Indians just not-ready-for-primetime players

michael-bourn-gettyGiven the Indians’ recent history with playing meaningful home games on a big stage—like the one Friday night— perhaps they should take over the title that was once owned by John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase and the like.

Don’t understand?

Rewind to nearly a year ago to the date, on July 5, 2013, when the Indians welcomed the Tigers before a sellout dollar-dog crowd in full throat. Just 1 ½ games behind Detroit and with their all-star ace Justin Masterson on the hill (it does seem like a long time ago), the Tribe looked to take advantage of the energy that had been created by its first non-opener sellout in two years.

As one can probably conclude given Cleveland’s lack of success with Detroit a season ago, the Indians were never in the game, Masterson was shelled and most of the 40,167 in attendance couldn’t wait for the game to end and the patriotic fireworks to commence.

Not long after the game ended, the parody Twitter account “Shapanetti”—a must follow for any Cleveland fan with the requisite ability to laugh at the team—sent a caustic tweet that simply read “no refunds.”

While the tweet was no doubt an attempt at levity following the loss, it has proved more prophetic: with each large crowd the Indians draw—no matter how sporadic these may be—the ticket holders can more than likely expect a losing performance.

Since the beginning of 2013, the Indians are 2-5 in front of sellout crowds. Since the beginning of 2012, they are 7-12 before 30,000-plus, including 1-3 this season. But what’s even more disturbing about this trend, however, is how the offense seems to shut down in these situations. If it weren’t for a Michael Brantley home run in the ninth of Friday’s 7-1 loss to Kansas City, the Tribe would have been blanked just as they were by Alex Cobb and the Rays in the Wild Card game last October.

No matter how tired the excuse may sound, some of this is good pitching and Yordano Ventura certainly fit that bill Friday. However, sometimes it seems like this team simply doesn’t deal well with pressure. Much has been made about the team’s issues with runners in scoring position and this was at the forefront again Friday, when Cleveland went 0-for-3 and left six men on base.

The point? This team just isn’t ready for primetime.

We all know how thoroughly frustrating it can be to watch this team struggle in clutch situations on the big stage before their own fans, but perhaps playing in front of big home crowds may be one of those things that improves each time you do it. Unfortunately, unlike those teams in the mid-90s, this squad doesn’t get much practice.

Revisiting recent free agent signings

Since the Dolan era began in earnest following the rebuilding period that began in 2002, much has been made—and it would seem rightfully so—about the lack of significant free-agent signings the club has made. However, these last couple years have illustrated that perhaps a more accurate narrative is that it’s not as if the front office hasn’t made any signings, but that they’ve made the wrong ones.

In the most recent “Hey Hoynsie” Plain Dealer reader mailbag column with Indians scribe Paul Hoynes, a reader questions why the front office inked a middling player like David Murphy (five home runs, .250/.316/.375) instead of a perennial slugger like Nelson Cruz (27, .278/.348/.566) despite comparable contracts. Hoynes noted, not surprisingly, that the Indians coveted Murphy’s defensive versatility—a persistent enthrallment of the front office’s.

In addition, Cruz, who ended up signing a one-year, $8 million deal late in the offseason, was coming off a PED suspension from his part in the Biogenesis scandal not to mention had a first-round draft pick compensation attached to him. But Murphy, who signed a two-year, $12 million pact in November, wasn’t Cleveland’s only offseason signing miss.

The Tribe also tried to resurrect the career of a formerly dominant closer in John Axford with a seemingly bargain price of $4.5 million for one year. Problem was, Axford was the wrong reclamation project.

Since promptly losing his closer role early this season, the Ax Man has done everything he can to further lose the faith of Terry Francona by pitching to a career-worst 1.63 WHIP while his fastball velocity has dipped to 94.2— second-lowest in his six-year career. Meanwhile, Francisco Rodriguez, who signed in late January for more than a million less with Milwaukee, is tied with Craig Kimbrel for the MLB lead in saves (27) and is sporting career bests of .874 WHIP and a 5.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Just to illustrate the point, let’s take a look at the major signings prior to last season when the Indians were among the most active teams in free agency when they dished out a combined $117 million for Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds. For comparison sake, I have contrasted each of these players with their most equivalent free-agent contemporary for that year (in terms position played, career production prior to 2013 and money signed for).

Swisher (four years, $56 million) vs. Torii Hunter (Tigers-two years, $26 million)

Since start of 2013: Swisher—791 at-bats, .230/.323/.391, 27 home runs, 90 RBIs

Hunter—875, .290/.319/.454, 27, 129

Bourn (four years, $48 million) vs. Angel Pagan (Giants-four years, $40 million)

Since start of 2013: Bourn—807 at-bats, .264/.314/.363, nine home runs, 30 stolen bases

Pagan—521, .294/.345/.413, eight, 20

Myers (one year, $7 million) vs. Scott Feldman (Cubs-one year, $6 million)

2013 season: Myers— 21 1/3 innings, 0-3 record, 8.02 ERA, 12 strikeouts

Feldman—181, 12-12, 3.86, 132

Reynolds (one year, $6 million) vs. Eric Chavez (Diamondbacks-one year, $ 3 million)

2013 season: Reynolds (with Cleveland)—335 at-bats, .215/.307/.373, 15 home runs, 48 RBIs, 123 strikeouts

Chavez—228, .281/.332/.478, 9, 44, 45

Note that I only took 2013 into consideration when comparing Myers and Reynolds, as they were only signed for that year, though neither remained with the Indians the entire season. Reynolds was designated for assignment in July while Myers suffered an injury in May and never recovered.

With the gift of hindsight, it isn’t completely fair to criticize Shapanetti (the real ones) for the underproduction of their free-agent signings. However, to say that the Indians are not getting the most bang for their buck would be like saying Joey Chestnut likes hot dogs.

And no doubt there are other variables at play in free agency, such as whether a player even wants to play in Cleveland or whether a player can play multiple positions, as was the case with Swisher, who was supposed to split his time between first and outfield. By contrast, Hunter has strictly been an outfielder his entire career.

But therein lies the problem: valuing versatility over production has proven a recipe for disaster in the Tribe’s recent free-agent signings.

In a sport that is predicated on player salaries and team payroll more than any other, the Tribe’s recent free-agent blunders are not valid excuses to stop searching via the open market. If anything, it should tell the front office that the “safest” and “most versatile” options are often the exact opposite and that the true “impact” signings can’t occur while sitting on its hands.

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