The Best GM in the Game

By Andrew Lipsett
This is not an article about Theo Epstein. It is only tangentially an article about the Boston Red Sox; take it as an object lesson, one which will be made clear further along. Mostly, however, take it as a story.
I find it hard to express how much I hated the Cleveland Indians between 1995 and 2001. During those years – the years of Jim Thome, Travis Fryman, Jaret Wright, even Manny Ramirez – the Indians were the most feared offense in the game, steamrolling opposing pitching staffs, taking their division in 6 of those 7 seasons, going to the World Series twice (1995, 1997) and the ALCS one additional year (1998). Even more than the Yankees, the Indians represented to me baseball’s biggest rival, from Tony Pena’s walkoff homerun in Game 1 of the 1995 ALDS to Pedro’s final mastery of the greatest lineup of the decade in Game 5 of the ALDS in 1999.
By 2001, however, the team was at a crossroads. They had lost the division in 2000 to a surprising White Sox team, despite winning 90 games and scoring an exorbitant 950 runs; though they reclaimed the title in 2001, it was clear that the team was aging and becoming impossibly expensive. The average age of the starting lineup in 2001 was 32, and altogether cost nearly $49 million; the starting rotation was in even worse shape, with an average age of 31, dragged upward by the back three, whose ages averaged 35. The team itself cost $92 million that year, third in the American League, and after half a decade of dominance, ownership felt it was time to cut back and rebuild. John Hart, the GM who had built that juggernaut, resigned, destined for Arlington. In his place, the Indians promoted a young assistant GM named Mark Shapiro, one of the first of what would soon come to be called the ‘Moneyball’ GM’s – Ivy educated, business-oriented, with a focus on cost-effective talent and building from below. Everyone knew changes were coming, but Shapiro said he had a plan: to make the Indians cheaper, younger, and most importantly competitive. His target year? 2005.
2001 Cleveland Indians:
Average Age of Starters and Rotation: 32
Salary of Starters and Rotation: $72.56M
Total Salary: $92M (5th in MLB)
Cost per Win: $1.01M
Total Wins: 91
2005 Cleveland Indians:
Average Age of Starters and Rotation: 27
Salary of Starters and Rotation: $26.54M
Total Salary: $41.83M (26th in MLB)
Cost per Win (prorated over 162): $440K
Total Wins (prorated over 162): 95 (currently 89)
In essence, in the span of 4 seasons, Mark Shapiro took the Indians from an expensive, old, good ballclub through lean years (3rd place, 74-88 in 2002; 4th place, 68-94 in 2003) through a brief rebuilding year (3rd place, 80-82 in 2004) to this year, where they sit ready to upset the White Sox and take the AL Central as a young, cheap, and dangerously good team. The question remains: how did this happen, and in so short a time? We hear promises of rebuilding from all over Major League Baseball, from Pittsburgh and Detroit, from Tampa Bay and Seattle. Shapiro laid out a plan and a timeline, as have so many others. But Shapiro seems to have reached it.
The key for him was a willingness to part with the past. In the early 2000’s, key contributors from the Indians near-dynasty were reaching the ends of contracts and careers. Today, there is not one single position player from 2001 who remains with the club (unless you count the empty corpse of Juan Gonzalez, brought back this year on a small contract, which I don’t). In the rotation, Sabathia has been a starter through all 4 seasons, while Jake Westbrook – with the team in 2001 – only began starting ballgames for them in 2003. In the bullpen, only Bob Wickman and David Riske remain.
The rest are all products of either internal development, intelligent free agent pickups, and – most crucially – veteran-for-prospect trades.
Of the first, we can see the emergence of players like Jhonny Peralta, Victor Martinez, and Sabathia. The first two were amateur Latin free agent signings, while Sabathia was selected by John Hart in the 1st round of the 1998 draft. Of the second group, the impact of players such as Kevin Millwood (who may turn out to be the most effective FA Pitcher signing of the season), Casey Blake (signed as a journeyman AAAA player before the 2003 season), Ron Belliard, Arthur Rhodes, and Aaron Boone. But the core of this team was acquired via a series of now amazingly prescient and productive trades.
