- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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As Boston teams continue to pile up victories every spring, summer, fall and winter, some poor city has to look on in envy and despair. No location plays the role of beleaguered doormat with the reliability of Cleveland -- which only has license to celebrate in movies like "Major League" or "Hot Tub Time Machine."
It's been a rough go for the Cavaliers since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach. The Cavs have the NBA's worst record at 8-29, and they're 1-19 since LeBron and the Miami Heat came to town for that highly anticipated grudge match in early December.
The Browns, 64-129 since their return to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999, just fired Eric Mangini and are looking for their fifth head coach in a decade. Cleveland's tenure as a Super Bowl-free zone looks safe for the foreseeable future.
Scott Raab, an accomplished writer for Esquire and several other magazines, is working on a book about the "sorrow and pity" of sports in his native Cleveland, according to his Twitter account. Although the national appeal of the project is debatable, Raab's timing is downright flawless.
Over the past two years, the Indians have also done their share to stoke the city's reputation as Depression Central. They ranked last in the majors in attendance with 1.39 million fans last season, and posted consecutive 90-loss seasons for the first time since 1914 and 1915 -- when a kid named Shoeless Joe Jackson was roaming the outfield at League Park in Cleveland.
Anyone who thought the Indians might spend their way out of their doldrums failed to get the memo. The team's only big league free-agent contract this offseason has gone to outfielder Austin Kearns for a grand total of $1.3 million. While the Detroit Tigers spent $50 million on Victor Martinez, the Chicago White Sox signed Adam Dunn and the Kansas City Royals hastened their long-term rebuild with a bold trade that sent Zack Greinke to Milwaukee, the Indians have had a more boring winter than manager Manny Acta's barber.
It's been an interesting debut for general manager Chris Antonetti, who spent nine years as assistant GM under Mark Shapiro before taking over as head man in October. Logic says Antonetti must feel like the teenager who got his driver's license, snagged the keys to the family car and then found out that dad (in this case, the Dolan family) wasn't willing to spring for the cost of gas and insurance.
But Antonetti has been through this routine before, when the Indians packed off Jim Thome, Bartolo Colon and several other veterans to pave the way for Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner and the kids in the early 2000s, so he knows the drill. As difficult as it is to ask the fan base to have faith, that's the task he's been assigned.
"We've been in a similar situation before, and we've demonstrated the ability to overcome those challenges and put together a championship-caliber team," Antonetti said. "We feel equally strong about our talent base now and throughout our farm system. The challenge is to have patience and let those guys play."
The Indians are still paying for some unproductive drafts in the 2000s. Scan the list of first-round picks throughout the decade, and the most accomplished résumé belongs to Jeremy Guthrie, who pitched a total of 37 innings in Cleveland before emerging as a 200-inning-a-year workhorse in Baltimore. Corey Smith, Daniel Denham and Michael Aubrey came and went without leaving a mark, and the Indians have yet to see much from Jeremy Sowers, Trevor Crowe, David Huff or Beau Mills.
But there's some reason for optimism. ESPN's Keith Law has three Cleveland minor leaguers -- third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, second baseman Jason Kipnis and pitcher Drew Pomeranz -- rated among his top 100 prospects. Baseball America ranks the Indians' farm system as the seventh best in the game, a few notches above Law's assessment, and rates Cleveland's 2010 draft as the best in baseball. Although Cleveland's farm system lacks the high-ceiling talent of, say, Kansas City's, the system is generally regarded as deep in serviceable major league prospects.
Beyond that, the Indians need answers from players with enough service time that they no longer appear on top prospect lists. Catcher Carlos Santana, who logged a .401 OBP in 46 games before tearing a knee ligament in August, should be ready by the start of Cactus League games. The Indians also need more tangible signs of progress from first baseman Matt LaPorta and outfielder Michael Brantley, the two main pieces acquired from Milwaukee in the CC Sabathia trade in 2008.
