the fans and the ownership. It can be evidenced by the lack of support at the gate where, the Indians have not finished higher than ninth in the AL in attendance since finishing fifth in 2002. In the 10 seasons since 2002 the organization has drawn fewer than 2 million fans and finished 11th or worst in attendance seven times.

The divide between fans and ownership was discussed back in June when the Plain Dealer‘s Bill Lubinger sat down for an interview with Shapiro and asked him his thoughts on the fans’ criticism of ownership. Shapiro responded:

I wish the fans could know the Dolans like I know the Dolans. I wish they could know how much they care about the city, how much they care about the Indians and how badly they want to win. They’ve operated extremely responsibly, they’re respected in Major League Baseball, they’re excellent owners and operators and, most importantly, why people like me have chosen to work here and stay here is because they’re good people, they have impeccable character and integrity and they want the same things that every fan wants and that we all want.

Despite Shapiro’s assessment that the Dolan family has character and integrity, the fan base cannot seem to let go of sensationalized stories of teams owners getting rich off of revenue sharing. Late in 2009 Red Sox owner John Henry e-mailed the Boston Globe and stated that  he wanted a complete overhaul of the MLB revenue sharing plan. He stated that “over a billion dollars has been paid to seven chronically uncompetitive teams, five of whom have had baseball’s highest operating profits. Who, except these teams, can think this is a good idea?”

The failure of teams ownership to put the revenue sharing back into their respective teams and not in ownership’s pockets came to light again in 2010 when documents were leaked to the press suggesting that the Pittsburgh Pirates had been profitable year after year despite being perpetual losers.  Shortly after the Associated Press received the Pirate documents another set of financial documents were released to DeadSpin which shed unfavorable light on the Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins, Los Angeles Angels, and Seattle Mariners.  The release of the Marlins documents resulted in the Marlins agreeing to allow their finances to be monitored by the Major League Baseball Players Association and commissioners office for three years.

Despite not being one of the teams tied to the misuse of revenue sharing dollars, many fans have held that the Indians ownership is willing to maintain the status quo to continue to profit off of major league welfare. This sentiment, whether justified or not, gained strength when Forbes Magazine reported that the Indians had operating profit of $30M in 2011. Shapiro responded to that figure, saying:

The articles that try to guess take a limited amount of information and guess a team’s financials, those articles are dangerous because those articles do not provide the full picture. They do not look at every operating circumstance that goes into running the business, and I’m not going to get into specifics and refute it line by line, but I can tell you those articles take part of the information.

When asked by Lubinger if the Indians were a profitable organization, year to year Shapiro said:

The Indians are, from year to year, marginally profitable. So this year we will clearly not be profitable. This year, unless there’s some huge surge in attendance, we will clearly lose a lot of money and we’re budgeted to lose money. We’re budgeted to say we’re at a point in the wind curve where our owner was accepting outspending revenues in order to best ensure the chance to win.

Is there any proof that the Cleveland Indians are one of the seven teams Henry is referring to? No. As a matter of fact there is a strong indication that the Indians way of operating with revenue sharing is the template that high revenue owners would like to see followed as Paul Dolan told the Plain Dealer‘s Terry Pluto in an interview on March 26, 2012:

“Both the union and MLB agreed we were doing it the right way,” said Dolan. “That’s why they had [President Mark Shapiro and General Manager Chris Antonetti] talk about how we operate. If we were just pocketing the money, the union would never agree to have us represented as the franchise doing it right. The union has called out other teams [for taking excess profits], but never us.”

Unfortunately for the Indians and their front office, perception has become reality. Any more discussion of rebuilding and windows is only going to perpetuate these notions. The fans aren’t going to use whatever disposable income they have to come and watch a team that is being advertised as rebuilding for a future a few years down the road. Those marketing days are long gone and they started to vanish, justifiably or not, when the revenue sharing documents were leaked.

Lousy scouting, drafting, and player development

A major component of success of any MLB organization rests on its ability to scout, draft, and develop players. The Indians’ failure in the draft did not go unnoticed by the fans but not many seem to know that in November of 2007 Brad Grant was promoted to Director of Amateur Scouting. This new title also came with the description in the press release that Grant was to direct all elements of the first0year player draft.

The list of first-round picks by the Indians from 2000-2007 is a telltale sign of the troubles the organization had in recognizing talent. Corey Smith (2000), Dan Denham and Alan Horne (2001), Jeremy Guthrie (2002), Michael Aubrey and Brad Snyder (2003), Jeremy Sowers (2004), Trevor Crowe (2005), David Huff (2006), and Beau Mills (2007). Taking each draft class as a whole doesn’t make the picture any more pleasant . The other key draft picks year-by-year include Ben Francisco (2002), Ryan Garko, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Aaron Laffey  (2003), Tony Sipp (2004), Jensen Lewis (2005), Josh Tomlin and Vinnie Pestano (2006). No member of the 2007 draft class has made an impact at the major league level thus far.

So far, Grant’s drafts have been considerably better: his first round picks have been Lonnie Chisenhall (2008), Alex White (2009), Drew Pomeranz (2010), Francisco Lindor (2011), and Tyler Naquin (2012). Two other players from Grant’s draft history have made an impact in Cleveland already—Jason Kipnis was a second-round pick in 2009 and Cody Allen was a 23rd-round pick in 2011.

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

Drafting hasn’t been the only problem with the Indians’ minor league system. The system has failed to continue to produce quality impact players from Latin America. At one time the Indians seemed to have a pipeline established as players such as Jhonny Peralta, Victor Martinez, Rafael Perez, and Fausto Carmona (Roberto Hernandez) were making an impact with the Indians year after year. Since Hernandez’ stellar 2007 season, the only Latin American amateur signing that has made their way to the shores of Lake Erie has been Jeanmar Gomez.

Myopic trades

The front office has made a handful of good trades that seemingly get lost in the failures in the return of two Cy Young award winners. Acquiring Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Carlos Santana in giving up Ben Broussard, Eduardo Perez, and Casey Blake were the type of shrewd trades that can combined with effective scouting and player development should have resulted in a talent rich competitive team.

But by not acquiring an impact player in trading CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee any of the equity the front office may have been built up in acquiring Choo, Cabrera, and Santana and now fans see only the negative side of losing a Shin Soo-Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Chris Perez, or Justin Masterson. Even if the conversation turned to a top-notch prospect that could be the answer to many of the Tribe’s inefficiencies, for most fans it would only conjure up the image of Andy Marte and his looping swing.

The message should center around the talent equation.

Hopefully the front office will take control of the message sooner rather than later. Sell the story that the organization is aggressively pursuing talent from all avenues including trades, free agent signings, amateur talent from the minor leagues, international talent, and anywhere else the teams scouting department chooses.

But most important of all, the message should make clear that from here on out that any move the Indians make will be focused on returning more talent into the organization than it has departing from it. Whether its the offseason of 2012, the middle of 2013, or any point in the future, the front office is going to continue to put a talented well balanced competitive team on the field.

It’s a message that the front office has been trying to convey, but the point often gets drowned out when terms like “rebuild” and “window” creep up. That is why the goal should be to aggressively abolish those two words from any conversation regarding the team either by taking tackling the issue head on with carefully crafted words but preferably by taking aggressive action in constructing the 2013 roster.

Topics: Chris Antonetti, Cleveland Indians, Mark Shapiro

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