Piecing Together The Puzzle

WINTER HAVEN, Fla.–From the attitude of the players on the field to the general buzz in the stands among Tribe fans, Indians camp had a different feel this year.

No longer is Cleveland considered a young team that could make some noise come playoff time. After winning 93 games last season, that noise is now expected. One look at the banners that line the entrance to Chain O’ Lakes Park will tell you that, as images of catcher Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore greet fans heading into the park.

General manager Mark Shapiro’s five-year rebuilding plan is over. Now it’s time for the 39-year-old GM to field a winning club while continuing the flow of talent through the minor leagues. It’s a challenge from the top of the organization ladder to the bottom, especially when it comes to making the toughest decisions as camp winds down: who makes the roster, who heads to Triple-A, who hits the waiver wire and who is left looking for another job.

“Generally speaking, ‘roster decisions’ is such a broad term,” Shapiro says. “When you add a nonroster guy, you have to make a roster decision as to who’s coming off your roster. When you have a 25-man roster decision, who’s going to win on those peripheral jobs–backup catcher, fourth outfielder, utility infielder. I think that ultimately you want to look at every variable that exists.”

Those variables exist for every major league organization at this time of year, and the decisions trickle down through the minors and down into independent league baseball and beyond. Hundreds of teams and thousands of players are affected by the decisions the Indians and 29 other organizations make at the end of spring training.

The factors they weigh include which player is the best fit for a roster in the short term, as well as the long-term implications of him making the club. Other things to consider are the financial consequences, whether an individual meshes with the players already on the club and who can give the club the best performance in a part-time role.

“That isn’t easy to do,” Shapiro says. “You’re not just taking the best spring training performances and sticking them on your club. You’re looking at the situation, the expectations, how those extra players complement our core players, which means things like how often are those core players going to play, are they left- or righthanded hitters–all those things factor in.”

From there, the player’s makeup is examined, from his role on the field to his clubhouse demeanor to his preparation skills to whether he’s a good teammate. And there are a lot of people with a lot of opinions throughout an organization who weigh in on all these factors.

“You’ve got Eric Wedge’s perspective of that, the front office’s perspective of that. Eric and his coaches, you know, a lot of times they’re going to be in different places on that, but the way we make decisions on that comes back to our general atmosphere of mutual respect and trust to work through those things,” Shapiro says. “Nine times out of 10, literally, we end up at the same place. And even if we don’t, that one time out of 10 we still leave here together even though we disagree.”

A Year-Long Process

Farm director John Farrell has arguably the most difficult role in all the decision-making. Beyond what happens at the major league level, Farrell has to weigh where a player is best suited to continue his development, while factoring in the potential needs in Cleveland.

Farrell’s preparation of rosters goes hand-in-hand with preparing organizational depth charts. As each season approaches, he and his staff already have a good idea of who is going where long before Opening Day arrives.

“We have a leadership team here that not only comprises all of our coordinators, but our development and field staff as well,” Farrell says. “So we’ll have meetings with everyone here just to get their thoughts. They’ve got a bigger picture and perspective at times rather than just focusing on what a player did at a specific level.

“That’s why we feel that the best coordinators also have scouting in their backgrounds, so they can have some feel of projection and being able to look not only on what a player is today, but what is this player’s ultimate ceiling.”

The work on shaping rosters for the next season begins in the middle of the previous year, as Farrell, his coordinators and field staff evaluate each player’s performance and his maturity in being able to handle the pressure–both on and off the field.

More meetings follow during instructional league, where an assessment of the season gone by and projection for the upcoming season become clearer. So going into spring training each year, the player-development staff already has a core group of players penciled in at each level.

“If we know that players in our system currently are six-year free agents and they project to leave, we start to identify needs from major league protection all the way down to filling out a competitive club,” Farrell says. “That’s when we start to look more closely at the progression any given player’s made during the current year, and is he ready to go to the next level the following year. Inevitably changes are going to happen, but it’s key to begin that dialogue, just to have a starting point.

“We take an approach to spring training to prepare players to start the season. We can’t eliminate a competitive element–there is competition for certain clubs here on a daily basis. But with those core players, we take a kind of hardline approach to where those players are going to start the year.”

The days of a minor league manager fighting to get a certain player on his club are mostly gone. In most organizations the player-development staff weighs major league needs and individual development, soliciting the opinions of coordinators and managers and another crucial element–the organization’s pro scouting department.

“You can kind of let them know how you feel–that you want a specific player on the team and like how he plays,” high Class A Kinston manager Mike Sarbaugh says. “You have some say, but it pretty much comes down to where the front office sees where the player is at development-wise. You can add your sense to it a little bit, and let your feelings known, but that doesn’t really come into the equation that much.

“And to me, getting a third-party objective analysis on a player is huge because those scouts sometimes see what you don’t see. And picking up on something that a specific player might be doing or not doing is only going to improve our plan for the player and hopefully make him a better player in the long run.”

Communication Is Key

As camp winds down every year, Farrell is continually revamping his versions of each roster and throwing out hypothetical situations based on what is happening on the major league side.

