FanHouse Q&A With Chris Antonetti, Incoming Cleveland Indians GM
From 2002-04, the Indians went through a complete rebuild. Following years of record attendance and success, then GM Mark Shapiro tore down the team and put it back together. The pinnacle of the rebuilding was the playoff season of 2007.
But disappointment followed. In 2008, the Indians traded CC Sabathia, the reigning Cy Young winner. In 2009, they traded Cliff Lee, the reigning Cy Young winner. This season, they traded Jake Westbrook, the Opening Day starter. They were three of many moves that mirrored the previous rebuild.
This season, the Indians are winning 40 percent of their games and stuck in last place in the AL Central. Cleveland the city has lost 10 percent of its population since 2007 and is stuck in an economic downturn.
At season's end, Shapiro will become the team's president and Chris Antonetti (above) will take over as general manager. The pair's challenge is creating a viable winner in a suffering small market. How do they do it? Antonetti sat down with FanHouse's Pat McManamon for an extended discussion and explanation of his plan.
FanHouse: When you try to rebuild in a market like Cleveland -- and there are limitations and baseball's system has inequities -- how do you avoid getting into the spiral of declining attendance leads to declining payroll which leads to declining attendance which leads to declining payroll?
Chris Antonetti: We've tried to minimize the window of transition. I think that when you look back to 2002 and 2003 that was our primary goal. Let's figure out a way to not go through a typical rebuilding process. Not let it happen to us and let it be seven, eight, nine years or longer, which is really the typical rebuild. Let's try to make that window as short as possible. We went through this process with the same thought in mind. What can we do to really shrink that window down?
The easy thing to do would have been to allow CC Sabathia to become a free agent, allow Casey Blake to become a free agent. But as we looked at it, the value of (catcher) Carlos Santana vs. the potential value of two draft picks, we felt that it made more sense to make that deal at that point. Carlos would be more valuable to us than the chance of getting a second-round draft pick and a sandwich-round pick, for that return. That would have been the easy thing to do.
We've looked at it that let's do what we can, let's try to be proactive and try to get players that are maybe further along in their development so they arrive at the major league level sooner and they hopefully get us back to a successful period sooner.
FH: What about the argument that the division is not loaded with powerhouses and if you're .500 within the division you are within striking range?
CA: I think there are good teams in our division that have significant resources, but we are not in a division that has the Yankees and the Red Sox that have those resources available to them. That said there are some very talented teams with the ability to allocate significant resources. Our challenge is the same as every other team, we have to figure out a way to win within our realities.
FH: I guess what I'm saying is if you keep some guys longer rather than get rid of them sooner, and that is my phrasing, you could be .500 and in this division you could be within range in September and drawing more people.
CA: But those guys were free agents at the end of the year. Those guys we wouldn't have been able to retain for the following year. CC Sabathia no matter what ... We made an earnest effort to extend CC at different junctures in the past while he was still under his last contract. We weren't able to align values. I think it became clear to us at that point with the way things were playing that he was going to become a free agent at the end of the year. We aren't going to win bidding wars with the Yankees' or Red Sox' primary target. Or large markets. If it's a primary target for a large market in the free agent period, or candidly even on a trade scenario, that's not the best places for us to compete.
The one thing that's important to note is we want to be in the position and have the team to warrant acquiring guys that are in the last year (of their contracts). We want to be on the other end of these trades. If we had the team we envisioned in 2008 and we were competitive, we would have played it out with CC and Casey. We would have been perfectly happy. That would have been a great outcome for us.
Same thing had we been competitive this year and a contending team this year, we wouldn't have traded Jake Westbrook even though he was at the end of his contract.
I think that's the same thing we look to going forward. Just because a player is in the last year of his deal it doesn't mean we necessarily have to trade him. If we have a competitive team and that player is a productive player contributing to our competitiveness, it's a great scenario for us to keep him. It's more when we have the years that don't go as we've expected or where we're not as competitive as we want to be, that's where we have to make the difficult decisions. That's where there's a little bit of a difference in our market vs. some other markets.
FH: So when you get into a position like you are in now and the record is what it is and you're transitioning and you have to trade guys because you feel it's the best thing to do, how do you sell hope to the fans?
CA: What we're trying to do is position ourselves better going forward. As we look at it for the remainder of this year we have to make an assessment. Jake Westbrook is an example of that. Are we better positioned with Jake pitching here for the rest of the year and then going to free agency or are we better off getting a player that could help us down the road. And we made the decision in that case that we were better off getting a player that could potentially help us down the road rather than getting to the end of the year and potentially not getting anything for Jake. Because there may not be compensation attached to him. That's our focus.
I can assure you our goal is to get back to competitiveness and be a contending team as quickly as possible. That's where we are committing all our resources to figure out a way to do that.
