WINTER HAVEN, Fla.–When the Indians promoted Mark Shapiro to general manager in November 2001, he inherited a team coming off its sixth American League Central title in seven seasons. But the reality was that the big league roster was full of overpaid 30-somethings, and the farm system was in need of some major retooling.
That season, Shapiro began the overhaul, trading high-priced, popular players including Roberto Alomar, and on his return from the Winter Meetings, he called his wife and told her he probably should have worn a flak jacket when he got off the plane.
He announced the rebuilding plan, claiming it would take until 2005 to contend again. And by all accounts, The Shapiro Blueprint is right on schedule, thanks to the draft, various trades and developing quality players–particularly in the center of the diamond–from within.
BA sat down with the Indians’ GM, who discussed the organization’s front office philosophy, some of the trades he missed and the myth of the major league superstar.
Baseball America: A lot of people are saying the club has a legitimate chance to contend for the American League Central division title this season. How satisfying is it to see your plan to contend by this season on the verge of fruition?
Mark Shapiro: There has been a lot of satisfaction in having some success through development in the organization. Now, you ultimately want to see the results of that development on the field as well. But there’s a lot of fulfillment in watching our club kind of go from guys that hope they can be good personally and kind of thought maybe our team could be good to players that expect themselves to perform and expect this team to contend. And that’s a huge mental step for us and it’s a good feeling to be around that.
BA: It seems like you have a knack for surrounding yourself with quality people. Is there ever a thought or a possibility that you have to keep looking over your shoulder? That perhaps your replacement could be sitting in a meeting with you?
MS: There’s no place for insecurities in a well-run organization. I think what you want is kind of an open culture where guys feel free. Across the board, in player development and scouting, there are no boundaries. We’re all part of the same organization and we share the same vision on where we’re going. We share the same set of values as to how we want to get there. So whether (scouting director) John Mirabelli’s got an idea for the major league club or (farm director) John Farrell has a thought on an amateur player that we’re scouting, there’s a freedom of thought and a freedom of having the ability to contribute.
We will not tolerate insecurities or something stepping in and setting up barriers in this organization. That goes from a big league front office where a bright, young analytical mind like a (assistant GM) Chris Antonetti or a (assistant director, baseball operations) Mike Chernoff can influence our big league decisions to traditional scouting–there’s a balance in everything we do. And we want to tap into every resource out there to make the best decisions possible and be as effective as we can in what we’re doing.
BA: So developing front-office personnel is as essential as developing players?
MS: I think your depth of talent in the organization, beyond player personnel, definitely matters. Every single hire, whether it’s entry level in the front office or it’s player-development staff, you’re looking at building a deep organization. What we’re hopefully trying to do is have a lot of success here and when you have a lot of success, you lose people. And that should be a good thing, you should be happy about that. Chris Antonetti and John Farrell will be GMs. It’s just a question of when. So we have to play strong attention to who’s below them. So it may not be something anyone else focuses on, but believe me, I’m involved and I’m aware of the guys below them. It’s not tangible in the results of wins and losses in the short term, but it’s going to impact wins and losses in the long term.
BA: You’ve pulled the trigger on some key deals. What was the thinking in the deals that didn’t pan out, like Scott Stewart and Jeriome Robertson?
MS: Trade from depth and acquire a guy who we felt could help us because we didn’t have any lefthanded relief. I look back on our process in that and everything we needed to determine whether Scott Stewart could help us or not was there–good scouting, statistically, there were some things that indicated he could be a bounce-back guy. I feel good about the decision to go after Scott Stewart, and even trading Ryan Church because we’ve got a depth of outfielders with (Brad) Snyder coming and (Franklin) Gutierrez, so I don’t have any problem with that. (Shortstop Maicer) Izturis I think we undervalued internally a little bit–that disappoints me. I more regret trading Izturis than I do trading Ryan Church.
We’re going to have to trade from the depth of talent. Same for Luke Scott. Every single person in this camp is pulling for Luke Scott (to make the Astros roster). We are. I don’t root for those guys to fail. You’re going to trade good players. I think ultimately you have to be OK with that. The Rangers have two guys in their rotation (Ricardo Rodriguez and Ryan Drese) and the Astros outfield has two guys (Scott and Willy Taveras), and that’s fine.
You can’t blank on that–you’re going to make bad trades and you’re going to make mistakes. I think what the key thing is, when you make a mistake, you want to take a look at what the reasons were and where you made a faulty decision and learn from it. Some of those, I can’t go back and tell you that we’d have done anything different, but there are some that we’d have definitely done differently and we won’t make the same mistake again.
