This offseason has been one of egregious overspending, ridiculously poor decision-making, and lopsided trading – in other words, utter chaos in just about every MLB front office. Few teams have been able to avoid the troubles and pressures this offseason brought, all because of a razor-thin free agent class which made quick (and thus foolish) choices, massive expenditures, and ruthless negotiations a prerequisite for any GM looking to plug holes in his team’s roster. Of the eight or so organizations that have managed to evade dishing out big bucks or mortgaging their future, one has made significant strides toward re-entering playoff competition in 2007 after a disappointing 2006 campaign. That team is the Cleveland Indians, and GM Mark Shapiro has built the Tribe into a contender that will likely be a force to be reckoned with for at least half a decade.
Coming into this winter, the Indians had openings at 2nd-base, leftfield, and late-inning relief. GM Mark Shapiro knew that he needed to add a significant number of players, either via trade or free agency, and his strategy of plugging holes early and concentrating on adding depth later could not be better suited for this sort of offseason.
The offseason was barely underway when Shapiro finalized the first trade of it, sending 1B/DH prospect Kevin Kouzmanoff and RHP prospect Andrew Brown to the Padres for promising young 2B Josh Barfield. This swap certainly had its pluses and minuses, but the bottom line is that it got the job of finding a capable 2nd-sacker done. To acquire Barfield, the Indians sent Kouzmanoff, one of the top power-hitting prospects in baseball, to San Diego. Kouzmanoff was the Indians’ 6th round selection in the 2003 Draft, and he showed terrific homerun power and extra-base prowess in the minors, slugging well over .600 to lead all minor leaguers. Kouzmanoff however, had almost no chance of earning significant playing time for the Indians because he projects as a designated hitter (one wonders where he’ll play in San Diego) due to his sub-par defense; Travis Hafner isn’t relinquishing the DH role in Cleveland anytime soon. With Kouzmanoff blocked in Cleveland, Shapiro did the only sensible thing to do and dealt him in order to fill a void – 2nd base. By acquiring Barfield, who will likely develop into one of the better offensive 2nd-basemen in baseball, Shapiro avoided having to scour through the disappointing pack of 2B’s available on the free agent market or being forced to settle for Hector Luna, acquired for ex-Indians’ 2B Ronnie Belliard. He didn’t overpay, he didn’t make a poor decision, and he didn’t mortgage his team’s future – in other words, Shapiro’s move to get Barfield was just about flawless.
Another goal that Shapiro set for himself this offseason was to acquire a decent defensive outfielder in order to add depth to the position. With Grady Sizemore, the top centerfielder in baseball (according to Baseball Prospectus’ VORP) and “a future MVP” (according to ESPN analysts), already on board, Shapiro set out searching for a corner OF’er, preferably one that could be signed on the cheap. The task of searching for a low-priced outfielder on a market where Juan Pierre got $9M a year for 5 years from the Dodgers and Gary Matthews Jr. earned $10M a year for half a decade from the Halos (both horribly overpriced contracts) was no easy task, but once again Shapiro succeeded brilliantly. The Indians chose to pluck David Dellucci off the free agent market to become their starting leftfielder, and the 33-year-old inked a 3-year deal worth just $11.5M to come to Cleveland. Dellucci is a career .263/.348/.449 hitter, but he’s never had more than 435 at-bats in a season, and his numbers will likely rise with regular playing time. Last season, Dellucci was excellent in 264AB’s, batting .292/.369/.530 for Philadelphia, adding 13HR and 39RBI. Granted, Philly plays in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, but 13HR and 39RBI in 264AB’s is impressive any way you slice it. That Shapiro was able to get him for just $3.83M a season is a testament to how talented a GM he is. Once again, Shapiro got what he needed, didn’t overpay and didn’t give anything of significant value away.
The final void to be filled for Cleveland was the bullpen. The Indians had chronic closer troubles last season, after trading veteran Bob Wickman to the Braves for minor league catcher Max Ramirez. Fausto Carmona, Tom Mastny, and Rafael Betancourt were each given a chance to audition for the role, but all of them failed, forcing Shapiro to scour the market for a new closer this offseason. Finding a shut-down closer this Winter was extremely difficult, because all the top candidates either came with a significant injury risk, had not closed in awhile, or were inconsistent. The Indians however, were able to come away with Joe Borowski, who had a solid season as the Marlins’ 9th-inning stopper in 2006, recording 36 saves in 43 chances and compiling a 3.75ERA. Although he is injury prone, Borowski, combined with the other potential To bolster their set-up crew, the Indians also added veterans Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz. Although Cleveland lost out to the Rangers in the Eric Gagne bidding, it appears that the bullpen will not be a weak spot for the Tribe. Peter Gammons says the Indians should contend “despite the lack of a clear-cut closer”. I agree, and once again, Mark Shapiro got the job done without making any significant sacrifices.
The Indians play in a division that figures to be one of baseball’s strongest for the next several years – the AL Central. Joining Cleveland in that group are the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Kansas City Royals; each of those clubs will soon have (or is already seeing) an influx of talented young stars that will lead the team in its battle for a divisional crown that will soon become the most prestigious one in baseball. Minnesota and Detroit battled through October 1, the final day of the 2006 regular season, before the Twins earned the AL Central title and Detroit was awarded the Wildcard. The same caliber of competition can be expected in the AL Central for many years to come, especially now that the White Sox and Indians are poised to join the race. That’s why building for today without mortgaging the future is so important to Mark Shapiro and the Cleveland Indians, and the Tribe’s GM has proven himself capable of executing this game-plan to perfection.
The AL Central should be the most entertaining of the divisional races to watch in 2007, with 4 teams in serious contention, each with a roster that has no Achilles heel. For the 2nd year in a row, the AL Wildcard will come from the Central division, adding fuel to the other American League division fights. But I’m nearly certain that the American League pennant will once again go to an AL Central team because of the fierce competition it will require to win in such a strong division.