Brantley, still just 23, has more than 2,900 professional plate appearances to serve as a foundation. And LaPorta, who has a .388 slugging percentage in 557 big league at-bats, is now 15 months removed from hip and toe surgeries. He's working with a nutritionist this winter and focusing on conditioning now that his rehabs are behind him. But he still needs to overcome the perception that he's prone to nagging injuries and has a "slider speed bat," in the words of one AL scout.
Heaven knows, the Indians could use some improvement across the board. Last year the offense ranked 11th in the American League in home runs, 12th in runs and 13th in OPS. The pitching staff was 11th in the league in ERA and last in the majors with 967 strikeouts.
But if you look carefully, you can see a few glimmers of hope. The Indians tied for fourth in the league with a 3.89 team ERA after the All-Star break. Justin Masterson posted a 2.86 ERA over his final 56 2/3 innings. Carlos Carrasco reeled off six straight quality starts in September, and closer Chris Perez did not allow a run in his past 18 2/3 innings pitched.
The offense should also be better with the return of Santana and two other up-the-middle cogs. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who suffered a fractured forearm in May, checked out fine in winter ball in Venezuela. Sizemore, a three-time All-Star, is taking things a little more deliberately in his return from microfracture surgery on his left knee, but the Indians are tentatively penciling him in for Opening Day.
That said, it's still daunting to think that a team so strapped for money owes Hafner a guaranteed $28.75 million over the next two seasons. But Hafner posted a respectable .824 OPS in 390 at-bats last year in his continued comeback from shoulder problems, and the Indians came to realize he's more productive when playing five days a week at DH rather than six or seven.
"He's come back a little more than I thought he might, to be honest," said an American League personnel man. "A lot of people view him as a lesser player because he's making more than he's worth. But he's still a threat. It makes the opposing manager think when the guy comes to the plate."
While those minor league deals for Adam Everett, Jack Hannahan, Paul Phillips,Travis Buck and Doug Mathis haven't moved the enthusiasm meter in Cleveland, the Indians are probably wise not to overspend on veterans who would simply replicate what they already have. The team's two big positional question marks are second base and third base. If the alternative is overpaying for a "bridge" guy like Pedro Feliz or Jorge Cantu, the Indians would rather open the season with Jayson Nix or Jason Donald until Chisenhall is ready to make the jump from Triple-A Columbus.
Antonetti won't rule out the possibility of adding another starter before spring training. Colon is one possibility, and the list of unemployed free agents also includes Jeremy Bonderman, Freddy Garcia, Brad Penny, Bruce Chen and another former Indian, Kevin Millwood. It comes as no surprise that the Indians have little payroll flexibility and will be bargain-shopping if they decide to add a starter.
"We're open to having some competition in spring training," Antonetti said. "It has to be a guy who we feel good enough about to commit money to who provides our organization with something it lacks -- and that's stability and a veteran presence. If that right guy is out there, we'd be open to doing it. If not, we're prepared to go with what we have."
There was a brief flurry of speculation that the Indians might move 13-game winner Fausto Carmona, but it quickly passed. The Indians are also open-minded about a contract extension for Choo, a Scott Boras client, but since he's under club control through 2013, there's no sense of urgency.
"It's something we remain interested in pursuing," Antonetti said. "Whether or not there's common ground at this point, we'll have to see."
So what is a beleaguered, financially hamstrung franchise to do as it waits for the future to unfold during a frigid winter in Ohio? The Indians used their imagination this offseason and gave the fan base a treat by turning Progressive Field into a winter wonderland that they referred to as "Snow Days." The event featured a quarter-mile ice skating track and a 10-lane tubing hill known as the Batterhorn.
"It was a cool event," Antonetti said. Given all the twists and turns, ups, downs and dips, it was also a fitting metaphor in the life of a small-market team.
It's tough to be a sports fan in Cleveland these days, and the Indians aren't exactly poised to boost civic morale.