BA: What is your approach to balancing the payroll and going from a roster of standout superstars to the tough, young lineup you have now?
MS: It’s a team-based approach where no one player is going to occupy too much of our payroll over a certain percentage. There are exceptions there if the right guy comes along in the right situation. But we’re always going to have to win as a team in this market. And that means the collective team is going to be more important than any one individual star. That’s hard for fans to digest because they get emotionally attached to stars. But logic would say that (fans) get more emotionally attached to winning than they do to stars. So as a general manager you have to detach from emotion and keep finding a way to win. You want to place a premium on your guys, and you hope your star players choose to be part of what you’re doing and understand that to do that they might have to make some trade-offs down the line. I think our guys will. And I think our revenue will grow as we win also.
Our philosophy is to find trade value in the free-agent market, have a balanced payroll, have flexibility that allows us to make choices instead of having choices made for us, and build it as a team. Have tough outs one through nine instead of middle of the order guys that dominate. We might have that anyway though, because we’ve got two big young guys.
BA: Switching gears to some players now, will Brandon Phillips ever figure it out?
MS: I can’t answer that. I think that he will. He’s got too much athleticism, too much strength to his bat and his hands and too many tremendous actions for a baseball player to think he won’t. He’s a good person, he works hard, has passion for the game, has good energy. His adjustments are not many, he needs to make some offensive adjustments and he knows exactly what they are. Hopefully he knows what they are. Once he makes them, his ceiling is still tremendous.
All the things that scouts saw when they signed him in Montreal, that we saw when we traded for him–they’re all still there. It’s not like they’ve gone away. It’s just that he’s got some holes in his swing he needs to address. It’s his approach to hitting that he needs to address. He’s got a great upside as a player. The only question is going to be when does he figure it out. But I think once he does, Brandon Phillips is certainly going to be a player who plays in the big leagues for an awful long time.
BA: What did you get back in the “stalled first-rounders deal”–Corey Smith for Jake Gautreau?
MS: A strong makeup player with a good lefthanded bat and a track record of hitting everywhere he’s been. We want to develop some defensive versatility at first if possible with him so he can contribute in the big leagues as a lefthanded bat that can play second, third and maybe even first. It’s a guy we were on since he was back at Tulane, and a guy we really wanted to draft. It was tough for us to walk away from Corey because of his work ethic and his potential upside and his tools, but sometimes the clock for guys doesn’t work in your favor with the roster protect. So now you made not a bad decision to draft a guy, but a bad decision to protect a guy on the roster maybe a year before we should have.
BA: How about the seemingly minor deal you just made sending Cliff Bartosh to the Cubs for minor league righthander Ronald Bay?
MS: First of all, anytime you have a chance to acquire starting pitching, knowing that the depth of starting pitching can only help you, and it’s the right fit, you do it. We think he has a good feel to pitch. Every time you make a trade, you know, it’s interesting because right now we have a thousand other things going on with contract negotiations and that sort of thing. You can get hurried where you’re like, ‘Whatever, it’s not a big trade, let’s just get any young player.’
We had two or three teams interested (in Bartosh), so you want to get the best player possible–you don’t want to cheat that, and it took some time to work through it. We pushed a little bit harder and probably got a little bit better a player than they wanted to give up, but again, look at the Twins with the job they’ve done–Brian Buchanan for Jason Bartlett–I mean, if you pay attention to those trades and you work hard on them, you’re going to get some young player who somewhere down the line is going to impact your big league team. I hope that’s what we did (Tuesday).
BA: Still being a farm director at your core, how much emphasis do you place in the short term and then in the long term of keeping the organization running at a high level?
MS: John Farrell, John Mirabelli and Ross Atkins are the caretakers of three, four, five years down the road. Chris Antonetti, Eric Wedge and I focus on this year and next year–that’s our job. I trust those guys to handle that. I want to be involved. I talk to John and John so often. There aren’t game reports I don’t listen to, there aren’t details I’m not aware of, but I want to be a resource for John Farrell because I did that job. I don’t want to tell him what to do.
Player development is all about roots. It’s still what we’re doing up here (in Cleveland). All the decisions we made down there factor into our decisions up there. It’s not the only path, but being a farm director is the greatest training ground for being a big league GM because you make a thousand decisions that no one scrutinizes, yet if you’re smart, you’ll learn from the good and bad choices you made. And when you get up here, it carries over. You apply those lessons up here with much higher stakes.