Successful small-market teams contend by acquiring above-average talent on two levels: (a) development, either through international free agency or the amateur draft, and (b) trades.
Success in one area, and not the other, can create a small window of opportunity to win, but for a team to compete for multiple seasons it is important to find talent on both avenues.
Many fans remember John Hart as the architect of those great Cleveland teams in the late 90’s, but few realize how fortunate he was to step into that situation. Much of the groundwork for the Indians renaissance can be traced back to former General Manager Hank Peters.
During his four-year tenure as GM, Peters drafted Manny Ramirez, Charles Nagy, Jim Thome, Brian Giles, David Bell, Chad Ogea, and Paul Byrd. He also did well when he acquired Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga in a trade with San Diego for Joe Carter.
The foundation was set for Hart to succeed.
Hart, as he should, receives a lot of the credit for those teams. He was one of the first general managers to sign young players, not quite at their peak, to long term contracts. He acquired a borderline future Hall of Famer in Kenny Lofton for Willie Blair and Eddie Taubensee – both would become more journeyman than established player.
John Hart did a lot of things right but what he could not do was mimic Peters’ draft success.
Hart’s tenure as General Manager lasted ten years, 1992 – 2001, and in that time he managed to draft and sign only three impact players – CC Sabathia, Sean Casey, and Richie Sexson. Both Casey and Sexson were eventually traded for spare parts.
Using WAR (Wins Above Replacement player) as a statistical guideline the top ten players drafted by Hart are:
|Name||Year Drafted||Round||Career WAR|
While all those players carved out careers of varying success, only Sabathia ranks in the top 1000 players in career WAR. Hart’s predecessor and current GM, Mark Shapiro, was not as lucky and stepped into a situation much more difficult.
Hart’s final two drafts epitomized the team’s long standing draft failures and would eventually signal the beginning of Cleveland’s first rebuilding process in nearly a decade.
In 2000 and 2001, the Indians owned 3 of the top 55 picks and 4 of the top 43 picks, respectively. The only player chosen to mount any type of tangible career was Toronto long reliever/spot starter Brian Tallet.
As with Hart, the foundation for Shapiro was set – but this one signaled the beginning of a rebuilding period and the end of era.
In November of 2001, Shapiro was promoted to General Manager of a team with high-priced, aging veterans and a farm system wrought with failure. Shapiro sought to rebuild the organization from the ground up – in four seasons – the Hank Peters way.
He went about stocking the farm system by trading Bartolo Colon for Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore. Shapiro then drafted college phenom Jeremy Guthrie and signed him to a club record $3 million bonus. He followed up the 2002 draft by selecting Michael Aubrey, a polished college hitter, in the first round the next season. Shapiro set about reestablishing Cleveland baseball.
On paper, his way parallels that of Peters. One problem: while he has had success in trading for prospects – Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Carlos Santana among others – his draft picks have not panned out. Guthrie bounced between Buffalo and Cleveland, the bullpen and the rotation. Aubrey spent more time in the chiropractor’s office then on the field and the rest of prospects failed to make a longstanding impact.
A small-market team has to have the ability to replace players as they enter arbitration years or they will never be able to consistently compete – which would explain the two winning seasons the Indians have had since 2002.
Shapiro and assistant GM Chris Antonetti have changed draft philosophies in recent years and have begun taking players no longer consider “safe” choices, now focusing on “toolsy” players. In the last three years the team has added much more promising prospects like Alex White, Lonnie Chisenhall, and 2010 second rounder LeVar Washington.
Much like in 1992 and again in 2002, the front office and the team have both entered into another period of transition. Chris Antonetti will spearhead another rebuilding effort in hopes of creating something fans have not experienced in so many years – a consistently competitive team. It, of course, would be easier if he steps in a position much like Hank Peters created and not what John Hart left.
Hank Peters’ time highlighted how building a successful franchise is built on strong talent development and smart trades. His time in Cleveland is a perfect example on intermixing strong draft results and dealing higher priced veteran players for prospects. In four years he was able to set the foundation, along with Hart’s subsequent tweaking, for the Tribe’s revival.