During those days, communication is the most important aspect of the 43-year-old farm director’s duties. He not only has to keep his field staff and coordinators up-to-date on how the construction of the big league roster could affect who they will be working with, but he also makes the rounds to meet with each player to talk about how each decision is reached.

“There’s always going to be changes along the way,” Farrell says. “It’s a fluid situation and there are a number of things to balance. You’ve got guys that are either on rehab that are in extended spring training–they might be ready to come out by the third week of April. So you’ve always got to critically think two and three steps ahead and anticipate changes. I think the one thing that we continually strive to do is make players aware of what is happening as best we can.

“Inevitably, rosters can change because injuries take place or performance may indicate a player going back to a previous level. It’s never a cookie-cutter approach and I think the best thing any farm director can do is to communicate the scenarios without jeopardizing the mindset of the player and just being up front with them. You have to try to educate them on the situation and not just say that this move is coming down from the general manager or the major league manager and leaving it at that. The player deserves more of an understanding of what goes into the decision. They might not totally agree with it, but at least they know they’ve been dealt with in a straight fashion.”

Once the major league roster is set, the waves echo throughout the system. Players who spent the bulk of their spring training with one club might suddenly find themselves at a lower level based on players coming down from big league camp.

Catcher provided an interesting example of that in Indians camp this spring, after the club chose to keep recently acquired Kelly Shoppach to back up Martinez and sent Einar Diaz and Tim Laker–who spent all but two days of spring training with the big league club–back to Triple-A Buffalo.

“It’s tough being a guy in big league spring training knowing that you’re going to get a limited number of opportunities,” Laker says. “You really just have to focus on the baseball and not put too much pressure on yourself. I’ve been in so many situations where you know you’re on the bubble and you really start to press and that never works. The best thing is to put that out of your mind as much as you can, play baseball and leave the decision-making to the people who do it.

“It’s a bit of a shock when you come back to minor league camp. It’s a lot nicer in the big leagues–everybody knows that. But you have to keep it in perspective that it’s a game and anything can happen at any time as long as you still have that uniform on. You want to be up there, but you just have to keep doing your job and keep playing every day.”

Laker, a 36-year-old who spent 2003-04 in Cleveland and returned to the club this spring as a nonroster invite, has been on the bubble many times during his 18-year career. All those experiences have prepared him for when he finds himself back in the minor league clubhouse just before camp breaks.

“After you’ve been through these moves a couple times, you realize that nothing good comes out of moping about it,” he says. “You’ll see younger guys all the time that are mad about it and they come back to minor league camp with a little chip on their shoulder. Next thing you know they aren’t putting forth the effort they should and they’re really cheating themselves when that happens. It happened to me and I learned from those mistakes. Now as an older guy, you know that things happen and there’s still a chance.”

No One Wants To Repeat

Beyond Triple-A are players who might have felt they were ready for the next level, but for one reason or another find themselves repeating a level for the second straight year. Players take these decisions with varying degrees of anger, based chiefly on their maturity and also how the decisions are communicated to them.

Two notable examples in Indians camp this spring were outfielder Brad Snyder and infielder Brandon Pinckney. Both are back where they finished last season to begin the 2006 season–Snyder returning to Double-A Akron and Pinckney to Kinston.

Snyder batted .280-16-54 in 304 at-bats for the Aeros last season after being moved up from Kinston at midseason. But he still whiffed a whopping 94 times at Double-A alone. So the Indians want him to return to work on his swing and more importantly, his two-strike approach.

“I was told right from the beginning that I was going to Akron anyway, so it wasn’t like it was a big surprise,” the 23-year-old outfielder says. “But our outfield in the organization is kind of stacked and it’s hard to move up at any good pace. You’ve got to do well and hopefully they’ll move you up sometime. I know there are areas of my game that need work and I have to shore those areas up before I can go any higher.”

Pinckney also needs to work on his game, though his demeanor was decidedly different. That’s understandable from both sides: Pinckney says he was told by the organization two years in a row that he was slated for Double-A, and Indians officials say a top-of-the-order hitter needs to improve his on-base percentage by drawing walks at least 10 percent of the time.

“I was very disappointed,” Pinckney says. “They told my agent I was going to Akron for sure. I played with Akron right up until two days before camp broke and they bumped me down. The most disappointing thing is this has happened two years in a row.

“I just have to work on that and hopefully I’ll be bumped up or hopefully something else will happen. You’re disappointed at first, but you can’t really let it affect you. You still have to go play every day. So I have to pretty much wear it, do what I have to do and go from there.”

Roster decisions ultimately affect everyone in every organization in one way or another, but the players and the staff they work with feel it most of all. While baseball is undoubtedly a business, the personal element can never be ignored.

“The toughest meetings are ones where you have to let somebody go,” Farrell says. “There is no doubt that is the hardest part of the job, especially when you’re dealing with players that have been with the organization for a few years. The one-on-one meetings where you’re communicating to a player why he’s repeating a level or why he’s dropping down to a lower level aren’t nearly as tough, and a lot of times you come away from those meetings with an idea which direction a player is headed.

“Sometimes you see players respond and sometimes you see what’s happened to them linger. You try to loop them into the decision-making process so it doesn’t carry over or linger to the performance on the field. And inevitably that’s what’s driving those decisions in the first place–performance on the field.”