SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—A decade ago, the Cleveland Indians were baseball’s model franchise. They found a path to success within a mid-market world.
The Indians, however, have wandered off course.
They are back on the bottom of the American League Central, battling with the Royals each year to avoid a last-place finish. Even more concerning is that while the Indians feel they have some good prospects about to arrive, they have nothing close to the impact talent expected to be in Kansas City within the next year.
The Indians have four players ranked among Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects, with third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall highest at No. 25. The Royals, meanwhile, have nine of the Top 100, including five of the top 19.
And to think, for a seven-year stretch from 1995-2001, the Indians were what other teams wanted to be. They were a homegrown champion. Six times, they advanced to the postseason. They surpassed three million fans in a season six times. In 1995, they won their first AL pennant in 41 years.
The ugliness of the 1960s and ’70s and first half of the ’80s was eradicated.
With a winning team and a new ballpark, the Indians pumped new life into downtown Cleveland. Lake Erie was cleaned up. And the Indians were a factor on the field.
The fans responded. The Indians set what was then a major league record with 455 consecutive sellouts from June 12, 1995, to April 4, 2001. The ticket demand was so strong that in three of those seasons, the Indians sold every available ticket before Opening Day.
Now look at them.
The Indians returned to the playoffs in 2007 and had a 3-1 series lead in the AL Championship Series against Boston, only to see the Red Sox rally to win the series and then sweep the Rockies in the World Series.
But that has proven to be a blip on the radar, one of only two winning seasons the Indians have had in the past nine years. In five of the past eight years, they have failed to reach the 2 million mark in attendance. They sank to last in the majors in 2010, with 1.39 million fans.
Times certainly have changed since the departure of general manager John Hart after the 2001 season. Mark Shapiro took over for Hart, and a whole new front-office mentality took over. It has not worked, although team owner Larry Dolan, who is praised for his loyalty, has not wavered in his support of the team’s management.
While managers Charlie Manuel and Eric Wedge were made scapegoats, Shapiro was promoted to team president and his top aide, Chris Antonetti, has replaced him as GM.
A series of bad drafts have stripped the once-rich Indians farm system of talent. And when Shapiro began dealing established players for payroll reasons, he wasn’t able to land impact prospects in return.
When the Indians did make long-term commitments to players they hoped would be a long-term foundation—such as center fielder Grady Sizemore, DH Travis Hafner and pitchers Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona—injuries interfered with the plan.
The inconsistent Carmona rebounded a year ago, and he’s the only member of the projected Opening Day lineup who was originally signed by the Indians.
What’s more, instead of creating opportunities for young players to establish themselves, the Indians have brought in journeymen such as shortstop Orlando Cabrera, 36, whom they are moving to second base, and righthander Chad Durbin, 33, who will be making a second tour in Cleveland, one of five teams he has played for.
Dolan’s non-baseball interest is a law firm, which doesn’t generate the type of revenue to provide a financial safety net for baseball losses. As a result, the bottom line is at the forefront in decision making.
Never was it more obvious than in the aftermath of the postseason disappointment of 2007. First came the mid-2008 trade of 2007 AL Cy Young winner CC Sabathia to Milwaukee. Then, in 2009, when it became apparent that the losses were going to be double the preseason projection of $10 million, Dolan ordered a salary purge that led to the trades of 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and catcher Victor Martinez.
It’s a catch-22. The Indians have struggled on the field. As a result, they have struggled at the gate. And that has led to the budget cuts.