Fire Wedge? That's The Wrong Answer
Eric Wedge
Eric Wedge
Indians Ink
Posted May 10, 2009


Frustrated Indians fans are speaking out, calling for manager Eric Wedge to be fired. That's what everybody does when their favorite team is in a funk. It's gotta be the fault of one guy, right? It can't possibly be because the 25 often over-rated players on the roster are not performing up to par. It's that one guy causing all the pitchers' walks, batters' strikeouts and fielders' miscues.

Pinheaded pundits who call themselves journalists, yet are never seen at games will be calling for Wedge's head. That leads to their audience getting more riled because that's the information they are getting.

There is a lot more to the Indians' poor record than whether or not Wedge grows a beard or shaves it off.

Believe it or not, a lot of fans insist there is a direct correlation to the length of the manager's facial hair and the ballclub's won-loss record. How do you rationalize with people like that?

You don't.

But in showing how irrational reporters can be, too, here's an attempt to do so:

The 2009 Cleveland Indians are not a very athletic squad, don't have an intimidating lineup, nor do they have an imposing pitching staff. That's a fact, given past performances of players on the current roster.

That this group was assembled and put on the field in hopes of contending in the AL Central is the responsibility of several entities, certainly including Wedge. In truth, the buck stops with general manager Mark Shapiro.

He had plenty of help, however, from his assistant Chris Antonetti, Wedge and the big-league coaching staff, scouting director John Mirabelli and a lot of other front-office types. Owners Larry and Paul Dolan have to bear some of the burden, too.

Getting rid of them all means there's no more franchise. Some fans might think that's a good thing, but what needs to be done is what Shapiro does best -- take a good, hard look at the overall structure.

What needs to follow is what Shapiro does not necessarily do well -- changing the methodology that caused some very bad moves over the past several years.

It starts with the team's dismal track record of signing free agents. Ultimately, Shapiro gets the blame, but these decisions were not his alone. He got plenty of input from others. Is it the same source? Or, like the current team, did the miscues come from a different branch of the front office each time?

This is about the 2009 team, so poor free-agent signings of the past shouldn't be as critical to the issue -- except they laid the groundwork for having a weaker team than should have been on the field the past few seasons.

Let's start with one of the biggest busts in team history, when Cleveland signed free agent Jason Johnson. Shapiro continually promoted the move by saying, "He has a proven track record."

What he always failed to point out was that record was proven to be abysmal. Before coming to Cleveland in 2006, the right-hander had the reputation of being none-too-friendly in the clubhouse. Well, heck-fire, Albert Belle didn't always get along with his teammates, either. So, who cares if Johnson's a grouch?

Belle produced on the field. What Johnson had produced were consecutive won-loss records of 1-10, 10-12, 5-14, 10-10, 8-15 and 8-13.

"Those were with some pretty bad ballclubs," Shapiro said.

And what do you think helped contribute to making them bad? It couldn't have been Johnson's attitude along with his ERAs, which ranged from a "best" of 4.09 to a Kobayashi-like 7.02 in that time frame.

"Kobayashi-like", of course leads us to another dreadful decision. That was to sign Japanese journeyman Masahide Kobayashi.

Somewhere along the line, Shapiro's Princetonian education has got to enable him to learn the word "Sayonara". Kobayashi's record in Japan never merited his signing. His record in America does merit his release.

Originally, Shapiro and Co., had success in reclaiming pitchers off the scrap heap. In 2005, Bobby Howry, Scott Elarton and to a lesser extent Scott Sauerbeck all came back from oblivion to make positive contributions to a Tribe team that contended for the AL Central title until the final week of the season.

Unfortunately, that gave those wise thinkers the confidence to start grabbing reclamation-project pitchers from everywhere.

They apparently ignored the train-wreck results they got in 2004 from Jeff D'Amico, Jose Jimenez, Jack Cressend, Jeriome Robertson, Scott Stewart, Lou Pote and Joey Dawley. That motley crew of washed-up veterans went a combined 3-13 with an 8.11 ERA. Ouch.

Such a "let's grasp at straws" philosophy led to Johnson (3-8, 5.96), Guillermo Mota (1-3, 6.21 ERA) and Brian Sikorski (2-1, 4.58 ERA) in 2006. That, in turn, brought Roberto Hernandez, Aaron Fultz and Mike Koplove to town in 2007, followed by Jorge Julio, Juan Rincon, Matt Ginter, Rick Bauer and Brendan Donnelly in 2008. Yuck.

This year, the club added Vinnie Chulk, Matt Herges, Juan Salas and Tomo Ohka among others in the offseason. Chulk and Salas already have been jettisoned, Herges is getting a chance now, while Ohka (thankfully) has been left at Triple-A Columbus.

Shapiro will say these moves are done out of necessity because being a team without great financial backing forces him to be a bottom feeder.

That's all the more reason NOT to throw money at such risky gambles. The $400,000 contract here and $400,000 deal there along with the millions they threw at Johnson for no apparent reason, add up significantly. It would be much wiser to go out and buy a couple of $3 million pitchers who can pitch -- then fill in with youngsters from the organization's beloved farm system.

This is where the Dolans have to step in and question such moves. It is where Shapiro has to step back and examine the entire process and revamp it.

It is unrealistic to expect every signing and every trade to work out. But when all the negative pitching acquisitions are matched against those with positive results, the evidence is that a different approach is needed.

The current organizational plan has not provided Wedge with the roster he needs to win.

That doesn't mean the manager is without faults, though the players are solidly behind him.

"If there are fingers to be pointed, it's at the 25 guys on the roster," third baseman Mark DeRosa said Sunday.

