Mark Shapiro understands rebuilding. In eight years on the job as the Indians‘ general manager, he has been forced to do it twice. The first time came in 2002 in his first season after replacing John Hart as the club’s general manager. When he took over, the Indians had been to the playoffs six times in the previous seven seasons, but the core group of players of those teams had either gotten too old or too expensive.
The Indians are back in rebuilding mode now just two years after winning the American League Central and coming within one win of the World Series before losing to the Red Sox in the seven games in the American League Championship Series. The Indians have traded away seven players this season, notably left-hander Cliff Lee and catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez, along with veteran right-handers Carl Pavano and Rafael Betancourt, first baseman Ryan Garko, super-utilityman Mark DeRosa, and outfielder Ben Francisco.
However, Shapiro says the dismantling of the 2009 Indians does not compare to 2002. “I wouldn’t characterize it as sweeping changes,” Shapiro said of this year’s roster purge. “We lost two core players (Lee and Martinez) who were only under contract through next year. Sweeping changes was 2002. In ’02, we had to turn over our entire major league roster and rebuild our minor league system.”
Eric Wedge benefited from the changes in 2002. Then-manager Charlie Manuel went to Shapiro after the roster had been decimated to demand a contract extension, was denied, and was then fired when he got belligerent about it.. Though third-base coach Joel Skinner finished out the season as interim manager, Wedge was promoted from Triple-A Buffalo as Manuel’s permanent replacement prior to the 2003 season.
Wedge could be a victim of this rebuilding, though he has one year left on his contract. It is questionable whether he will be back next season, as Shapiro, owner Larry Dolan, and club president Paul Dolan say Wedge will be evaluated at the end of the season. Unlike Manuel, however, Wedge has embraced this round of rebuilding and feels the Indians could be a contending team in relative short order, especially in a division without a dominant franchise. “We’re a little bit more athletic now,” Wedge said. “The younger pitchers are a little more experienced. We’re starting to define some roles in the bullpen. You can see things starting to come together.”
The Indians never got any traction at the start of the season as they lost their first five games and eventually saw their deficit in the weak AL Central grow to double digits on June 23. However, they have gone 24-22 since the All-Star break to improve their overall record to 59-76 while using the second half to audition young players as infielder Luis Valbuena, left fielder Matt LaPorta, and outfielder Michael Brantley while resurrecting the career of former top prospect Andy Marte at first base. Catcher Lou Marson, one of the four prospects acquired from the Phillies in the Lee trade, is expected to see plenty of playing time once Triple-A Columbus’ season ends Monday.
“When you make trades, you become a different ballclub,” Wedge said. “We run a little more. We put people in action a little more. I think we felt like for a while that unless we hit home runs, we were going to have a hard time winning games. I think we’ve proved we don’t have to rely on that. We don’t want to be just one-dimensional.”
“We have a lot of young guys in the lineup, but we’re showing that we can score runs,” said LaPorta, the top prospect among the four the Indians acquired from the Brewers last season in the CC Sabathia trade. “I know we’ve made a lot of changes this season, but it’s an exciting time. There is a lot of talent here, and we’re all getting our feet wet and showing what we can do.”
The same holds true with the starting rotation, which has been expanded to six members for the final month of the season, and includes no one older than 26-year-old Jeremy Sowers, who is joined by fellow left-handers David Huff and Aaron Laffey and right-handers Fausto Carmona, Carlos Carrasco, and Justin Masterson. “The starting pitching has been a difference-maker for us,” Wedge said. “We’ve been getting some quality starts. They’ve been getting us deeper into the game. That really puts us in a better position to win ball games with our bullpen.”
The Indians ideally would like to get Carmona straightened out and see him make a greater commitment to physical conditioning after he has dropped from seventh in the major leagues in SNLVAR in 2007 (6.8) to 124th last season (1.4) to 198th this year (0.3). However, Masterson, the key to the package of three young pitchers the Indians received from the Red Sox in the trade for Martinez, is starting to look like a potential ace for the Indians after serving as a middle reliever on Boston’s deep staff the past two seasons.
“We were very excited to acquire Justin because we felt he could help us either as a starter or reliever,” Wedge said. “He’s really done well as a starter, and with there being such a premium on starting pitching in the game right now we feel it’s a real advantage to have someone like him on our staff. He has the pitches and the aptitude to be a very good major league starting pitcher.”
Despite their youth, the Indians feel they have a chance to be a very good team soon. “It’s really a fun situation here,” Masterson said. “You look around the clubhouse and so many of us are around the same age. There is a good feeling. You get the sense we can build something special. I know I’m excited and everybody else in this clubhouse is excited, too.”
