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July 2, 2002
The Colon Trade
Rebuilding on the Reservation
If the off-season deal involving Roberto Alomar did not signal the direction in which the Cleveland Indians are heading, then the June 27 trade of Bartolo Colon certainly did. The Indians sent a clear message that they are rebuilding, specifically for the 2004 season. The process may take some time, and will require some intelligence and luck, as well as convincing themselves and their now-spoiled fans that this is the right thing to do.
Coming into the 2002 season, first-year GM Mark Shapiro was straddling the fence. On one hand, he wanted payroll and roster flexibility, knowing that he was about to embark on a rebuilding process; thus, the trade of Alomar. On the other hand, he still felt the Indians could be competitive in the American League Central, a division with no dominant team. The team signed Ricky Gutierrez and Brady Anderson to free-agent contracts and extended the contract of newly-acquired Matt Lawton. The three deals, which appeared to be well above the players' market values, were made in an effort to stay competitive. All of these moves were questionable at the time; three months into the 2002 season, they look even worse. Anderson has been released, Gutierrez is on the disabled list with a .595 OPS, and Lawton has been a disappointment, hitting .241/.350/.402.
With the Tribe having slipped below .500, Shapiro is acknowledging that the Indians do not have the personnel to compete against the Yankees, Red Sox and Mariners. He has elected to begin what will be a painful and arduous task--setting the framework for the next good Indians team.
The first order of business is to purge the team of high-salaried players who will not be integral parts of the 2004 Tribe. To that end, the Indians decided to take a page out of the Mariners' and Athletics' handbooks, refusing to allocate a high percentage of their team payroll to a single player or two. Bartolo Colon was obviously the Indians' most attractive player and he netted what was likely the best collection of prospects available in shortstop Brandon Phillips, left-hander Cliff Lee, and outfielder Grady Sizemore.
Phillips is a multi-tool athlete in the Barry Larkin mold. His power is starting to emerge as he physically matures and gains experience. The 21-year-old has been able to maintain a high batting average, though he could stand to be more disciplined at the plate (18 walks, 39 strikeouts this year). Phillips hit .327/.380/.506 with nine home runs and six stolen bases in 245 at-bats for Double-A Harrisburg, and was hitting .257 in 35 at-bats for Triple-A Ottawa. Defensively, he has the range and arm strength to play shortstop in the majors, though he does not always show consistency. His baserunning is more instinctive than a reflection of his speed.
The Indians sent Phillips to Triple-A Buffalo and will keep him at shortstop, but because of the crowded Cleveland infield, his eventual position is up in the air. Omar Vizquel still has two years and $15 million left on his contract, while Gutierrez is in the first year of a three-year, $11-million deal, making it tough for Phillips to break into the middle infield. Travis Fryman has a club option for 2003 that the Indians certainly won't pick up, which would open a spot for Phillips. He did play third base in the 2001 Arizona Fall League on a semi-regular basis, so he has experience at that position. The Indians' system was almost devoid of middle-infield prospects, so the acquisition of Phillips fills an organizational hole.
Cliff Lee's game really fell into place in 2002, mostly due to a smoother delivery that he did a better job of repeating, which prompted better command. He throws both a two-seam and a four-seam fastball in the 88-93 mph range and mixes things up with an 81-mph slider, a slow (72-mph) curve, and a 79-mph change-up. He has an athletic/slender build and has shown some durability.
Lee was 7-2 with a 3.23 ERA, a 4.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a league-leading 105 strikeouts, and a .197 opponent batting average at Double-A Harrisburg. The 23-year-old will switch Eastern League teams and move to Akron (incidentally, they were playing each other at the time of the deal), joining fellow left-handed pitching prospects Billy Traber, Brian Tallet and Alex Herrera. Lee figures to be ready for the majors by the end of the 2003 season. His upside is that of a #3 starter.
Grady Sizemore is a projectable, athletic player (6'3", 190 pounds) with good speed and power potential. He has impressive strike-zone judgment (36 BB/41 K) for a 19-year-old and can handle all types of pitches. His left-handed bat can get fouled up mechanically, and right now he has more gap power than the over-the-fence power that he's projected to develop. He was hitting .258/.348/.351 as one of the younger players in the Florida State League, with 15 doubles and nine stolen bases. He shows outstanding range in center field and an average throwing arm, but his throwing mechanics are being addressed, possibly allowing him to get better carry. He makes a lateral move to high-A Kinston, and is a good three years from the majors.
The inclusions of Lee Stevens and a $925,000 cash payment to the Expos were done to offset the salary of Colon, because Montreal could not take on additional payroll. Stevens is earn $4 million this season, but will be a free agent at the conclusion of the 2002 season. He also provides some insurance if the opportunity to deal Jim Thome presents itself.
Who will be the next to go? Thome, Ellis Burks, Chuck Finley and Ricardo Rincon are the prime candidates. Thome has repeatedly indicated that he would like to remain in Cleveland and serve as a veteran presence for the rebuilding process. As much as Thome is loved in Cleveland, he would have been a more logical choice to deal than Colon was. Omar Vizquel is quite happy with his situation, and his 10-and-five rights mean that he will likely finish out his current contract.
With the dismantling of the current roster underway, the Indians are trying to lay the foundation for a return to glory with a strong minor-league system. Assistant GM of Scouting Operations John Mirabelli has completed two strong amateur drafts in which the Indians have restocked a farm system that was one of the worst in baseball as recently as three years ago. The 2001 draft netted pitching prospects Dan Denham, J.D. Martin, Jake Dittler, and Travis Foley, fortifying their lower levels with a mix of power and finesse arms. The Indians decided to focus on a combination of pitchers and hitters in the 2002 draft, with an emphasis on collegians. Early analysis rates the Indians' haul of right-hander Jeremy Guthrie, third basemen Matt Whitney and Pat Osborn, outfielder Jason Cooper, and second baseman Micah Schilling amongst baseball's best.
The Indians still lack quality position players, but the continued development of catcher Victor Martinez and third baseman Corey Smith and the emergence of outfielder Ryan Church are steps in the right direction. Adding quality athletes like Phillips and Sizemore was almost a must at this stage.
Some fans wondered why the Indians didn't receive more pitching in return, or try to get a player that could contribute right now. Shapiro made inquiries along those fronts, but teams simply weren't willing to part with players that they felt were instrumental in their continued run for the division. In the Expos' case, Jose Vidro might have been more attractive to the Indians than Phillips, but with the frailty of Fernando Tatis and Orlando Cabrera, that was not even a consideration.
The Colon and Alomar trades have not gone over well with Tribe fans. Winning breeds expectations, and right now, those expectations are not being met. The radio talk shows have been bombarded with negativity and attendance has already taken a hit. Most teams in all four major sports have periods in which they have to re-tool; now, it's the Indians' turn. Shapiro knows that the remainder of the 2002 season will be a tough time. Cleveland fans should at least feel comfort in that the men in charge have a plan and intend to stick to it. If everyone involved just shows a little patience, there should be a reward at the end.
Deric McKamey is a minor league analyst for Baseball HQ and Street & Smith's publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.