Sky's note: Please welcome Paul Cousineau to the BtB crew. You can find his thoughts on all things Indians at The Diatribe.
Being from Cleveland, and thus being cursed with that proclivity to apparently seek out suffering in the sports teams that call my fair city home, I subjected myself to the revelry that took place last Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium as the Indians took on the Royals in a battle pitting the two most flawed teams in the most flawed division in baseball.
While attempting to generate some excitement at the prospect of seeing Mike Redmond and Jason Kendall call a MLB game against each other, a startling fact came to light – the number of players in the lineup for both teams that were younger than 27 was two. Two players, Billy Butler (24) and Asdrubal Cabrera (also 24), were the only participants in the starting lineups of a game pitting two teams that were a combined 17 games under .500 at the time with the season not even into mid-May, a year after finishing with identical 65-97 records at the bottom of the Central.
Since neither team is able to rest on the laurels of the accomplishments of the veterans in the game (sure Sizemore and Choo are only 27 and well…um…I guess David DeJesus is 30) to justify the inclusion of many of the veterans, the fact that the cumulative lineups "featured" as many players over the age of 30 as they did for players under the age of 30 is nothing short of mystifying.
While the game was a bit of a yawner (unsurprisingly and not helped by two rain delays), it brought under the hot glare of attention this advanced state of limbo that has afflicted a number of teams in MLB, unsure whether to go full bore into an attempt at "rebuilding/reloading/whatever" mode, or whether to lean on some veteran presence in the lineup (in Wednesday’s, steaming heaps of "veteran presence") in an attempt to win games in the here and now, with less of an eye towards the future.
That brings up a fundamental question as teams like the Indians and Royals unquestionably needs to break in their young players with an eye past 2010, but does that "breaking-in" process do more damage as the youngsters struggle and the team slips further into ignominy, a slide that can be tempered (somewhat) by inserting the likes of Kearns, Branyan, Podsednik, and Kendall into the mix to buy goodwill and perhaps even wins?
In the Indians’ case, the early season experiments of giving jobs out of Spring Training to Luis Valbuena, Matt LaPorta (or as the White Sox manager calls him, "Matt MaTola", since Ozzie Guillen couldn’t remember LaPorta’s name), Lou Marson, and Mike Brantley had resulted in OPS+ of 74 (Valbuena), 40 (LaPorta), 40 (Marson), and 19 (Brantley) in 271 cumulative plate appearances up to Wednesday night. That strategy has recently given way to increased playing time for Austin Kearns (161 OPS+), Rusty Branyan (147 OPS+), and Mark Grudzielanek (81 OPS+) as the Indians attempt to actually start winning some games…perhaps at the cost of development and flattening out the learning curve for players that do realistically figure into their plans past this year.
A similar tact has been taken from Day 1 in Kansas City (much to the chagrin of Royals’ fans and baseball analysts far and wide) as the Royals eschewed the idea that they should ingratiate their young players at the big-league level (or even give them a long leash or a plan of action in the case of Alex Gordon), opting instead for the Scott Podsednik (116 OPS+) and Jason Kendall (95 OPS+) variety of players. To date (at least for those two players) the strategy has not been the unmitigated trainwreck that many expected it to be as the Royals have been done in by 80% of their rotation and their bullpen to date.
It becomes a greater question however for these teams that are unlikely to be players in the Free Agent market (the one that includes elite players and not all players) year after year and that have very little chance of retaining their own players, assuming they do excel, once those established players reach FA, compete in the here and now while keeping an eye to the future.
If the Front Office decides to flip some "Go Young" switch that exists in the Teams’ Offices, the growing pains will certainly begin and the possibility exists that players like LaPorta and Brantley never match the production of Kearns and Branyan, just as it’s possible that Alex Gordon’s path to play LF in Kansas City (with the timing of the move coming off as puzzling to say the least when the organization had all Winter to prepare him for it) is merely Scott Podsednik. In the present however, players like Kearns and Branyan and Podsednik are performing and helping their teams win games…infrequently as it may be.
Whether the development of young players as they adjust to MLB and attempt to get their sea legs under them is compromised in the process of infrequently winning these games becomes the great debate as to how to build a team capable of contending in an uneven competitive structure. Certainly, drafting and development (or lack thereof in the case of the Indians and Royals in recent history) plays a role in teams facing this quandary, but in the current financial climate in MLB, how do small-market teams play this balancing act between youth being the only thing on the menu, going through those requisite growing pains and attempting to win games to keep fans interested, if the better chance of winning comes with players that don’t figure into their future?
Perhaps this is simply the sign of a rudderless organization or an indictment as to how these organizations find themselves, but the chasm between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is growing in MLB and teams that are fighting upstream to begin with in the revenue race often find themselves in this death spiral that was on display on Wednesday night in Kansas City.
Most teams in MLB now play a game in which they attempt to develop a pool of players who will mature and excel at the Big League level (without injury or regression setting up roadblocks) simultaneously as the idea that the window of contention remaining open interminably simply doesn’t apply in most baseball markets.
Play for today at the risk of continued failures tomorrow or play for tomorrow at the risk of creating a culture of losing and fostering a state of apathy by losing today. The vortex has swallowed a good number of teams in recent years, unable to properly balance their place in the standings with the development necessary to build a consistent winner.
As long as the vortex exists, so will games like Wednesday’s tilt in Kansas City where the present and the future are at odds with neither of them looking pretty.