The Indians’ Wax Wings : A Review of the 2004 Season

The past six weeks haven’t been too pretty for an Indians fan. Tempted by the possibility of first-place in mid-August, but then greeted by the implosion of first a nine-game losing streak, and finally by a September reminiscent of 2003, I don’t think Tribe fans really know what to expect next year. Is this the team that was held back by a horrendous bullpen in the beginning of the year, the team that overcame its pitching woes by being baseball’s best offense, or the team that we’re seeing now in September?

Five years from now, I’ll probably look at the teams’ 2004 baseball-reference page and see a team that won anywhere from 76-80 games. What will it tell me? Not much without some context. Obviously the team had improved on their 2003 record, and by looking at their offensive numbers, I should deduce that the improvement in offense was the primary culprit in overall increase in wins. But the true test to whether the 2004 was an organizational success was the wins and losses in 2005, 2006, 2007, and beyond. If 2004 is the post-2001 era, then the organization did not do its job. The stated goal from the time the rebuilding began was to build a team that was equipped to contend and win a championship for multiple years beginning in 2005. The first and second steps of that process have more or less been accomplished:

Step 1: Reduce salaries by jettisoning players who won’t be part of the next contender.

The Indians went from a salary of a payroll of $78.9M on Opening Day of 2002 to a payroll of $34.3 on this season’s Opening Day.

Step 2: Acquire lots and lots of talent.

Again, most would agree that the organization in two years have vastly improved their talent pool from the majors to the minors. The first wave of talent was aqcuired through trading veterens in 2002, but more waves have come through recent drafts. The minor-league system is one of the deeper ones in baseball, and the major-league club has a lot interesting and talented players.

Now Mark Shapiro has to complete the third, and arguably, most difficult objective: take the acquired talent along with the money you saved in tearing down the team, and put a winner out on the field. The team will supposedly have around $15M to spend on free agents this offseason, which should place the Indians’ payroll around the middle of the pack. If they win in 2005, theoretically they should have more money to play with, but I seriously doubt the team will, in this current economic climate, ever have one of the highest payrolls in the league. That’s not entirely Larry Dolan’s fault; that’s just how baseball is now. The good news is that there isn’t a New York or Boston or even Anaheim in the AL Central; The Chicago White Sox had the division’s highest payroll in 2004 of $65.2M. So it isn’t like the team is going to have to overcome a large monetary disadvantage to win. The key is to make good decisions on the talent you have, and the rest largely takes care of itself. What are these ‘good decisions’?

This season, the Indians were, like Icarus, flying upwards with wings of wax; they disintegrated once they got too close to the top of the division. Next year, with expectations raised, a similar fall to earth won’t be excused. After the last out on October 3, the goal is to win the division, not finish .500, or improve from last year.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be reviewing the team as a unit; what their strengths and their weaknesses were, and using those answers, determine what should be done to fix any weaknesses and maintain any strengths. This will then lead into the current player evaluations after the end of the season, and eventually into free agent evaluations. Please feel free to critque and respond in the comments below, or drop me a line via email.

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