Promising Indians go from first to worst

"We got beat by a great team. We've got a lot of young guys on this team. This wasn't the end of something. It was the beginning of something."
-- Cleveland first baseman Ryan Garko after the Indians, one win from the World Series, blew a 3-games-to-1 lead against Boston in the 2007 American League Championship Series.

The beginning of what, exactly?

Garko, a thoughtful and soft-spoken Stanford graduate, never could have envisioned the Indians' going 37-53 to begin the 2008 season, rendering the second half irrelevant, or CC Sabathia wearing a Milwaukee Brewers uniform by the All-Star break.

He didn't foresee Travis Hafner hurting his shoulder, Jhonny Peralta's power declining so markedly, or pitchers Fausto Carmona and Rafael Perez, cornerstones of the 96-win team in 2007, going south so quickly. For the sake of accuracy, Perez actually traveled 142 miles southwest to Triple-A Columbus after a demotion in May, and Carmona was last seen undergoing a ground-floor remake in Arizona.

Garko couldn't have predicted the great bullpen disaster of 2008 or a similar meltdown in 2009 after general manager Mark Shapiro made relief pitching a priority during the hot stove season. With the Kerry Wood and Masa Kobayashi signings, injuries to Joe Smith and Rafael Betancourt, and Jensen Lewis' regression, Indians fans have learned to watch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings through splayed fingers.

So here's where things stand: The Indians, a fashionable AL Central pick in March, are 12 games behind first-place Detroit and last in the division. Shapiro can't make it through a day without answering another question about manager Eric Wedge's job security, and he began the process of selling off short-term assets for long-term value when he traded infielder Mark DeRosa to St. Louis for reliever Chris Perez on Saturday.

If this comes as any consolation to beleaguered Tribe fans, Shapiro is convinced the picture isn't as grim as April, May and June make it appear.

"I truly believe in my heart that we're going to be back in the playoffs again in the next three years," Shapiro said. "As much as I feel [the fans'] pain, I can't get caught up in the emotion of the history here. I don't believe we're going to be a bad team. I don't believe this is the beginning of another 40 years of losing. I believe this is a bad season. That's what it is."

The pain is more acute because the Indians have such a knack for snatching despair from the jaws of exhilaration. After putting Boston on the mat in '07, the Indians sent their staff ace to the mound for the clincher. But Sabathia, too keyed up by the stakes, threw a clunker against Josh Beckett. The series returned to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox outscored the Indians 23-4 in games 6 and 7 to advance to the World Series.

"Any time you have the opportunity to advance in the postseason and get that close, there's some level of disappointment when you don't reach your ultimate goal of winning the World Series," said Chris Antonetti, Cleveland assistant GM. "We valued that at the time. We understood that for teams in our market size, with our resources, it's exceptionally challenging to repeat and sustain that level of success.'"

For all their problems this season, the Indians have no plans to rip it up and start anew right now. So unless somebody overwhelms Shapiro with a package for Cliff Lee or Victor Martinez, the Indians will try to fill their holes, put this season's disappointment behind them and compete for a playoff berth in 2010.

There's nothing like a 31-46 record to elicit a little introspection. Here are some of the long- and short-term realities Shapiro and Antonetti must confront over the next few months and the offseason.

The pitching problem

Hafner's $57 million contract looks exorbitant in hindsight, but he still has a .959 OPS in 31 games this season. Even with Hafner and Grady Sizemore's missing considerable time because of injuries, the Indians rank third in the AL in runs.

The problem is pitching. Cleveland has one starter, Lee, with an ERA of less than 5.00. The Indians' staff has issued 310 walks, most in the majors, and has given up 88 home runs, seventh most in the game.

How bad is the bullpen? The Indians have been outscored 66-32 in the eighth inning, and the relievers have allowed 58 of 140 inherited runners to score.

And there simply is no depth for when things go wrong. The Toronto Blue Jays have survived an incredible run of pitching injuries with help from a Scott Richmond here and a Ricky Romero and Brian Tallet there, but the Indians can't find anyone to carry the burden behind Lee.

Which leads to our second issue …

A break in the pipeline

The Brandon Phillips trade to Cincinnati notwithstanding, it's hard to argue with Shapiro's trade history. He acquired Hafner from Texas for Ryan Drese and Einar Diaz, stole Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo from Seattle for Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard, and acquired elite catching prospect Carlos Santana from the Dodgers for Casey Blake last July. And what more can be said about the deal that brought Sizemore, Lee and Phillips from Montreal for Bartolo Colon? It was a classic heist.

The Indians have been successful in Latin America, and while you can criticize some of Shapiro's recent free-agent signings, Jason Michaels, David Dellucci and even Wood don't have the type of contracts that are going to strangle the team for years to come.

So what's the problem? In the spectrum of player acquisition options, Cleveland's lack of success early in the draft stands front and center.

Since 2000, Cleveland has had 19 first-round or supplemental picks. The most successful, pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, has a 23-24 record in the majors, and all of that has come with Baltimore.

Beyond Guthrie, the landscape is essentially bare. First-rounders Corey Smith, Alan Horne, Daniel Denham and Brad Snyder did nothing. Matt Whitney, Michael Aubrey and Adam Miller got hurt. And it's too soon to tell what Trevor Crowe, Beau Mills, David Huff and Lonnie Chisenhall will contribute over the long haul.

