Are the Cleveland Indians a model franchise?


When my dad was 68 years old he had a heart attack.  He had a bypass surgery and recovered fully, but one thing he said always stuck with me:  “I did everything I was supposed to do, so why did this happen?”  For the most part that was true; he ate a lot of vegetables and walked a mile every day.  I have always been something of a smartass, so my response was:  “Well, apparently you didn’t do everything.”

The reality was that my dad got mad about things that didn’t matter, and if veins popping out of your forehead are a sign of high blood pressure than he was never in particularly good shape, but that’s not the point of this blog.

The point is that the team we all obsess over is referred to repeatedly as a model franchise, one that treats players well, has great facilities, is on the cutting edge of analytics, makes decisions by a process instead of emotion.  They even went out and got the ideal manager.

But here’s the rub:  model franchises win championships.

The Spurs are a model franchise.  The Patriots are a model franchise.  (Well, maybe not ethically.)

Like my dad’s health, the idea that the Indians are a model franchise that does all the right things is not supported by the outcome.

It’s true that championships can be a matter of luck as much as skill.  But you may have noticed that the best way to get lucky in the playoffs is to actually be in the playoffs.  Luck is not going to smile on you when you are eight games under .500 on August 5.  The lucky bounces won’t come your way when you make the postseason twice in fourteen years.  Or have four winning seasons in that time.

Let’s be clear:  I am not one of those romanticists who expects this team to bring back the 90s.

I lived through the 70s and 80s in this town, so I know better than to expect a dynasty.  But the bottom line is that by the most basic measures of success for a sports franchise – playoff appearances, player development, attention to fundamentals, attendance – the tenure of Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti has fallen short.

I am not calling for mass firings.  But I am asking for change. The path this team is on has led to last place and overwhelming fan apathy.  It is time to try another path, to look at every aspect of the philosophy that guides decision making and builds the culture and figure out why it isn’t working.  Because it isn’t.  It is incumbent upon owner Paul Dolan to demand that Shapiro and Antonetti rethink their approach and address the obvious shortcomings in this organization, including the decision process that has led to the gaping holes on the roster.  If they show an inability or unwillingness to innovate and evolve, he needs to make personnel changes.

I can hear the rebuttals: This is the first bad season under Francona. The pitching staff will have this team contending for the foreseeable future. The player development is finally coming around.

Well, Francona has managed one playoff game in this town so far, so the prospects of future happinesswith him as manager are more a matter of faith than fact.  As for the pitching staff, a rotation is a fungible resource with a finite shelf life, and two years of that shelf life have already been squandered.

There is reason to be optimistic about player development, but let’s be clear: in the right hands a player with the talent of Francisco Lindor or Bradley Zimmer would be a multi-time All-Star.  If these guys come up and just play decent or take so long to develop that they are close to free agency before they fulfill their potential, that should be considered a failure, particularly because they represent the best (maybe the only) shot for this franchise to break out of the rut of mediocrity.

Look, I get that it’s easy to get caught up in Cody Allen’s struggles or the big contracts that aren’t paying off and start thinking that those are the reasons that this team isn’t winning.  Even if you think bigger, like the ten years of bad draft picks or the lousy attendance that hinders the payroll, you may be missing the point.  No team nails every draft pick, and every team has guys on their roster that make you scratch your head (Mark Reynolds is playing for the best team in baseball, after all).

But some teams just win.

The Cardinals are in a market essentially the same size as Cleveland, with possibly a worse economy, and they keep winning.  The Giants have three guys in their rotation with ERAs above 4.00, and you could make a case that their center fielder is worse than Michael Bourn, but they are a half game out of the wild card.  Why?  Because guys like Joe Panik and Matt Duffy showed up at the major league level ready to play.  These guys are 24 years old (less than two years older than Bradley Zimmer), never showed up on top prospect lists, but they are playing vital roles for a team that has a shot at its fourth title this decade while the Indians wait for Lonnie Chisenhall to figure it out.

Despite all of this gloom and doom, it still feels like it could work.  Which is why it is crucial that the right moves get made this offseason, but more importantly something changes in the culture or the karma or something so that guys reach their potential.  Not only do we need Lindor to become a star and Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana to rebound to their peak levels, but we need guys like Jesus Aguilar and Zach Walters and James Ramsey (all of whom are older than Joe Panik) to develop enough that they can at least be functional major leaguers, if not here than as trade bait.

If I could ask one question of this front office, it would be why other teams can do that and we can’t.