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