Say It Ain’t S(hapir)o

Scott discussed this a bit yesterday, but I wanted to add my $.02 the conversation regarding Mark Shapiro being “intrigued” by the Chicago Cubs GM job and what a potential move would mean to the Indians and, more specifically, me.

Broadly speaking, I just want to lay out why I believe that Shapiro has done an admirable job given his constraints, and that were he to move on, it would be a net loss for the franchise. Before we get there though, it’s probably important to distinguish between the job Shapiro had with the Indians versus the one that he now occupies.

From 2001 through 2010, Shapiro was the general manager of a team that was coming to terms with a new reality. Not only was there a new owner, a less-new stadium, and drastically different local revenue stream to deal with, but the fundamental economics of baseball had changed considerably from the Hart/Jacobs era of the ‘90s. TV contracts now mattered in ways they didn’t before, and as clubs in major markets were able to tap the considerable riches associated with this stream, payrolls across the sport began to mutate at a phenomenal pace. Teams with favorable cable contracts (typically those in the biggest media markets) were now able to spend six to eight times more than those in smaller areas–a disparity never before realized in any major American sport.

Shapiro was confronted with a landscape that would no longer afford his team the ability to spend in the upper quartile of Major League Baseball. Instead, he would have to work with a budget closer to the bottom quartile, while competing for the fan dollars of Clevelanders who now had their football team back, along with the most dynamic basketball player in the city’s history. In short, he was going to reign over a change that wasn’t his making, and if he didn’t handle it carefully, he could have handicapped the franchise for decades.

Faced with these challenges, Shapiro acknowledged the need to tear down the dynasty of his predecessors (a dynasty that he helped engineer through his work in the scouting department) and re-imagine the club in ways that other teams were just starting to grasp. In a move that alienated fans, he traded his staff ace for three unknown prospects, all the while reminding fans that he had a plan that would make the team competitive in only a few years. He traded a backup catcher to Texas for a slugger who would rank among the league leaders in OPS for three consecutive years. He developed the club’s most dominant home-grown ace since Bob Feller. He helped to signed a switch-hitting infielder from Venezuela who he thought he might turn into a catcher. By 2005, the team won 93 games. In 2007, no team in baseball won more games than Mark Shapiro’s Cleveland Indians. They had the 7th lowest payroll in baseball.

This isn’t to wallpaper over the mistakes he made during his tenure as GM. The David Dellucci/Jason Michaels platoon idea was an unmitigated disaster. The Hafner and Westbrook extensions set the club back considerably. The Sabathia trade looks to have netted us exactly one player who might become an average baseballing type player. Don’t get me started on the lost draft years. Masa Kobayashi still gives me night sweats. I wrote about 8,000 words last offseason about all the things that I thought Shapiro was doing wrong, and how his behavior was detrimental to the franchise. Without a doubt, the man has his flaws.

But what I think of Mark Shapiro’s tenure as GM—what I keep coming back to—is that I can’t think of someone who could have done much better with the cards he was dealt. By the same token, I can think of about 80 GMs who would (and did) do much worse for their teams. All GMs make mistakes. But can you think of one GM you believe would have done better than Shapiro over that ten year span? Certainly not Billy Beane (Shapiro would never tell his secrets to an author hoping to write a book that would single-handedly destroy his competitive advantage), not Jack Zdurencik (is there a more over-hyped GM who has consistently failed in almost every decision?), not Brian Cashman or Theo Epstein (who have shown no ability to recognize a sunk cost or, for that matter, a budget). Maybe Andrew Friedman of the Rays? He was a 24 year old mid-level analyst at Bear Stearns in 2001.

I guess what I’m saying is that I respect the job that Mark Shapiro did as the GM of the Indians. His strategy of building with young, cheap players is one I mostly agree with, and while I might differ with his tactics of implementing that strategy from time to time, there’s no one else I could have imagined doing a better job during his GM reign.

Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that Shapiro is no longer the team’s GM. Beginning in 2011, Shapiro took over as the team president, leaving the GM responsibilities to his former assistant Chris Antonetti. I don’t think any of us knew quite what this transition would entail until we saw it, and after the howling died down about him not deserving the promotion, Shapiro went on to pursue what I consider to be some fairly effective and creative strategies to grow the brand. For instance, he’s made a consistent effort to make the stadium experience on game day more fan-friendly, adjusting ticket prices downward and increasing the number of fireworks nights and Kids Fundays. He created Snow Days to attract more people to the stadium in the off-season and create an additional revenue stream for the club (yes, it lost money in its inaugural year, as these things tend to do; the belief is that it will begin to turn a profit this year). He brought an NCAA hockey game to Progressive Field, booked summer concerts on off-days, and designated a suite for users of Social Media in an effort to expand the reach of his club. All this, while admirably allowing Antonetti to do his job in what appears to be a fairly unmolested manner.

In short, it seems to me that Mark Shapiro has been pretty good at the two posts he’s held for the last decade or so. I know it’s tempting to judge people more glibly than I’m doing here. It’s true that he’s not won a championship. It’s true that he ripped out the heart of the fanbase in 2009. It’s true that we’re still waiting. For some, that’s enough to classify his tenure as a failure.

But that doesn’t change what I see as an inescapable conclusion: if Shapiro leaves, we’d be losing an asset. We are a better organization for having Mark Shapiro, and I’m not sure we always stop to notice how bad things could have gotten were it not for his stewardship. This is not, I understand, the sort of argument that inspires people, as another President is currently discovering (“I know you guys are hurting, but if it weren’t for me, it’d be so much worse…”), but that doesn’t necessarily make arguments like these any less valid. Ask a Pirates fan how crummy it feels to win 93+ games twice in a decade, while poised to compete for a division title for the next several years.

So I’ll just say it. I hope he stays. We need as many smart people in our front office as possible, and no matter what sort of problems I’ve always had with Shapiro (and probably will always have), I still think he’s one of the savvier executives in the game. In a system that has become increasingly unfair for teams like ours, he’s one of the few people who can, at times, tilt the scale in our favor.

That’s not something you celebrate losing. It’s something you lament.

Photo Credit: Chuck Crow, PD

  • Ezzie

    On a slightly related topic, I saw the Moneyball trailer today and it made me think of Shapiro, who comes off positively and sharply in the book. I agree that Shapiro has done a rather good job in an industry that relies on so many human variables that even the best Sabermetrics guys can’t predict all that well (though certainly they are a step up).

    I’m also kind of curious if he’ll be mentioned in the movie.

  • NJ

    Jon- Complete agreement. As always, very well written and argued. Could have used some more stats and acronyms though.

    I’d add – not sure if Shapiro deserves the credit for it, but the “What if?” ad campaign, while somewhat annoying after the millionth time, has been awesome. A stroke of genius really, the way it honors the past while looking to the future. And with the youthful composition of the club, someone very smart somewhere realized that it’d one day go from generic marketing slogan to actual, legit question. Good advertising that. Best ad campaign in Cleveland sports that I can remember.

  • Narm

    Absolutely perfect write-up.

  • mgbode

    note on the ‘secrets’ – Shapiro leaves opens the doors to more of those ‘secrets’ getting out and another team evaluating talent the same way that we do (assuming we keep the FO mostly intact).

    that’s not a good thing.

  • Scott

    Great stuff, sir.

  • dwhit110

    Good stuff. Complete agreement.

  • JM

    Nice to finally see people defending Shapiro. He kept his word when the rebuilding started in 2002. By 2005 they were contenders and in 2007 they were a game away from the World Series.

  • JNeids

    @1 – just saw a commercial where brad pitt is waiting on a phone call and his secretary buzzes in and says “Mr. Shapiro on the phone” and he picks up and says “Hey Mark!” So at least he’s got that going for him, which is nice

  • Ghost To Most

    Very nice post. In spite of his flaws Shapiro is an asset to the organization, and were better off with him than without him.

