As the Cleveland Indians slide deeper and deeper into mediocrity this season, you can see the fan base breaking into three distinct camps. The first advocates trading C.C. Sabathia. The second advocates trading C.C. Sabathia RIGHT NOW. The third has lost interest in the whole damn thing and just wants Browns season to start.
The fact that virtually no one believes that Sabathia will be re-signed speaks volumes to how effective general manager Mark Shapiro has been over the years in slyly lowering fans' expectations after initially promising something that seems impossible in retrospect: a consistent contender.
Shapiro blew up the team in 2002 when he traded Bartolo Colon. It was a bold and audacious move. Recall that when the Colon trade was consummated, Shapiro was candid about his intentions: “This very clearly and very definitively demonstrates that we are moving into a formal rebuilding process with players that we all feel are going to be here in the ‘04 and ‘05 seasons which are when we feel we can start to emerge as a contender again. From the start of the offseason, we stated that if the difficult goal of transitioning and contending was not successful, we would have to enter into a more dramatic and profound rebuilding process. That is the juncture we find ourselves today.”
As unpopular as that trade was at the time, Shapiro sold it by staking out his part in the bargain: the team needed to take a step back in order to re-capture the past and re-build back into a team that would consistently contend. It sounded difficult but reasonable. In practice, it was naïve.
Exactly when the storyline changed is a little harder to peg, but clearly Shapiro realized his mistake and changed course by embarking on a different sort of sell job the last several years, one aimed at convincing the fans that Cleveland is a second-tier city, at least when it comes to major league baseball. Fans have been told so often that the economic realities of this market make it difficult to invest in Sabathia or any other premier free agent, it’s now accepted fact.
The frustrating part of this story line is that there’s a healthy amount of truth to it. Slightly below the surface, Shapiro is really saying that it’s not the near term money a free agent gets that’s the problem. It’s the millions on the back end of the contract that will still get paid even when the free agent has long outlived his usefulness either because of an injury or ineffectiveness or both. Backing up Shapiro are reams of examples, particularly of pitchers. No team likes paying out dead money, but some teams are in a better position than others to withstand the hit. The Indians aren’t one of them.