Mark Shapiro enters his second season as General Manager of the Cleveland Indians, and 12th with the organization, in full rebuilding mode. Since winning six NL Central division titles in seven years, the Indians have said goodbye to stars Roberto Alomar, Jim Thome and Bartolo Colon and rebuilt the farm system through drafting, development and a series of opportune trades. He recently chatted with BP about the dangers of multi-year contracts, breaking prospects into the lineup, and the pressure of meeting fans’ expectations.
Baseball Prospectus: Soon after you got the General Manager’s job, you made some moves that seemed to counter the rebuilding process, like signing Lawton and Gutierrez to long-term deals. It’s easy to look back now and see that those moves were mistakes–do you feel you’ve learned from some of the early mistakes you made?
Mark Shapiro: The toughest part about that time was the fact that we were not ready to abandon attempting to contend; we won our division in 2001. (The process) didn’t sneak up on us–we knew we’d have some challenges. But we couldn’t just say, it’s over, boom. We had to do two things: attempt to contend and transition at the same time. We ended up going against external pressures anyway. If you wait until the rebuilding process is dictated to you, you’ll be in trouble. Everything we did was geared toward expediting the transition process.
BP: You’ve made so many changes in a short period of time. How do you maintain continuity at the major league level and in the minor leagues when so many players and coaches have moved around or moved on to other teams?
MS: It’s at the heart of the things that are most fulfilling to me. My job goes far beyond putting 25 people on the field. It’s about developing an organization, assembling a scouting force, and implementing a player development system. Systems outlast people. If your systems are solid and they continue to improve and your philosophy is well communicated, you can develop an organizational structure even while going through flux and change. If you have a philosophy that’s well communicated between the manager, the General Manager and the scouting director, that can filter down to the entire organization.
BP: The new manager of course being Eric Wedge. What led you to choose him for the job?
MS: A big part of it was his development-oriented approach, which goes to what we’re trying to do as an organization. He has a real passion for his job and a commitment to detail. He’s shattering the usual paradigm for managers. A lot of managers just slap on a uniform on February 15 and say ‘let’s go.’ (Wedge) is in the office at 8:30 every morning. He’s involved in every meeting, he understands the nature of building a 25-man roster, the challenges of our revenue situation, and building the minor league system. He and I are partners in building the major league team. We’re trying to break down the barrier of differences between the manager and front office personnel.
BP: Along those lines, when you first applied for the General Manager’s job, what did you say or do to pitch yourself as a candidate?
MS: You have to express your vision for the position. That’s going to be different for every person, since everyone has a different set of skills. I wrote a long vision paper (over 100 pages) on how I envisioned the job. It was a good discipline for me. Certainly a lot has changed since the first time I wrote it.
BP: The economics of the game, for one. How have these new economics affected your job?
MS: It’s much better this way. As long as you maintain payroll flexibility, you can really benefit. Year to year it enables the front office to be creative, which is ultimately what you want.
BP: As some of the core young talent matures, will you try to implement a plan similar to the one John Hart put in place, where he signed the team’s young players through their arbitration years and into their first year or two of free agency?
MS: We very clearly are not going to commit to a multi-year contract strategy. Multi-year contracts don’t offer us the greatest ability to sustain a championship-level club. Flexibility and developing young talent do allow us to do that. When we get to the championship level, we need to continue to develop good, young players. That in itself allows us to supplant multi-year deals and stagger the payroll.
BP: Do you feel you have the kind of financial commitment you’ll need from ownership down the road?
MS: The best example of that commitment is just experiential. We outspent our revenue two years ago by $10 million to get Juan Gonzalez. When the club is on the threshold of breaking through or trying to sustain a winning team, ownership has proven it will do what it takes.
I also know they’re committed because right now, we’re among the top six or seven teams in baseball in scouting and player development spending. Our greatest opponent now is the Rule 5 draft and managing the 40-man roster. We’re at 40 now and there’s not much fat on the roster at all–there’s simply no way we can protect everybody.
BP: You acquired three interesting prospects in the Bartolo Colon trade last year. At the same time, weren’t you concerned about what the fans would think when you made that trade, and when you didn’t re-sign Jim Thome?
MS: I don’t think you enter into any situation like (the Colon deal) without realizing what it will mean. The fans may just see Lee Stevens and three minor leaguers. In the meantime, we had to be prepared for that day. We did a ton of research and analysis to find those three players. We’d done research on similar trades. We found that we got one of the best returns ever in a trade of that magnitude for that type of player.
