Thursday, October 1, 2009

Is Tribe prepping for 2011 or '12? Yep ...

Come mid-October, you won’t hear general manager Mark Shapiro talk about how well the Indians played the final month of the '09 season. For Shapiro will have bigger issues ahead to confront than trying to put a smiley face on the dismal past: He needs a new manager.

In a decision Wednesday that surprised nobody, he didn't dismiss or release or bid adieu to manager Eric Wedge; no, Shapiro fired Wedge. No reason to use euphemisms here to soften it, because Shapiro just did what he should have done awhile ago.

With the Wedge era closed, the cliches about "lessons learned" can follow him out the clubhouse door. Who wants to hear those words anymore? Besides, what lessons do players learn from loss after loss?

It might have been a different matter if those September losses were tied to solid baseball, but it’s an altogether different tale when the '09 season speeds toward its final weekend and not much points to lessons learned.

The Indians were a lousy baseball team when Wedge opened the season, and they are a lousy baseball team as he plays out the season as a lame duck. In fact, the team he is passing on to somebody else looks worse now than it did on Opening Day.

Nothing illustrates that fact any better than the team's performance on the last road trip to Minneapolis and Oakland, where the Tribe played seven games and won none. Their return home didn't improve their play.

They have had an inning here or there in which they looked decent, but they also have had a couple of ballgames in which they kicked the baseball around as if they were playing soccer. Their pitching and hitting proved spotty; their overall demeanor reflected a team without a pulse, particularly the play from some of the talent Shapiro acquired through trades.

He'll be counting on these men to be the cornerstones of the team’s future, and if they are, the future doesn’t look promising – at least in the near term. Only the most optimistic fan can see his Indians contending for anything in 2010, aside from the No. 1 overall pick in 2011.

All next season will be about rebuilding, which fans in Cleveland have tired of. They’ve seen what rebuilding has brought..

In embarking on the last rebuilding project in 2002, Shapiro and Wedge promised championships. Instead, they delivered season after season of uneven performances and not one championship.

None of the other seasons, however, went as badly as this one. It offers no hope of better things to come soon, because the season exposed too many flaws in a roster that has too many players whose “ceilings” might be high, as Shapiro puts it, but whose performances have been suspect.

As 2009 limps to its conclusion, Indians fans see a team that mirrors the Royals, the Padres, the Pirates and the Nationals, ballclubs that head into the offseason with no more hope for 2010 than the Tribe.

All have talent at various places; all have flaws in most places. While the Indians might have fewer holes to fill, their holes are deeper than the western Pacific's Marianas Trench, as series after series in September showed.

Some nights, starting pitching betrayed them (Jeremy Sowers, Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson); other times, it was the bullpen (Jess Todd, Jesse Veras and Rafael Perez). On still other nights, the hitting (Niuman Romero, Trevor Crowe and Kelly Shoppach) didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. And don’t bother to mention games in which the defense disappeared (Andy Marte and Jhonny Peralta, etc).

Sorry pitching, a lack of timely hitting, a mediocre manager and a leaky defense: call it the Grand Slam of baseball futility.

And that’s what worries Indians fans, who wonder aloud what Shapiro can do to quickly reverse the team’s misfortunes. Firing Wedge was a step toward better days.

A new manager should help, but it doesn't address a shortage of talent. Shapiro needs to find some. He can begin with starting pitching, where he has no one to anchor the rotation. His bullpen seems fairly settled, as settled as a bullpen can be from one season to the next.

The offense is as big a question mark as the starting pitching.

Peralta, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, now injured, will have to play like real stars. Shin-Soo Choo will need to continue his development, as will Asdrubal Cabrera. He might be the brightest star in the horizon.

How the other pieces fit around these cornerstones will be what decides whether 2010 will be a prelude to better days in 2011 or '12. Under the best of circumstances, the team could be .500 next season. But .500 won’t do much to assuage diehard fans that demand a lot more.

Shapiro heeded one of their demands. He won't allow them to worry about losing games because their Indians have a second-rate manager in the dugout.

(Photo of fireworks at Progressive Field by 1blessedmon)


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