“It’s about everybody looking at themselves in the mirror and being honest with themselves, realizing that everyone respects their teammates. When you’re scuffling, you carry the weight of the world. You feel like the whole city of Cleveland is watching you. But that’s not the case.

“Baseball is a result-oriented game. If the team is winning, the fans don’t care how it’s winning, so it’s not really just you. It’s an individual game, but it’s the team part that counts. That’s the biggest thing I’ve tried to get across.”

DeRosa said he has felt uncomfortable all season and so he looked up his stats from a year ago, when he set career highs in many offensive categories. He found that his numbers at this point in the season were similar to this year.

"If you are scuffling, but the team is 20-10, who cares? You are winning and all is right. That was the case in my instance a year ago.

“It’s like the world is coming to an end for us. A lot of guys are pressing, including me. I haven’t felt comfortable all season, for whatever reason.”

Catcher-first baseman Victor Martinez solidly supported Wedge.

"It's not Wedge's fault," Martinez said. "We take all the blame. He's not the one who's playing. We are the ones who do that. I see no reason why he would have to pay for stuff that we do."

But that's part of a manager's job description and Wedge knows it.

He's not totally blameless. He's made bad decisions. He's probably a bit too "push-button" and unyielding in coming up with a daring move now and again.

He has also burned out the bullpen the past few years. Joe Borowski, whether you liked his high-wire act or not, went from leading the AL in saves to the disabled list to being released. Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez went from unhittable to unusable. Each time the ballclub has added a sidearmer in Matt Miller and Joe Smith, that pitcher has gone to the DL. While that is a very small sample size, it's an 0-for-2 and that should lead to being a bit wary.

That very 0-for-2 apparently is the kind of small sample size that Wedge pays attention to when it comes to young hitters. That may explain why the organization's top prospect this year, Matt LaPorta, was plucked from a good season at Columbus to sit on the Cleveland bench.

LaPorta needs to play. Wedge knows it. Shapiro knows it.

But while the Indians were struggling to get any kind of offense going against Detroit this past weekend, LaPorta never got a chance. Instead, Tribe fans were subjected to a weekend of David Dellucci, whose 0-for-16 streak along with the failure to put down a sacrifice bunt in a critical situation certainly didn't help matters.

To be fair, the Tigers had three very nasty right-handers in Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello start the games. It called for a veteran left-hand hitter like Dellucci to face them instead of a young right-hander prone to strikeouts like LaPorta.

It was probably the right thing to do, though when the ballclub struggles to score, folks wonder why a big bat like LaPorta is not in there.

The question is not why Wedge didn't play LaPorta, but rather why was the young prospect brought up just to sit? An even better question is why has Wedge had to turn to a marginal player such as Dellucci for three seasons?

Dellucci's a good guy. He works hard, he cares, and he's as upset as anybody that he hasn't delivered as well as hoped.

"Fans have a right to be frustrated," he said. "Everybody on the outside needs to understand that no one is more frustrated than the 25 guys in here. It's not from a lack of effort or care."

Facing those right-handers was the perfect scenario for a slugging lefty to take a few swings. But Travis Hafner is once again on the disabled list with a shoulder problem. Whether or not he ever returns to being one of the most feared sluggers in the game is not Wedge's fault.

But it most certainly is linked to Wedge's future and that of the team.

Another left-hander who has been considered one of the best players in baseball for the past few years is hurting the team by playing. Grady Sizemore's average is down to .227. He's already been caught stealing five times in 10 tries. A year ago, he was caught only five times in 43 steal attempts.

Sizemore is one of the few players on the team that can give the club a spark on the basepaths. Wedge can rarely employ hit-and-run plays because (A) he has too many hitters who strike out rather than display good bat control; and (B) he has too many players who have all the mobility of a fire hydrant. Martinez, Hafner, Jhonny Peralta and Ryan Garko would lose a relay race to a quartet of turtles.

It's a roster of designated hitters without much athleticism. If Wedge was the guy who insisted on picking these guys over other choices, then he certainly is to blame. Likely, it is an organizational philosophy that must be amended.

Wedge is good at building players' confidence. It is why he's a good choice at this particular point, though he sometimes does send mixed messages.

A case in point is second baseman Luis Valbuena. After the young infielder's costly misplay led to Detroit's only run in a 1-0 win Friday night, Wedge gave him the appropriate pat on the back while emphasizing that he hoped Valbuena had learned.

On Saturday night, Valbuena hustled his way to a double on a ball that most every player would have been content to jog to first with a single. It was exactly the kind of energy play the team needs now.

Valbuena was not in the lineup Sunday. That was not good. Instead of being rewarded for his most recent contribution, the young infielder could interpret it as his hustle play not being appreciated. Just as Wedge had soothed him on Friday in hopes of not making Valbuena tentative in the field, not playing him on Sunday was a curious decision.

Wedge rarely blasts his players in public, though the fans' perception of him as a middle-of-the-road marshmallow is far from the truth. Behind closed doors, he gets after it. He wears each loss on his sleeve for days.

Through good times and bad over the past six seasons, Wedge seldom has shown much emotion -- adhering to the policy he instills in his players to stay on an even keel. Yet after another disheartending loss Sunday, even the stoic skipper showed that his usually boundless optimism is being drained.

"It's tough," Wedge said. "You wear it. You wear it here, you wear it at home. That's just part of it. If you give a damn, and I most certainly do care about all these players and I really care about the fans; I know how discouraging and disappointing this is. I know we're a better team than this. It's my responsibility, and I take full responsibility for it.

"This is one hell of a gut check for us right now. I can’t put it any plainer than that. That’s where we are."


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