Indians show Tigers how to chart new direction

Chris McCosky, The Detroit News
Victor Martinez with the Indians in 2009.

 

Scottsdale, Ariz. – Indians general manager Mike Chernoff laughed, but he’s far too smart to take the bait.

He was asked if it was too soon to crown the Indians Central Division champs for 2017, what with the Tigers, White Sox, Twins and possibly even the Royals in various stages of rebuilding or retooling.

“You can’t ever think like that,” Chernoff said. “There is too much volatility in this league. Too many crazy things can happen. We just need to keep our focus on ourselves and in building the best team we can.”

Truth is, though, Chernoff is familiar with the business model the Tigers are trying to implement – leaner, more flexible payroll, build through drafting and developing and not through free agent spending.

“To us, that’s a sustainable model in our market,” Chernoff said. “I certainly don’t know all the details of the Detroit market. But I know you can’t build and sustain an entirely free agent-driven team.”

The Indians have repeated the tear-down, build-up cycle twice since 2002.

General manager Mark Shapiro tore down the remnants of the powerhouse Indians teams of the late 1990s and gradually got the team back into the playoffs in 2007. Then, after another downturn and retool, they were back in the playoffs in 2013 and were one game shy of a World Series championship this season.

“It ultimately comes back to, the intent is to put a winning team on the field,” said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, who was with Shapiro and the Indians from 2002-2007. “As the Indians have shown us, you don’t need to spend at the top of the payroll pyramid just to be a winning team.

“It’s more likely, but it’s not a requisite.”

Huntington has gone through this process with both the Indians and the Pirates. He knows how hard it is to trade away iconic and beloved players. He was there when the Indians opted not to re-sign Jim Thome and when they traded Robbie Alomar and Bartolo Colon.

“It was absolutely hard for our fan base, we understood that,” Huntington said. “We also recognized this was the way we were going to do business going forward and it was something we had to do to get back to a competitive level sooner.”

Later the Indians bid farewell to Victor Martinez, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. They traded players on expiring contracts for draft picks. They accumulated as much talent as they could through the draft and with international scouting.

“There is no one way to do it,” he said. “And there is no right way to do it.”

And there is no guarantee, with even the best-laid plan.

“As much as I want to relay optimism, they don’t always work,” Huntington said. “There has to be a plan and there has to be strength and conviction to go through some hard and unpopular times.”

The process in Pittsburgh was even more difficult. Besides the limited financial resources and the limited talent base at the time, Huntington transformed what had been the oldest of old-school teams into a model for the sabermetric era.

“The fans there were really unhappy for the first three to five years,” he said. “But they were really happy for three years when we made it back to the playoffs. And that’s really what drove us

“You strive every day to put the best team on the field you possibly can and put yourself in position to play playoff baseball in October as frequently as you can. If you are doing that, then you are rewarding the fans for their patience and their passion.”

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