It's a 'bittersweet' postseason for Indians brass as CC and Lee shine
The small-market Indians traded CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee for prospects
Sabathia and Lee potentially could meet in Game 1 of the World Series
Frank McCourt's firing of Jamie looks like only the start of a lengthy court battle
Cleveland came within one victory of reaching the 2007 World Series. That must seem like a long time ago to the Indians, who are currently rebuilding around youth and interviewing an extremely varied final four of managerial candidates (more on that later). Meanwhile, they can't help but notice the Indians' influence on the 2009 postseason. In one obvious way, this has been an Indian October.
Ex-Indians aces CC Sabathia (now a Yankee) and Cliff Lee (now a Phillie) are perhaps the two most important players and easily the best pitchers this postseason. They are also exactly the type of dominating starters that are vital to a team's October chances. Sabathia and Lee potentially could meet in Game 1 of the World Series, yet another reminder of what could have been for the small-market Tribe.
"Bittersweet," is the way Indians GM Mark Shapiro describes his emotions watching the ex-Indians thrive in the postseason.
Sabathia and Lee, the only two starters with multiple wins this postseason, have been absolutely dominant. Sabathia is 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA, Lee 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA. Both pitchers have 20 strikeouts and three walks in their three starts apiece. If the Yankees wrap things up in the ALCS on Saturday, Sabathia and Lee will open the World Series as opposing starters (though the Angels still have something to say about the Yankees' participation).
"You wish they could be doing it in an Indians uniform," Shapiro said of Sabathia and Lee.
Each pitcher won a Cy Young Award with the Indians. But their tenure in Cleveland was never going to be long-lasting. Shapiro chalks that up to the "realities of the business." In other words, they are just too good to stay into their free-agent years.
Shapiro said it's been so long he couldn't recall exactly what the Indians offered Sabathia for him to stay in Cleveland, but one source back in the spring of 2008 pegged the figure at $72 million for four years, which turned out to be $89 million shy of Sabathia's $161 million Yankees haul. Shapiro did say the other day that the Indians understood that their offer was probably "unrealistic," but the franchise clearly loved Sabathia and wanted to give it whatever small shot they had. The Indians, though, long have had an unwritten policy against paying any one player an inordinate percentage of their small-market payroll, and Sabathia's true market value would have made the Indians' payroll about the most lopsided in baseball.
In the case of Lee, the Indians never made an offer. Lee put together a stunning 22-4 Cy Young season in 2008, and some baseball people saw it as something of a mirage at the time. (Those people may have been wrong.) In any case, the Indians decided against making another unrealistic offer to a pitcher coming off a Cy Young season when they met in the spring of this season, so they tabled the talks.
Lee's market value wasn't nearly as high as Sabathia's the spring before, as Lee's poor 2007 season raised an issue to some about whether 2007 or 2008 was the aberration. Plus, with an extra year to go before free agency (the Indians held a $9 million option on Lee for 2010), Lee couldn't expect free-agent market value at that point. Nonetheless, the Indians made no offer, as perhaps they themselves wondered whether 2008 was the aberration. (This spring, another Indians person did suggest to me that they didn't view Lee as being in the class of Sabathia, though that isn't exactly an insult.)
Considering the Indians still held that 2010 option on Lee, the Indians entered the 2009 season with no real intention to trade him. However, when they got off to a terrible start for a second straight year, the "realities of the business" hit them.
Shapiro said he wasn't absolutely ordered to trade Lee and hitting star Victor Martinez, but apparently it was made clear by ownership that if they kept those two players, payroll restrictions would prevent any significant moves to enhance their 2010 roster. "We probably could have made the choice to bring Cliff and Victor back, but we would have no ability to add at all," is how Shapiro put it.
So the choice became whether to stay status quo with a floundering team or try to regroup. They chose to regroup. As they always do, the Indians' intellectual front-office folks examined their options from all sides. And they decided what seemed obvious: It would make no sense to return basically the same team in 2010 following the disaster that was '09. So Lee and Martinez were going to go, and they were going to do whatever they could to enhance their future. They wound up trading for a hoist of under-25 prospects with a heavy emphasis on pitchers.
The Indians' many dealings also helped determine a lot of contending teams' fates. Martinez went to the Red Sox, and he enhanced their lineup and turned Jason Varitek into a backup. Rafael Betancourt improved the Rockies' bullpen. Mark DeRosa lengthened the Cardinals' lineup. Ryan Garko made less impact with the Giants.
Lee and Martinez were the clear commodities of the group, and for Lee it came down to the Phillies and Dodgers, the two teams that would meet in the NLCS. The Indians and Dodgers talked extensively, but those talks never seemed as serious to the Indians because the best L.A. could offer were prospects Cleveland saw as a couple years away from the big leagues. Cleveland wasn't about to give up on 2010, so they concentrated on Philadelphia.
The Phillies had been talking extensively to the Blue Jays about Roy Halladay, but didn't want to part with the Jays' sky-high request of J.A. Happ, Kyle Drabek and Dominic Brown. And when Toronto declined an offer of Happ, Carlos Carrasco, Michael Taylor and Jason Donald for Halladay, the Phils wisely switched to concentrate on Lee. That call may have won them a second straight pennant.
Eventually the Indians accepted the Phillies' offer of pitchers Jason Knapp and Carrasco plus infielder Donald and catcher Lou Marson. One competing executive said the Indians did "OK" under the circumstances, but said he sees Donald as "a solid, not great player who'll hit .270 in the big leagues," further opined that Marson "can hit but his throwing isn't great," and that while Carrasco has talent, he wonders if he'll reach his full potential.
The Indians were hurt in all their dealings by a newly increased valuation placed on prospects (an "overvaluation" Shapiro called it at the time, and I would agree). And they were also stung when Knapp, perhaps the best prospect in the deal, needed microfracture shoulder surgery, knocking him out of action for a full year. In any case, the Indians probably felt they had little choice. Shapiro said, "We got two guys who could probably start for us next year as opposed to two draft choices."
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