The Rays‘ chances of getting to the postseason for a second consecutive season are pretty much over. They trail the Yankees by 14½ games in the AL East, and the Red Sox by six in the league’s wild-card standings. To some extent, the Rays conceded last weekend when they traded left-hander Scott Kazmir to the Angels for a package of three prospects. The Rays were 3½ games out in the wild-card race at the time, but the trade showed that this is a franchise that still has to watch its money carefully despite their 2008 joyride that saw them go from having the worst record in the major leagues to winning the AL pennant before falling to the Phillies in the World Series. The trade saved the Rays $24 million, as Kazmir had two more years on his contract along with a club option for 2012.
“We have to live within our means,” Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said. “This is who we are and this is what we do. People better get used to it, because it’s going to continue.” Sternberg was also adamant that the trade of Kazmir is not a sign that the Rays are giving up on the idea of contending again anytime soon. Instead, he said it was a “reallocation of resources” that provides financial flexibility to the franchise. “I would like to think people know me and know us better that we’re not rolling up any carpets and that we have at least enough of a track record that we have a sense of what we’re doing,” Sternberg said. “I think any real fan who looked at it could clearly see that it’s not a salary dump.”
The Brewers will have to fight to finish above .500 this season as they are 65-70, just a year after making their first post-season appearance since 1982. However, the poor record hasn’t cost them fan support as the Brewers have sold three million tickets for a second straight season, having set a franchise attendance record of 3,068,458 in 2008. “Reaching three million tickets sold is the ultimate testament to Brewers fans and it speaks volumes about their loyalty to the team and passion for the game,” Brewers executive vice president Rick Schlesinger said.
Despite the disappointing season, the Brewers do not have plans to cut payroll or retool for 2010 as owner Mark Attanasio, general manager Doug Melvin, and assistant GM Gord Ash feel they have the nucleus to make another playoff run. “You’ve got to credit the marketing department and what the organization has done as far as being competitive,” Brewers manager Ken Macha said. “I’m sure Doug and Gord and Mark are focused on remaining competitive and having a product that everyone wants to come out and see.”
To improve that product, Macha knows the Brewers need to improve their pitching, as they are 15th in the National League in runs allowed with an average of 5.1 a game. “I would certainly hope the pitching is addressed,” Macha said. “I know that’s been highlighted.”
That retired pitcher Curt Schilling is at least considering running for the seat from Massachusetts in the United States Senate left vacant by the death of Edward Kennedy comes as no surprise to those who know him. He was always considered a politician in a baseball uniform, and he is the type of person who cares about people as he has done countless hours of charitable work, much of it devoted to finding a cure for ALS, Lou Gehrig‘s disease.
However, his former Red Sox’s teammates did get a chuckle this past week about the possibility of Schilling staging a political campaign. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “I don’t think he’d want me as his campaign manager if he wants to not get elected. No. I’ve been around ‘Schill’ probably more than anybody. He’s very dear to me. I guess whatever he wants. I want him to be happy just like anybody. I’d love to be out in the crowd when he is making a speech.”
When asked by the Boston Globe‘s Nick Cafardo what Schilling would bring to the Senate, second baseman Dustin Pedroia quipped, “A big appetite.” That was in reference to Schilling having a weight clause in his final contract. First baseman Kevin Youkilis was initially caught off guard by the news before saying, “If he runs, good luck. I wouldn’t want that job.”
Nobody knows how Schilling would fare as a senator but Red Sox GM Theo Epstein does have a good idea of what might the strength of his former ace. “He would be good at filibustering,” Epstein cracked.
Rumors and rumblings: The Marlins plan to trade second baseman Dan Uggla as he will be too expensive to keep as a player eligible for arbitration for a second time, and also because they can plug Chris Coghlan in at second. … The Mariners are likely to bring Ken Griffey Jr. back next season, with the understanding he will have a reduced role. … The Cubs are highly unlikely to re-sign right-hander Rich Harden as they already have more than $42 million committed to three rotation regulars already-left-hander Ted Lilly and right-handers Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano. … The Brewers plan to use shortstop J.J. Hardy as their primary chip in a bid to trade for pitching. … Assuming he isn’t traded this winter, Roy Halladay is expected to anchor a Blue Jays‘ rotation next season that will include left-handers Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero, and Mark Rzepczynski and right-hander Shaun Marcum; second baseman Aaron Hill will hit third and left fielder Adam Lind will bat cleanup in a new-look middle of the order. … Right-hander Tim Hudson would like to return to the Braves next season, even if they don’t exercise the $12 million player option in his contract. Meanwhile, look for Jason Hayward to be the Braves’ right fielder on Opening Day next season unless he has a very bad spring training.
Rays at Yankees, Monday-Wednesday (September 7-9)
Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):
Matt Garza vs. CC Sabathia, 1:05 p.m. and Andy Sonnanstine vs. A.J. Burnett, 7:05 p.m. (MLB Network); David Price vs. Chad Gaudin, 7:05 p.m.; Jeff Niemann vs. Joba Chamberlain, 7:05 p.m. (ESPN)