You can’t pin this one on the front office

Judging by some of the comments I’ve seen here, it seems a lot of people are holding Mark Shapiro accountable for the Tribe’s problems this year. It’s nice to see that most of us, as evidenced by our current poll, believe the players are more to blame than the front office but, nonetheless, several readers have been griping about some of Shapiro’s moves heading into the season. Specifically, Brandon Phillips, Coco Crisp, Kevin Millwood and Bob Howry.

First, Phillips, who’s having an exceptional rookie season for the Reds, hitting .306 with 7 homers, 44 RBI and 16 steals in 17 attempts. Would it be nice to have him doing that up north instead? Absolutely, but where were the Indians going to play him? In place of Belliard? Peralta? No. There was NO ROOM for Phillips here, and while it’s easy to say Shapiro screwed up now that he’s playing so well in Cincinnati, Phillips gave the Tribe absolutely no reason to include him in their long-term plans. They’d been waiting for him to develop for years and this spring, because he was out of options and therefore couldn’t be sent back to the minors, they were faced with a tough choice with Phillips. Had they kept him, he would’ve played maybe once a week in a utility role, and I can guarantee with that kind of activity he wouldn’t be hitting the ball the way he is now in a starting role with the Reds.

In fact, people are whining about Coco (still) but why are they so bitter about that trade? Because the Tribe gave up a good major leaguer for a great minor leaguer? So what, should the Indians have benched/traded/released Belliard or Peralta to make room for a guy who never showed any production within the system and reportedly never made much of an effort to improve? How much sense does that make, and how much heat would Shapiro have taken (from the same people bitching about the Coco trade) for getting rid of a productive major leaguer for an unproven kid? Sure, it would’ve been nice to see them get more for Phillips but, the fact of the matter is, he wasn’t WORTH more at the time. The Reds rolled the dice and it paid off for them. If the Indians had kept Phillips, he’d be wasting away on their bench or they would’ve cut him by now anyway. Either way, his breakthrough season wasn’t happening in Cleveland. Get over it.

As for Coco, wow, a quick look at his numbers tells me he really would’ve made a difference this season:

Crisp: 183 AB, .268, 4 HR, 14 RBI, 8 SB, .313 OBP

How do those stellar stats compare to Coco’s replacement in left and in the second spot in the lineup, Jason Michaels?

Michaels: 265 AB, .268, 6 HR, 26 RBI, 5 SB, .330 OBP

Granted, Coco missed several weeks with a broken knuckle and Michaels hasn’t been the on-base machine that he was advertised to be, but these guys look pretty damn interchangeable to me. People cited an expected jump in Coco’s power numbers as one of the reasons they objected to the trade but it’s obvious he hasn’t been doing much of anything for the Sox. In fact, Boston moved him out of the leadoff slot and now has him hitting in the bottom third of the order. Would the numbers look different if Coco was still in Cleveland? Probably. But at the same time, it seems pretty clear to me that he’s not the kind of “irreplaceable” player many fans claimed (and still claim, apparently) he was at the time of the deal.

How about Millwood and Howry? Well, it’s tough to really gauge the Howry situation. The Cubs agreed to pay him $12 million over three years, which is pretty steep for a set-up guy. Still, looking at the Indians’ bullpen woes this year, it’s all too easy to say things would be different if the Tribe had kept Howry. He’s won three games for the Cubs, saved two, struck out 40 batters in 43 innings and sports a 3.12 ERA. Would those numbers look nice in the eighth inning here? Absolutely, especially considering the problems Guillermo Mota and Fernando Cabrera have had this year. But relievers can be very difficult to predict from one year to the next. For proof, check out Cabrera’s numbers last year to his numbers this year (2-1, 1.47 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 30 innings / 1-1, 6.46 ERA, 33 strikeouts [and 20 walks] in 30 innings), or Mota’s from 2004 to Mota’s in 2005 (9-8, 3.07 ERA, 85 strikeouts in 96 innings / 2-2, 4.70 ERA, 60 strikeouts in 67 innings), or Howry’s from 2002 to his next healthy season in 2004 with the Tribe (3-5, 4.19 ERA, 45 strikeouts in 68 innings / 4-2, 2.74 ERA, 39 strikeouts in 42 innings). As we’ve seen, your bullpen can be great one year and awful the next, and that’s because relievers can be great one year and awful the next. Putting $4 million a year into a 32-year-old reliever with a history of arm problems wasn’t the right move last November and it isn’t the right move now.

And speaking of giving too much money to aging pitchers with lengthy injury histories, as much as I wanted the Indians to resign Millwood, and as much as I wasn’t thrilled with the Paul Byrd signing to replace Millwood, again, letting the Rangers give him $60 million over five years was without question the right move. Shall we look at the numbers?

Millwood: 8-5, 4.83 ERA, 134 hits and 75 strikeouts in 110 innings pitched
Byrd: 6-6, 4.31 ERA, 112 hits and 59 strikeouts in 102 innings pitched

Again, pretty damn interchangeable. Would having Millwood instead of Byrd have us competing with the Tigers and White Sox in the Central? For that matter, would having Millwood, Coco, Howry and Phillips have us up there? Maybe we’re a little better than 40-47 at this point, but not much. In fact, the only one out of this group who conceivably, when comparing the numbers, would’ve made much of a difference this year is Howry, and at the end of the day, how many wins is one reliever worth?

So while it may be easy to pin this lost season on the front office in general and Shapiro in particular, let’s get real. There’s more than enough talent on this roster for the team to be at least 10 games higher in the standings, but they’re not living up to that potential. Before you go blaming Shapiro for this mess, let’s not forget that he’s the one who went out and got Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee, among others. He built this team back into contention several years sooner than anyone thought possible. He’s avoided getting stuck with awful contracts (Millwood and Thome, to name two). If there’s one thing I can blame him for, it’s sticking with Aaron Boone this long rather than calling up Andy Marte, but doing that raises the white flag on 2006 and I imagine that’s a tough thing to do when you’re talking about a team whose talent isn’t translating into wins.

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