Shapiro’s first foray into the veteran-for-prospect market should have gone better than it did. Before a game had been played under his tenure, Shapiro shipped 2B Roberto Alomar – then a no-doubter Hall of Famer at the top of his game – to the New York Mets (with a couple throw-in pitchers) for OF’s Matt Lawton and Alex Escobar. Lawton was a mostly known quantity, but Escobar was the turning key of the deal; a highly touted CF prospect who was rumored to be in contention for Kenny Lofton’s job in 2002 (Lofton left the team as a free agent after 2001). However, a torn ACL sidelined Escobar, and his career has never recovered. Nevertheless, Lawton was an inexpensive OF solution for three seasons.
In early June, began his real push. By that time, the Indians were clearly a declining team; though much of the core remained, age had caught up with the group. Though the team was only a game under .500 and 4.5 games out, Shapiro began to deal away pieces. The first was a minor deal; backup 3B/OF Russ Branyan to the Reds for an older 1B prospect named Ben Broussard. that deal was merely a warm-up act for the biggest trade of the season, however, as Bartolo Colon was shipped to Montreal on June 27th for a package of highly-touted prospects: 2B/SS Brandon Phillips, LHP Cliff Lee, and OF Grady Sizemore. Today, while Phillips struggles between his promise and performance (he’s still only 24 and could yet emerge), Cliff Lee has broken through with a Cy-caliber 17-4, 3.75 season, and Grady Sizemore has been nothing short of a catalyst in the leadoff spot, hitting .291/.350/.490 with 21 HR. Their combined salaries? ~$960K. Later in the year, in August, Shapiro shipped 39 year old SP Chuck Finley to St. Louis for 22 year old OF prospect Coco Crisp. In the span of 2 months, Shapiro had traded away 3 players – including two established front-line pitchers, for a collection of high-impact prospects who have made significant impacts in 2005.
His real masterstroke, however, came in the 2002-2003 offseason. John Hart’s Rangers, in need of a catcher to replace Ivan Rodriguez and – as always – desperately in need of pitching, acquired C Einar “Hall of Famer” Diaz and SP Ryan Drese from Shapiro. The cost? A young 1B prospect named Travis Hafner, blocked in the Rangers system by a glut of power corner IF prospects including Mark Teixeira.
2002 saw Shapiro, in a series of 4 trades, acquire the players that have helped spark Cleveland’s rise this season. Coupled with emerging stars from Cleveland’s own system, and complemented by small but important FA acquisitions, Shapiro managed to turn his old powerhouse into a young contender, one which now threatens another 7 years of AL Central dominance.
So, now that we’re here at the end, why am I writing all this?
Because, as I sit back and look at this 2005 Red Sox team, I see – more than any other collection of players – the 1999-2001 Cleveland Indians. The 2005 Red Sox are a devastatingly powerful offensive club, though their offense is aging. several key contracts will run out over the next two seasons, including those of Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, and Trot Nixon. The pitching is often just good enough to win, with a couple young guys, but mostly deeply aged talent. The Sox farm system, barren for so long, is now ready to produce key younger players – but not at every position.
Last season, I viewed the Sox as a team on their last chance. I still do. A point was reached last year, a tipping point where if we did not win it all – and possibly even if we did – large scale changes would need to be made. We did win it all, as it turned out, but in doing so we decided to get older rather than younger. Despite all the talk of the Sox’ major FA class of ’04, the bigger one is this season, where supporting players vanish leaving us key holes. How committed, then, are we to filling those holes with acquired and proven talent? How would Sox fans respond to an Indians-style rebuild? What would happen if this team traded Manny Ramirez, Trot Nixon, or Edgar Renteria? If they did not re-sign Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, or Mike Timlin? Can we do what the Indians have done? Can Theo Epstein, on the day after the Sox are eliminated, be it October 2nd or October 22nd, say that it’s time for the youngsters to take over, and target 2009?
Mark Shapiro did, and his team is arguably the best one in the American League. He is the best GM in baseball, and we need to ask if his formula can work for us.