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View from the Porch: An Open Letter to Chris Antonetti

Dear Mr. Antonetti,

Please know that this letter comes from a place of love. I love the Cleveland Indians. I have been a big baseball fan since I was a wee little lad smashing wiffle balls and catching rubber ball grounders off of factory brick walls. Once I was old enough to understand the concept of loyalty, I became what some might call a “diehard” Cleveland Indians fan.

I take my love of the game and my Indians fandom very seriously. Because of the manner in which your front office operates, Mr. Antonetti, I studied up on sabermetrics. I wanted to get a better understanding of how things have to work in this market and how to evaluate players the same way that my hometown team does. Through my study of the game, its advanced metrics, and the way to value players, I developed an incredible appreciation for the way that you and your staff go about putting a quality product on the field. I see the value that you and your analysts see. I can justify many of the moves that have been made, including the ones that do not have the support of popular opinion. It’s a tough sell to have an owner that spends within his means when the other two professional sports owners in Cleveland have vast sums of money. Oh, and own teams in leagues that have a salary cap.

I’ve made it a passion of mine to think like I’m in the Indians front office, even though I’m merely a fan. I’m just one number added to the attendance or one viewer added to the ratings. Regardless, I look at all of the baseball information I can find on a daily basis to determine what is wrong with the team, a certain player, or where upgrades can be found. When I watch games, live or on TV, I’m thinking one or two pitches ahead. I’m looking at defensive positioning and considering platoon splits. I’m not your average fan. I don’t want to be your average fan. I want to understand, because I believe that the only way to criticize, second-guess, or support is to have a level of understanding as to how and why decisions are made.

Which is exactly why I’m writing this letter, Mr. Antonetti. The Indians cannot operate the same way that other teams can, as you know full well. Mistakes in this market are magnified by the lack of resources. If the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees take a financial gamble and miss, it doesn’t matter. If the Indians take a financial gamble and miss, it hurts in a big way. Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher were justifiable gambles that have not paid off due to injuries. I cannot slight you, or the organization, for that. Sure, signing players on the wrong side of 30 to lucrative free agents contracts is debatable, but the signs of aging were not entirely prevalent and the expectation was to get market value or better in the first two years of the contract to make the last two years bearable. This is my “I forgive you” moment for those signings. I, as I always have, justified them, came to terms with them, and agreed with them. They have not worked. That’s the business of baseball.

What I cannot agree with and cannot justify is how the organization has turned a blind eye to defense during the tenure of manager Terry Francona. During the magical regular season of 2013, the Indians were -42 in defensive runs saved. Only four teams had a lower UZR/150 than the Indians. In a simplified metric of Out Of Zone plays made, the Indians ranked 30th out of 30 Major League teams. Instead of possibly winning the division and avoiding the Wild Card Round play-in game, the one-and-done format got the best of the team and a loss to Tampa Bay ended the playoff dreams before they had a chance to truly get started.

Lesson learned, right Mr. Antonetti? The 2014 season was one of renewed hope. The Indians had expectations after winning 92 games. The defense was an area of concern that was going to get addressed. Instead, the defense got worse. Missing by the playoffs by three games due in large part to -75 defensive runs saved is tough to swallow. The pitching staff was elite for two full months. The offense was one of the few in the league that managed to be above league average. But, defense, yet again, was the Achilles’ heel.

An 85-77 season was not good enough, was it? It was adequate. It wasn’t the follow-up everybody envisioned. This is the year. 2015. This is the year that the defense will be fixed. The starting rotation has the opportunity to be one of the best in baseball. Brandon Moss adds a dimension of power to the lineup.

And Mike Aviles plays center field. That’s the position we’re in, Mr. Antonetti? A 3-0 ninth-inning lead evaporates because of an ineffective pitcher that gets no help from his defense on a slightly-tougher-than-routine fly ball to center field on a cold night? A ball that the free agent you advocated signing would have caught without an issue, but he was sitting on the bench, in need of a full day off on April 20 of a 162-game season.

Defense matters. If you didn’t notice, your AL Central rivals proved that last season en route to the World Series. I’m not sure your manager understands that concept, since he “likes the way Mikey [Aviles] plays in center”. With all of 15 innings under his belt.

