Wanna know why your Cleveland Indians are a last place team and have been such a disappointment over the last three years? I’ve got the answer.
After months and months of over-thinking, trying to understand why GM Mark Shapiro does what he does, watching game after game of maddeningly inconsistent baseball, and seeing our high priced (or soon to be high priced), talented players be sent packing for prospects, I’ve figured it out.
Take your two index fingers on each hand and point them in the direction of two men – Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner.
Now stay with me here. It’s not as cut and dry as you think, but its true.
Since the day Grady Sizemore was brought up in 2005 (only because the Juan Gonzalez part deux experiment lasted one whole game) through the 2007 season, you could easily argue that Sizemore and the man they called Pronk (I say “called” because to me, Pronk doesn’t exist anymore) were the two most important offensive forces in the Indians rise to prominence.
Grady was considered a five-tool, lock all-star (he made three) who had the good looks and could do it all. Your all-American boy. His stats, while very good, didn’t tell the full story of his game. His speed changed the game, as did his range in center field. Not to mention, Sizemore had the “it” factor. During a four-year run when he was making his reputation as one of the games stars on the come, his numbers were impressively consistent:
On to Hafner. Look, I am not going to go all revisionist history on you. When the Indians handed him a four year, $57 million extension, I was on board. Little did I know that before that extension kicked in (before the ’09 season), the player that signed that deal no longer existed as we once knew him.
When Pronk burst onto the scene in 2004, he was a beast. A mountain of a man who was an RBI machine. Between ’04-’07, the guy AVERAGED 31 homers and 108 RBI. He was one of the most feared hitters in the American League and seemed like the next Jim Thome; an aw-shucks, country personality that the town seemed to eat up.
I for one thought that the Indians had these two guys as cornerstone players they could build around with more young talent. Then came the injuries and the under-achieving.
The 2008 season saw the Indians come in as a chic World Series pick. While there were various reasons that team fell way short of expectations (Fausto Carmona’s drop, the horrific bullpen, an awful April), Travis Hafner’s shoulder problems killed the middle of the order. He only played in 57 games and hit a putrid .197 with five homers. The Indians came on strong at the end when the games didn’t count and finished 81-81. At the time, we chalked Hafner’s bad season up to the shoulder injuries. Then we were lucky enough to listen to the “Pronk is “back” and fully healthy verbal diarrhea during the winter of 2009.
Even during the magical ’07 season, Hafner’s decline was beginning. He dropped from 42 to 24 homers despite 90 more at bats. His batting average fell from .308 to .266 and his OPS went from .836 to .628.
The 2009 season was ripe with expectations again. The Indians brass went “all in” and stretched their payroll as far as it could go with the additions of Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa. We all know how that turned out. Another brutal start from an Eric Wedge team, coupled with another horrible bullpen and a group of young players who failed to take the next step ended in a 97 loss season and a fired manager.
Say what you want about what I just described above, but again, it was Hafner’s failures at the plate and Sizemore’s sub-par/injury marred season that were the real flies in the ointment. Hafner, who couldn’t play more than three games without resting the next (and he is a DH!), finished with 16 homers and 49 RBI’s in 338 AB’s. Grady, usually a picture of health, played in only 106 games hitting just .248 with 18 homers and 64 RBI’s in 436 AB’s.
Fast forward to 2010 and Grady was hitting a paltry .211/0 HR/13 RBI/128 AB’s before needing knee surgery which could cost him the rest of the year. After another winter of “Hafner is finally healthy” chatter, we’ve watched him put up pedestrian .264/4 HR/17 RBI/148 AB’s numbers. Is that what we can expect from a guy making $14 million and can’t play the field? Hafner has turned himself into Russell Branyan, except he can’t play anywhere and doesn’t have half the power Branyan does.
After reading what I just wrote, you may be asking “where are you going with all of this?” Here is the truth. If the Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore we saw during their four-year runs of greatness (Hafner ’04-’07, Sizemore ’05-’08) played the way they were supposed to, the Indians organization would not be what it is today.
You tell me how thing would have worked out if Grady’s 2008 season went in tandem with a Hafner .300/35 HR/120 RBI season? Think they would have been better than 81-81 and contended in a weak AL Central that the White Sox took with 89 wins? If that goes down, no way the Indians trade C.C. Sabathia in early July, Casey Blake in late July, and Paul Byrd in August. They ride it out and hang around in the race.
You can say “well then the Indians wouldn’t have Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta.” I say maybe they could have played in October again and built off that momentum for 2009. After all, they did think they were a contender during that winter, signing Wood and trading for DeRosa. Not to mention, with Brad Grant now running the draft, watching C.C. and Blake leave would have netted them first-round compensatory picks. Grant’s first two drafts look promising with Lonnie Chisenhaul and Alex White.
2009 also could have been much much different. The Indians still entered the season as a favorite in the division with the reigning Cy Young award winner in Cliff Lee heading the staff, a real closer in Kerry Wood, young studs in Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera charging hard, a star in Sizemore and the alleged return to health from Hafner. Sizemore and Hafner did not hold up their ends of the bargain and it cost the offense dearly.
Again, if these two both have their peak year seasons, it is contagious. The lack of offense problem disappears last season, the team hangs around in the race long enough to sell more tickets; not saying the house will be full, but enough will be sold that the Indians aren’t hemorrhaging money, thus the Lee and Victor Martinez deals aren’t needed so badly.
The ugly truth about those trades is that the team was losing so much money and everyone knew it, that they were at a clear disadvantage when negotiating the deals. Lee’s “haul” didn’t bring any of the Phillies top four prospects. The Red Sox didn’t have to part with Clay Buckholz, their top pitching prospect whom the Indians allegedly demanded straight up for Vic The Stik. Instead, they received a tweener (Justin Masterson) who the Sox couldn’t figure out, and a top prospect coming off Tommy John Surgery (Nick Hagadone, who has the chance to be the best of the lot).
Sorry to say it, but Hafner and Sizemore’s failures to live up to their hype/potential as franchise cornerstones have forced the organization’s hand.