  • Harv 21

    “I can’t think of someone who could have done much better with the cards he was dealt.”

    My conclusion as well. Not perfect but his margins of error have at times been comically small. The Lee deal, specifically its timing, will stick in my craw forever but I cut him slack because I’m convinced his leverage was affected by a payroll dump ordered from above. Interestingly, he didn’t do so great on the rare occasions he was given some walking around money.

    He’s still a relatively young guy and must want to try his hand some place else where he’d have a better chance of building something of consistent quality. Someone else posted that the Cubs’s ownership has a meddling problem. If so, doubt Shapiro would head there unless he’s desperate to get out, given the good environments he seems to have carefully structured here for management and players.

  • OmegaKing

    I get the crux of what you’re saying here…but, I just don’t think you can gloss over the Sabathia and Lee trades and say “Oh well, he missed on those.” Those are the two most significant trades they made in the last 5 years of his tenure, and for all intents and purposes, he whiffed on them both. It’s nice to credit him with some of the more-minor deals for Hafner and Martinez (admittedly, he was above-average in his success with those deals), but I can’t ignore totally missing on those trades.

    That combined with the terrible, terrible drafting have left this organization with a total of NOTHING in the minors to be excited about at this time.

  • NJ

    @11- I don’t get the “nothing in the minors” complaint. Yeah, we don’t have many AA/AAA type guys ready to move into the majors now, but that’s because they’re already here. Brantley, Marson, Santana, Chisenhall, Cabrera, Carrera, Phelps, Valbuena, Carassco, and Perez were all 25 or under this year. Add to that the “old” guys at 26-28 and I just don’t see what more we should expect to have in the minors at this point.

    As for missing on the Lee/Sabathia trades: what other deals were out there for Shapiro to make? I don’t know, but I’m curious.

  • Harv 21

    @OmegaKing: ah, the drafting, as soon as I read that I felt like withdrawing my comment. You could argue that in this market competent drafting and player development are way more important than trades, that a steady flow of your own good players is the only chance to be consistently competitive. And Shapiro has set up the farm his way, with his algorithms guiding and overseeing the scouts, with his selected guys running it. The player selection and development are his, and it’s been epically bad. Great point. I would downgrade Shapiro from a solid “B” to a “C.”

  • NJ

    Another point about the Lee trade: I don’t think Marson gets the respect he deseves.

    Sampling size and all, but in just 68 games his WAR (a counting stat) is around 1.0. And surprisingly, some of that does come from his bat. Combined with his defense that makes him an every day option next year at catcher if they decide to move Santana to first.

    More games and more ABs would make him as good as Brantley, at least from a WAR pov. At 25 and cheap, a good guy to have on any team

  • NJ

    Blatant Shapiro apologist that I am – yes, he’s drafted poorly.

    Do you think he’s learned anything from that in his ten years here? Do you think this club approaches drafting the same way it did in ’01? Based on the money they’ve spent the last few years, I think those answers are obvious.

    So imagine this team WITH improved drafting.

  • OmegaKing

    NJ – I would agree that what was in the minors is now in the majors. We have some + players in Chisenhall, Kipnis, and Santana, but a team with the limitations of the Indians need to have a steady stream of talent – not a one-time shot in the arm. We’re probably 3 years away from being able to re-supply the major league starting roster (I’m focusing primarily on position players) with any more talent from our minor league system. That’s not how we can stay in contention.

    You know that as contracts come up that will cost us money, we’re going to trade the Shin-Soo Choo’s of this organization and re-stock mid- and lower-level minor league talent, but I see at least a 2 to 3 year vaccuum of talent in the organization now – assuming of course that we didn’t miss on this year’s draft (which is always a concern).

  • Narm

    The drafting complaint was valid three years ago, but after ’08 Mirabelli was taken off drafts and we’ve actually done quite well. If you are excited about the 2012 team, a lot of that is due to Kipnis and Chisenhall – both drat picks under Shapiro. The Ubaldo trade was only possible because of good selections in White and Pomeranz. There is also a lot of depth in the lower levels because of some stellar drafting the last few years.