If only there was a better option. If only there was somebody else on the team that could have replaced Aviles in center field. It would be a shame to know that there are two very capable center fielders in Triple-A which are just chomping at the bit to come up and have an impact, wouldn’t it? Those two players, Tyler Holt and James Ramsey, that are clearly better outfielders than David Murphy, Jerry Sands, Ryan Raburn, and surely Mike Aviles.

Why were they not on the roster, Mr. Antonetti? I’d really like to know. Is it possible that you have no say over your own roster? Could it be that Terry Francona pulls the player personnel strings? What other explanation could there be for an eight-man bullpen and nobody except Michael Brantley capable of above average outfield defense on the 25-man roster? Why would the Indians carry an outfielder that can catch over an eighth reliever that can eat sunflower seeds for nine innings and not appear in the ballgame? In what universe would that make sense?

With that, Mr. Antonetti, I have a slight request for you. Grow a pair. Up until this point, I’ve been kind. I’ve been understanding. Losses happen. Wins happen. What cannot happen is a loss that is entirely preventable by taking control of your own roster. This is the team that YOU constructed. It is YOUR job to determine who is on the 25-man roster. Your manager’s affinity for veteran players with limited skill sets continues to set the team and the organization back. Your manager’s affinity for these redundant, flawed assets has cost the Indians on multiple occasions during his tenure.

But, Adam, you may be saying, baseball is a people business! Bullshit. Baseball is a results business. I don’t know Mike Aviles. He could be the nicest guy in the world. He might have the most supportive ass pat or best things to say to a struggling player. You know what he does not have? The ability to play center field. Jerry Sands might donate half of his paycheck the ASPCA or never turn down an offer to buy Girl Scout cookies. You know what he can’t do? Hit right-handed pitching or play an average defensive outfield. David Murphy even has the nickname “Good Guy”. Unfortunately, he’s not a “Good Guy” to play the outfield.

This is your roster, Mr. Antonetti. A general manager’s job is to acquire players and organize them in the most logical fashion. The manager’s job is to take that team and put those players in the best possible position to succeed. A word of encouragement is great. Creating relationships with the players is all well and good, until it reaches the point where it prohibits success.

What’s the problem? Is everybody too afraid to upset baseball lifer and everybody’s best friend Terry Francona by making a roster move he doesn’t like? Would it be the worst thing in the world to release Mike Aviles and call up Francisco Lindor to learn on the job? Is designating David Murphy to give James Ramsey a look going to irreparably damage clubhouse morale and camaraderie? Have we not moved past Jerry Sands’s two big hits during the Home Opener to see that he’s still the same below average hitter that kept him from maintaining a Major League job at other points in his career to bring up Tyler Holt?

Maybe it’s easy for me to say these things because I don’t know any of the players. I don’t form those relationships and therefore I’m going to be cold and unforgiving about their futures. Unfortunately, sports can be cold and unforgiving, too. One team wins it all every year. Only one. Only 10 teams qualify for the MLB playoffs. Every win is important and poor roster management has already hurt this team from a wins and losses standpoint.

My problem, Mr. Antonetti, isn’t with losing. It’s with losing when it shouldn’t happen. It’s with losing because of an unwillingness to upset the team’s comfort zone. Put the best players on the field because winning is fun. Don’t lose with players that are jovial and good teammates, even though they aren’t the best players for the roster.

Success often requires making tough decisions. It can require unpopular decisions. But, making the right decisions supersedes everything else. The right decisions for this team are the ones that improve the talent, versatility, and skill sets 25 men that wear the uniform on a nightly basis. That is not happening. And it should. This is a team on the cusp of great things that is being held back by complacency. Complacency from you and your manager.

It’s still early. That’s what I’m telling myself. That’s what the players are telling the media. That’s what Francona is telling the players. That’s what everybody is saying. It’s only early if things are going to change, Mr. Antonetti. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that they will. You built a deep system with a lot of flexibility and you’re not using it properly. I can normally find a way to justify and support the organization’s way of doing business, but this is simply beyond my comprehension.

In closing, I want to say that I think you’ve done an excellent job of building this team into a contender. You’ve poached talent from other organizations and made sound business decisions with contract extensions to younger players to keep the core together. Don’t throw it all away by taking a backseat during the season. Step up to the plate and take some swings. You may miss, but going down swinging is a hell of a lot better than going down looking.

Sincerely,

Adam Burke
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