Revisiting Traber

I’d like to clarify a couple points I’ve made in the past couple days regarding the 40-man roster and Traber.

There’s no possible way I or anyone who probably is reading this blog could trade places with any current General Manager and do a better job. You may think you can, but there is so much more to the position than just tactical moves. A good GM has to be an outstanding communicator, both with internal and external constituents. A good GM must accept the fact that he will be criticized by fans, the media, players, his relatives, his spiritual advisor, and his mail carrier. And stick to what he believes in spite of what they say.

Moreover, I’ve realized that in all positions with responsibility, decisions usually come down to risk management; defining what can go wrong, and how best to mitigate it. Every decision made by a manager involves risk, and no amount of due diligence is going to completely remove it from the equation. Field managers most often manage this way: for instance, they’ll choose the pitcher they feel has the best chance of not allowing a run in a certain situation. And of course risk-based management applies to general managers as well, but instead of managing players on the field, they manage a roster, or an organization, depending on which way you look at things.

This is why I’ve placed the 40-man roster so prominently on this website; it is the essence of an organization; a (to steal a line from current management) blueprint for future success. To an organization with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, it is especially important to manage this efficiently. Compounding these roster decisions are two other factors. First of all, the team has been set up to win this season, and to that end most add players via free agency. Secondly, the Indians have one of the better collections of young, major-league ready talent in baseball. The confluence of those two factors create sometimes conflicting priorities. If factor #1 would dictate you add a proven starter or a closer, factor #2 dictates you add a prospect that might help you in two years. That’s the dilemma facing the Indians this particular winter; the rebuilding is technically over, yet for a middle-market organization, reloading with young talent should never cease. While teams like the Yankees, and in this case, the Red Sox, don’t really need their 40-man rosters stocked with players that might help them in 2007, the Indians do. That’s why losing a player like Traber is so painful.

But conversely, the ultimate goal of any team is to win that year’s championship, and often this does not mesh with farm directors’ vision, or a prospect maven. You sometimes can have a young team that wins, but very rarely can you win with only youth. To this end, tough decisions have to made, and risks have to be taken. Traber was a pitcher GM Mark Shapiro thought he could sneak through waivers, because it’s been over a year since he’s pitched in a professional game, because he probably won’t be ready until at least the middle of the season, and because even if healthy he may not contribute much to a club with designs on making the playoffs, as past post-Tommy John timelines have shown. Because Boston had so many free agents, they were willing to take that risk, even as the Indians took theirs. For Shapiro, it blew up in his face, but that’s part of the game. His body of work has shown him more than capable of rebuilding an ailing organization on a budget.

Let’s crunch some numbers. Right now the 40-man roster stands at 33, and probably will reach 37 in a couple days. On November 20th, at least 3 prospects (Dittler, Carmona, Gutierrez) will be added to the roster, making it full at 40. However, the Indians may offer a closer like Armando Benitez a contract very quickly, not to mention one of the starters mentioned on my shopping list. John McDonald and Ronnie Belliard should be either gone or traded by the December tender deadline. That places the roster at 40 again, but if Shapiro had signed a free agent before then, he’d have to waive one or two other players. So if Traber were not waived, then it would have come down to in my mind to four other players: Brian Tallet, Cliff Bartosh, Corey Smith, and Jason Stanford. Stanford would probably have been the safest choice, as he probably will not pitch at all in 2005. Tallet should be healthy enough to pitch in the bullpen if needed, as well as Bartosh. Smith is expendable because he hasn’t hit and the soonest he’d be useful as a major-leaguer would be 2006. But you may see most or all of these players sent through waivers at some point in the winter. Just because one player is waived before the other doesn’t necessarily mean management thinks less highly of him; timing plays a large part in these decisions. Right now was probably the best time to sneak someone through waivers because teams, aside from their free agents, have full rosters; they haven’t started trading or non-tendering any of their players. If the Indians had waited until teams started adding and subtracting players from their roster in preparation for the November 20th roster freeze, Traber might have been claimed sooner, because of the volatility of player movement. So in my estimation Traber was the ‘best’ player the Indians had to get through waivers, because this is one of the best times in the offseason to sneak a player through.

As with any move, it’s difficult to critique it without the appropriate context. In this case, the context is player movement during the offseason. Right now, I don’t like the move at all. What happens a month or two from now may change my mind, for the perspective may change. That’s what’s so difficult about evaluating moves from an outsiders’ vantage point; you see the individual transaction without knowing the thinking behind it; a GM’s strategy isn’t going to appear in any press release, because you can’t be competitive that way. You only really understand why a move was made several weeks or months or even years later, and then you’re just using hindsight, when it’s extremely easy to criticize or praise, because you’re almost always right after the fact. Making the right decision is difficult, recognizing it from afar is next to impossible. But in this instance, I think the wrong player was exposed, and even though Shapiro almost got away with it, he got burned.

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