Part I: Pitching Attrition
With the announcement that Billy Traber is going to have elbow ligament replacement surgery (or Tommy John surgery), the number of healthy young arms that were in contention for the 2003 rotation dwindled to exactly 3 (Jason Davis, Cliff Lee, and Jake Westbrook). For my purposes, Jeremy Guthrie was not going to be in the picture in 2003 (and he wasn't), and Jason Stanford wasn't on the radar. Brian Tallet and Billy Traber both will probably be out the entire 2004 season (Tommy John surgery), and Ricardo Rodriguez was traded in to the Rangers for Ryan Ludwick.
Thankfully, the Indians have enough pitching prospects that they can afford some attrition, which almost always happens with young pitchers. They will have another wave of starting pitching on the way, which includes Kyle Denney, Jeremy Guthrie, and Francisco Cruceta, among others. Those three will probably start the season in Buffalo, and will see Cleveland before the 2004 season is over.
What does this teach us? Nothing new, really. The need for pitching (and lots of it) has always been a staple of baseball wisdom, and it's still painfully relevant today. Pitchers (and baseball players in general) are not sure things, so diversification is a necessity if you want to be sure of having a continuous supply of pitching.
Back to Traber, for a moment. Looking over his innings and pitch counts, there's nothing the Indians did that really stands out. He threw 111 innings this season, hardly a sign of being overworked. Talking to the media after the surgery announcement, Traber made mention to the fact that the elbow had always been an issue, and I think his delivery also may have been a contributing factor as well. Regardless, losing Traber for 1 season at the least is a blow to the staff, but at this juncture the Indians won't be mortally wounded thanks to their pitching depth.
Part II: The PD Series on Shapiro
If you haven't read the first two articles on Mark Shapiro and the Indians' front office, I suggest you do so now. The series homepage is here. I'm not going to review the series, but I'm going to take the opportunity to review Shapiro's strengths and weaknesses.
Major-League Free Agents
This is probably his weakest area, as the majority of his signings have turned out badly. I can safely say that Ricky Gutierrez, Brady Anderson, and Jason Bere were probably his worst signings. Matt Lawton has thus far been a bad investment, and is probably untradable right now. Re-signing Bob Wickman was unecessary given hindsight. The only real good signing two years into his tenure as GM has been Brian Anderson. Shane Spencer wasn't really a bad signing, given his intended use and contract.
Has Shapiro learned from his 2002 gaffes? We probably won't really know until the Indians start signing free agents with a mindset for contention, which probably won't happen until after the 2004 season. He might sign a player or two this offseason, but I seriously doubt they'll be anything but stopgaps or bench players.
Minor-league free agents
This year especially, Shapiro's minor-league signings were pretty good. Casey Blake is the first guy you think about, and he's provided a replacement-level third baseman for the league minimum. Rafael Betancourt was also a very good find as a back end bullpen arm. Kaz Tadano was probably Shapiro's best signing, though, as the Indians acquired the best college arm in Japan for a standard minor-league contract. Yes, there were some other forces at work with the Tadano signing (which you can read here), but he was available to every other club for the same price. Other notable minor-league free agents: Jason Boyd, Chad Durbin, and Paul Rigdon. Durbin is probably has the biggest upside, as he's been injured.
The trades made in 2002 have provided the backbone of the rebuilding effort. Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Ryan Ludwick (via Ricardo Rodriguez), Francisco Cruceta, Travis Hafner, Coco Crisp, and Derrick Van Dusen (via Marshall McDougall) have all been brought into the system through veteren-for-prospect trades in 2002. While it's not practical to judge trades so soon after they've made, at the very least Shapiro has rebuilt the Indians' minor-league system into the best in the majors by making these trades. With today's trade climate, the fact that he was still able to get this amount of talent has to be commended.
Shapiro has only made two waiver claims of any substance; Jack Cressend from Minnesota, and Nick Bierbrodt from Tampa Bay. Cressend has provided some depth in the bullpen when it was desperately needed, and Bierbrodt has yet to contribute in Cleveland, although he's capable of contributing next year.
The only player Shapiro has lost through waivers was Earl Snyder, who hit .255/.299/.454 for Pawtucket of the International League this year.
Shapiro's strong suit, as that's where his experience is. The Indians, along with their talent, run a very good player development system. The drafting in the past couple years has looked good on the surface (as with trades, it's virually impossible to judge a draft until at least 5 years down the road). This year the Indians organization lead the majors in minor-league winning percentage.
So, in summary, Shapiro's weaknesses seem to be evaluating major-league talent (as in free agents). This year's crop of free agents (Anderson (the pitcher), Spencer, Bere) fared better than last year's (Lawton, Gutierrez, Anderson (the outfielder)), but he still needs to improve in this area. Other than that, he's done a very good job as GM, considering the situation he entered into.
I'll start to get into more player profiles after the season ends this week. Look for another column on Monday.