    The drafts were epically bad until 2008 – but I don’t see how anyone can still be using that as a complaint with the recent influx of talent.

  • OmegaKing

    I recognize your point, Narm. My question is, now that we’ve pillaged the minors for both the intended purpose and to trade pitchers for a pitcher, where is the talent going to come from next year and the year after (again, I’m specifically keeping an eye on our non-pitchers)? As I said, a franchise like this needs to be able to keep rotating major league-caliber players in from their system, ready to take the place of those who move on or are traded. We don’t have that ability now, and likely won’t for the next few years (and, you can question freely whether the trade for Jimenez was worth the cost).

    So, even with that said, how can 2 years of drafts from Shapiro outweigh the first 6 or 7 years of awful ones, especially when discussing the body of work that Shapiro has in Cleveland?

  • NJ

    How many teams rotate in ML caliber players year in and year out?

    For all intents and purposes, if we had a better ML roster, Chiz and Kipnis would be ’12 rookies. Same thing for Carassco (not a draft pick, I know).

    I just don’t see why we need a stacked minor league system in ’12 and ’13. If our guys play like they should, we’ll be set at the major league level.

    And this was always the plan: windows of contention and all.

  • Doc1188

    Jon, very good article.

    Agreed, given Shapiro’s circumstances/constraints he’s done an OK job. And obviously, as everyone has been saying the drafting approach (at least from 01 – 07) has been bad. Did Shapiro have the final say on the drafts?

    I think Shapiro has been able to compensate the bad drafts by signing some “fill in role players (Casey Blake, Paul Byrd, Ronnie Belliard, Kevin Millwood, Scott Elarton)” to the core players and making good trades (Choo, Asdrubal, Masterson, J.Smith, Sizemore, Hafner, Lee, Brantley, C.Perez). But still, the Indians could hav benefited from good drafts.

  • Harv 21

    you know, guys, it’s a little early to assume the recent batch of position players are building blocks. I like their look, but Chiz hasn’t shown much yet, Kipnis has played a small portion of one season, and the jury is out as to when or even whether Santana has the gray matter to harness that stroke. Cory Snyder, Jody Garut, Ryan Garko, Barfield and how many others had nice debuts and turned out to be just meh guys.

    The majors are a big meat grinder where teams get a book on you and attack a weakness until you adjust. Way early to say Shapiro figured this position player thing out. We might easily end up with one Kevin Kouzmanoff-type, a decent major leaguer but certainly nothing to remember.

  • Jon

    Shapiro is not only mentioned in “Moneyball”, he’s a minor character in the movie, from what I understand.

    And yes, those drafts were poor. Blaming Shapiro for them is probably fair, because even though he wasn’t running the draft boards, he stood by (and still stands by) Mirabelli, whose talent evaluation continues to be….perplexing.

    This is from the 2010 Indians media guide regarding Mirabelli’s contributions to the Indians (h/t Cousineau):

    “From 2000-07 [Mirabelli] coordinated and directed the club’s endeavors in the June First Year Player Draft. During his tenure as the head of scouting the Indians drafted players such as Jeremy Sowers, Ryan Garko, Trevor Crowe, Tony Sipp, Ben Francisco, Aaron Laffey, Beau Mills, Jordan Brown, Chris Gimenez, David Huff & Jensen Lewis to name a few.”

    Read that one more time, because you may have missed it: that’s supposed to be evidence of a job well done. Crikey.

  • nj

    @21 – You can just as easily go the other way and say maybe some or most of these guys figure it out and end up stars.

    It’s a crap shoot. And Shapiro may not always win, but at least he makes sound, logical bets.

  • Harv 21

    @nj: that’s my point, it can go any way. That’s why it’s too early to currently claim that Shapiro oversaw awful position player drafting until ’08 but it’s better now.

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