Cleveland management contends the early misses are offset in part by some later "finds" that bring the team's overall performance closer to average. Garko, Lewis, Ben Francisco, Aaron Laffey and the departed Ryan Church and Luke Scott are among the players who fit the description. Still, there's not a Ryan Howard, Justin Morneau, Josh Johnson or Jonathan Papelbon in the bunch.

It doesn't help that the Indians rarely pick among the top handful of teams in the first round, where the sure things are found. Cleveland has picked in the top 10 only once this decade. In 2004, the Indians had Jered Weaver and Stephen Drew atop their board but passed on both players for financial reasons and selected Jeremy Sowers, a Vanderbilt product who is 33-14 with a 2.47 ERA in the minors and 14-24/5.18 in the majors.

Some draft watchers think the Indians are too stat-focused and select too many corner infielders, outfielders and DH types rather than athletes and middle-of-the-diamond players. But sometimes it's more about the money than the draft philosophy.

In 2005, the Indians drafted Washington high school pitcher Tim Lincecum in the 42nd round, but ownership wasn't willing to buck the commissioner's office and spend the $1 million or so required to sign him. Think Lincecum wouldn't look good in that rotation right now?

Managing expectations

The Shapiro-Antonetti tandem gets more love from national media outlets than, say, White Sox GM Kenny Williams, who is perceived as arrogant and overly blunt. Is it because the Cleveland guys are media favorites? Perhaps. But their front office peers also regard Shapiro and Antonetti as extremely bright, people-oriented, innovative thinkers.

"If you gave Mark an organization with the resources of the Red Sox or the Yankees and the ability to paper over the occasional mistake we all make, he would absolutely run a club that would be a force year in and year out," an AL executive said. "It becomes far more difficult in a market like Cleveland, where your mistakes can linger or derail you for years to come. The margin of error is far thinner."

The Indians' Opening Day payroll of $81.5 million this year was almost dead even with the payroll in 2002, Shapiro's first season as general manager. Surprisingly, the cost-conscious Minnesota Twins spent more money than Cleveland on player salaries each year from 2003 through 2007.

Indians fans might blanch when Shapiro says he expects the team back in the playoffs in the "next three years," but that's the way life works for teams in Cleveland's economic stratum. Beyond the big boys in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, most clubs live in a world in which sporadic postseason appearances are the reality.

During Shapiro's tenure as GM, the Indians have a .503 winning percentage, two 90-win seasons and one postseason appearance. The Twins and Florida Marlins have made better use of their resources, as a rule. But Cleveland's performance looks pretty good compared to those of Texas, Seattle, Detroit and several other teams that have outspent the Indians by a wide margin and have less to show for it.

The Pythagorean problem

The Indians have been outscored by only 27 runs this season, but they're 15 games below .500. That makes them underperformers, based on the Bill James Pythagorean theorem of win expectations.

That's nothing new for a franchise that's posted fewer wins than its run differential would suggest several times in recent years.

The Pythagorean disconnect generally is attributed to three things: the manager, the bullpen or luck. Since no team can be so unlucky that often, the conversation inevitably leads back to Wedge and the relievers.

The Indians need to take a hard look at their underachieving bullpens. Is it a question of evaluation or usage? Did the Indians misjudge Lewis based on his 66 innings last season? Did Wedge burn out Perez with overuse in 2007 and 2008? Bullpen performances are the hardest things in baseball to predict, but when they're bad enough to wreck entire seasons, it's a problem.

The burden of history

When a city's fan base is "traumatized," as Shapiro calls it, disappointments are cumulative. Every Kerry Wood blown save is somehow linked to Earnest Byner's goal-line fumble, "The Drive" or Charles Nagy's failure against Edgar Renteria in 1997. The sense of desperation and fatalism can become an emotional anchor. Just ask Boston Red Sox players what the atmosphere was like pre-2004.

In Cleveland, the measuring stick for the Indians remains the great John Hart-Mike Hargrove-Charlie Manuel teams of the late '90s. The Indians averaged 93 wins a year from 1995 through 2001, made the playoffs six times, and featured the likes of Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle.

During that span, the Tribe made history with 455 straight sellouts at Jacobs Field. But those days are long gone. The Indians finished 12th in the majors in attendance in 2002. They haven't ranked higher than 21st since, and this season, they're 27th with 22,557 a game. The reality is, Cleveland is an economically depressed town, and it's a grind for the Indians to sell tickets, win or lose.

"Everything we do now is compared to what we accomplished then," Shapiro said. "If you're around our team, that's what you feel. It's not 2007. It's '94 to '01.

"That was a very special and unique juncture in Indians history that should be cherished, but it's not a fair barometer. We had payrolls in the top five, and we had a unique set of circumstances. A new stadium. Not winning for 40 years. No football team, a poor basketball team and an economy on the uptick. All those things created a very special level of revenues and a very special juncture in Indians baseball."

This year is special only for the trade speculation it's engendered, the anguish it's created and the questions it's produced. It's not even July, and the Cleveland front office and fan base already are looking ahead to 2010. The real-life version of "Major League'' will have to wait.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.