FH: When you say to minimize the time to get to that point, do you almost have to hit on every move you make to get there?
CA: We know that not every deal we make will be successful, but we have to make enough of them where we have the depth of talent. And bring it in from all avenues. Whether that's Latin America, the draft -- where we were really aggressive this year or even in years past -- or even in our professional trades.
FH: People always point to the late '90s and the Indians' success in the late '90s. Was that an aberration?
CA: That was very a different context. When you look at the '90s and early 2000s, we were a top-tier revenue team and we sustained payrolls in line with our revenues. What we were able to do in the '90s and early part of 2000 was act and compete like we were New York, we were Boston, we were L.A. We were able to spend like one of those markets because we had the revenues to sustain that. For a variety of reasons, it's a very different market in Cleveland and the changed environment has had a direct impact on our revenues. As we moved from the unique circumstances of the 1990s, our revenues are now more reflective of our market size. Our job is to understand our realities and figure out the best way to compete and win within that context.
FH: That gets back to the spiral question. It just seems like – and there are reasons why the revenues are what they are and there are reasons why the expenses are what they are – but it seems like one feeds the other and it leads to a spiral.
CA: In order to reverse the course, we need to first transition and develop a strong nucleus of players to build around. Once we have that nucleus in place, we can then look to strategically add to it through external sources. The Dolans (the Indians' owners) have demonstrated in the past that they are willing to provide the resources necessary to add to the core group of guys and we anticipate we will again be able to do that at the appropriate time.
Think back to Kerry Wood. We thought going into 2009 that we had a good team and had the nucleus in place to be a competitive team. We went in and invested in Kerry Wood thinking that a strong closer may have been the difference for us. In the end it wasn't, but the Dolans demonstrated that they are willing to invest in the team when the talent has dictated it. I have no reason to think that we will operate any differently moving forward.
FH: The Yankees' revenues are three-and-a-half times Cleveland's. They spent $420 million on three players before last season (Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira). How do you compete with baseball's inequities?
CA: The system is what it is. You need to figure out a way to do it.
FH: How soon can fans expect you to be competitive?
CA: Hopefully we'll continue to improve and get better each year. We expect next year to be better than this year and the year after that to again be better. We're not going to set limits on that. Our goal going into next season is to win as many games as we can. We have to understand our realities and economic situation but our goal is to win as many games as possible.
FH: Last time you rebuilt, Mark was very specific about where he expected the team to be.
CA: Which he regretted saying once he said it. It's so hard. It's very difficult in baseball and I think we understand, especially with what we've gone through the last two years. Even this year, we've taken away at different points probably our best position players. With Grady missing time. Asdrubal (Cabrera) missing significant time. (Shin-Soo) Choo missing time. And now Carlos Santana.
FH: You mentioned Choo. Eventually he's going to want a new deal, and he has a pretty well-known agent (Scott Boras).
CA: With where he's at service-wise, he's under team control for three years after this one.
FH: How much of where the team is now is because of drafting? Or is that one factor that is not as big as injuries, to throw out a topic?
CA: What we need to do in our market is seize on every opportunity to infuse talent at every level and make sure we are as successful as we possibly can be in each of those acquisition avenues.
For us we've made the conscious decision -- and I think we've been able to infuse a lot of talent – to make professional trades and get players who were further along in that process instead of taking extra draft picks. That's been a strategy for us. We've decided that for us and where we are in order for us to minimize that window of transition, its better to get guy that were further along in their career than maybe take draft picks that may make our draft record look better but overall our talent base may not be any better.
FH: Is this a new model for rebuilding?
CA: We have to be flexible and look at all opportunities and figure out where is the most efficient place to invest our resources. That's constantly evolving. Some of it is the nature of what other teams are doing, where they are allocating their resources. Are they prioritizing one area of talent acquisition over another. Because as we talked about, if we say OK we're going to acquire major league free agent starting pitching. Well, if the Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers and Braves and Mariners and whoever else decide that they're going to do the same thing, that's not a very good competitive position for us to be in. So we need to be flexible in terms of how we do it. But ultimately we know that we need to have talent. We need to have a team that scores runs. We need to have a team that prevents runs. And to find that right balance, that's ultimately what will lead us to be a successful team.
FH: If a fan were frustrated or angry would you blame him or her now?
I'm frustrated. Mark and I are frustrated. The Dolans are frustrated. But we are committed to doing everything in our power to put a championship-caliber team back on the field as soon as possible. That's our goal. None of use enjoy losing. None of us are working in baseball to lose. We want to field winning teams. We want to be part of a championship organization. We've had that success in the past, in the very recent past as well as a recent history of success in the late '90s and early 2000s. That's where we want to get back to from a success standpoint. We're all motivated by winning.
Hear from another GM, the Yankees' Brian Cashman, in the latest episode of "The MLB Hour":