With Thome, the decision was kind of made for us. As it is, the decision to pursue him in any way frankly doesn’t fit at all with where we are now. We’re in a position now that says no big-dollar contracts, certainly not until the team justifies the need for them. Now you could argue that he was a justifiable exception, with the kind of player and person he is. But the major concerns for us in this market were of one player making that much, plus looking historically at how many players perform past age 35 at the type of level he’s at now–very few.
BP: How were you able to then trade for Travis Hafner?
MS: We looked at Texas’ system from a statistical and scouting standpoint, and we knew they had guys like Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock, as well as Travis Hafner, and they might be prepared to make a trade. Hafner was a guy who came up on our radar screen. He had one of the most unique combinations of plate discipline and run production in the minor leagues. He has some work to do defensively, but the worst-case scenario is being in the AL, that offers us the option of the DH position.
With Montreal’s system, Texas’ system–we were prepared to make deals with those teams. Last year we knew that Montreal was the one team looking at the present only, that could afford to give up high-level prospects. That’s why it worked.
BP: Regarding some of your other prospects–first of all, what kind of tack do you take with an athlete who’s raw in terms of baseball experience like Grady Sizemore?
MS: A lot of that is just gaining experience. He’ll dictate the pace of his progress, and so far he’s done a good job of it. He hasn’t had a traditional development path–it isn’t like with Manny Ramirez, where the hitting was way ahead of his running and defense. As quickly as Grady has success, we’re going to move him. He’s got a chance to be a young player, 21, at Double-A, like Johnny Peralta and Brandon Phillips were. You want as many guys as possible with high ceilings playing at the upper levels.
BP: Doesn’t moving Phillips the wrong way on the defensive spectrum put him at greater risk for the types of injures second basemen often suffer? Doesn’t it also lessen his defensive value and erode his skills at shortstop?
MS: The primary rationale for moving Phillips to second base was Omar Vizquel. He is a 10-and-5 player and therefore has veto rights on any trade. He wants to remain an Indian, and that has value to us as well in our transition period.
BP: Given Phillips projects as a core, young player and Vizquel has no chance of being a member of the next championship team in Cleveland, why not have Vizquel change positions instead?
MS: Your points are largely valid, but sometimes there is a human element that overrides statistical and even conventional rationale. Omar’s career in Cleveland demands that he be treated with respect. He is signed through 2004 and arguably had his best year of his career last year.
We are still working with Brandon at shortstop and keep the option open that he may play that position in the future. My greatest hesitation was to move him off the middle of the diamond as some have suggested (to third base where we have a gap right now). He is a middle-of-the-diamond player with great athleticism and as long as he plays up the middle he will offer us the premium of outstanding offense compared to the league average for production at either second base or shortstop.
BP: How do you strike a balance with prospects, when you want to give them a chance, but you also don’t want to rush them, or start their service time clock too soon?
MS: With most players you want to have as much preparation as possible. But there are certain players that you know have the mentality to succeed when they’re being pushed and challenged at the major league level. Brandon Phillips clearly has some developmental issues left. But he has a special level of confidence in his abilities. For him to be ready, his approach has to be twofold: he has to have that confidence, but he also has to be an accurate self-evaluator. Maturity figures into that, and part of that happens over time, by going through experiences.
You have to make these decisions while avoiding momentum and emotion getting into it. What you need to do is not leave decisions blank. It’s something Eric Wedge and I are doing right now. Escobar, Bradley, Bard, Phillips, Hafner–when can we commit to them, and can we forecast them onto the major league team?
BP: Since you’re so committed to having youth and flexibility on the roster, the draft obviously has to play a big role. Some studies suggest it can be riskier, for instance, to draft a high school pitcher than a college player. Do you have a preference for which types of players you want to draft?
MS: One thing with the draft: There is no black and white, only a series of grays. Ever study you do is a piece of revisionist history. That said, we do have tendencies, and our tendencies have evolved. Investing huge dollars in high school right-handed pitching as a top draft pick might not be something we’d want to do.
Any time you have the ability to take a 21-year-old instead of an 18-year-old, a lot of the mystery is gone and the time frame becomes more predictable–there’s that definite benefit to picking college players in high rounds. But there’s also less romance. You don’t get to daydream as much about what a player could be in four or five years.