Stability or Change: Which Should Shapiro Choose?

Mark Shapiro

Stability at the top of any organization is admirable. Countless Fortune 500 companies have been run by the same people for decades. There are also plenty of similar firms which have made changes at the top to varying degrees of success. In professional sports, a decade seems like an eternity.

When you find a RC Buford-Gregg Popovich situation in San Antonio, or a Robert Kraft-Bill Belichick duo in New England, or a Brian Sabean-Bruce Bochy combo in San Francisco, it’s a complete anomaly. Managers and general managers/team presidents are hired to be fired. Front offices don’t stay in tact for more than eight-to-ten years, and that is even when things are going swimmingly. Dave Dombrowski, who has been the architect of one of the better runs in Detroit Tigers history, was run out of town by ownership who have still yet to give the explanation as to why. Dombrowski was quickly scooped up by the Boston Red Sox and given a new fancy title.  Sox owner John Henry sent GM Ben Cherington packing despite being two seasons removed from a World Series championship while building one of the deeper pools of prospects in baseball. In other words, you can count on three things in life: Death, Taxes, and changes in pro sports hierarchy.

It is easy to overstay your welcome too. An owner can get complacent and too close to the people running their teams as well, oblivious to reality. In Philadelphia, GM Ruben Amaro has been a part of the Phillies front office since 1998. In his first three seasons, the Phillies won their division and appeared in the World Series in 2009 where they lost to the New York Yankees. The team was loaded with in their prime stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins to go along with stud pitchers Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Halladay.  Amaro had a big hand in putting this group together. Fast forward to the present where nobody in baseball can believe Amaro still has a job after dolling out an immovable contract to the aging Howard, overpaying for closer Jonathon Papelbon (who has since been dealt), and overplaying his hand on Lee, Hamels, Utley, and Rollins. The Phillies have become one of the leagues doormats and looks years away from being able to build its way back up.

You can count on three things in life: Death, Taxes, and changes in pro sports hierarchy.

But who cares about the Phillies? The only baseball team you and I should care about here in our fair city is the Indians. Our beloved Wahoos were picked by many, including Sports Illustrated, to be a World Series contender in 2015. Instead, they have floundered most of the season and currently sit near the bottom of the American League.  When things go wrong, fans are always on the hunt for a scapegoat. For the last 10 years or so, the finger is usually pointed in the direction of the front office.

Team President Mark Shapiro and General Manager Chris Antonetti have been a part of the group running the Indians since the turn of the century. Shapiro has been with the Indians for 23 years; Antonetti is in his 16th season with the club. When Shapiro ascended to the top as GM, Kid Chris was his top lieutenant. After being courted by other organizations for their top spot (The Cardinals and Brewers in particular), Antonetti was handed the keys to the car and promoted to GM with Shapiro being moved to Team President in 2010, taking a more active role in the business side of the organization. The Dolan family ownership had a clear trust in the two and together they shared a vision for the club.

Every GM makes their mistakes. Nobody is perfect. Shapiro let his manager, Eric Wedge, be the final decision maker on the infamous Ramon Vazquez over Brandon Phillips call which sent Phillips to Cincinnati in 2006. Vazquez floundered after 34 games in Cleveland while Phillips became a three-time All-Star. As one of the best second baseman in the baseball, Phillips won four gold gloves and has made $72 million over his career with $27 million and two years left on his contract.

Antonetti has certainly not been perfect either. Dipping his toes into the free agent waters to sign Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn turned out to be pretty big miscalculations, but I still maintain that the Swisher decision was the correct move at the time. If you want to point the finger at the failing of the Shapiro/Antonetti era, all you need to do is look at the first round draft picks.

CC Sabathia was the Tribe’s first round pick in 1998. Since then the list is long, and not so distinguished (enter your Top Gun reply here):

  • 1999 No First Round Pick
  • 2000 Corey Smith
  • 2001 Alan Horne, J.D. Martin
  • 2002 Jeremy Guthrie, Matt Whitney
  • 2003 Michael Aubrey, Adam Miller
  • 2004 Jeremy Sowers
  • 2005 John Drennen
  • 2006 David Huff
  • 2007 Beau Mills
  • 2008 Lonnie Chisenhall
  • 2009 Alex White
  • 2010 Drew Pomeranz

It was not until 2011 when the Indians took Francisco Lindor that they had a true impact player come through the organization.  That is 11 straight years of first round busts on their watch. The jury on Chisenhall is still out and his move to right field might be what finally gets him going, but he’s had plenty of time and opportunity to seize and every day job and he has yet to do so. John Mirabelli oversaw the majority of these misses and somehow continues to have a job inside the Indians front office. Brad Grant took over his director of amateur scouting role before the 2008 season where Chisenhall was his first pick. Things have looked improved since Grant grabbed the reigns — Lindor looks like a star, as does the centerfielder of the near future Bradley Zimmer, the 2014 first round pick, but Mirabelli’s failures set back the organization a solid decade.

Ultimately, this falls on Shapiro and Antonetti. They oversee all. The 2005 season looked like the beginning of a solid long run of quality years to come — 2007 included a postseason appearance where Indians should have won the World Series. The following year was major disappointment, and the rebuild was back on again. Antonetti had the chance to hire his first manager after the mutual parting of the ways with The Grinder, and he decided on Manny Acta.

Acta talked a good game to the media, but inside the clubhouse, he was a disaster. By Year 3, his act got tired and players began to openly question him. A 5-27 run down the stretch was enough to do him in and he was fired before the end of the 2012 season.

I looked back at what I wrote about that time and while Acta wasn’t great, he was only playing with the cards he was dealt. The column that came out of me was titled “Acta goes, but Antonetti should have gone with him.” On that day, Shapiro  and Paul Dolan backed their guy.

“I feel he’s controlled the bulk of what he can control well,” Shapiro explained. “Paul (Dolan) and I still endorse strongly (Antonetti’s) vision for how we can be competitive and, ultimately, a championship team. We feel that he’s uniquely qualified and more capable than any other person in leading us to that outcome.”

I say shame on you, Paul. Throwing Acta to the wolves was the easy thing to do. He is your ready-made scapegoat. But was he the guy who chose to have Grady Sizemore be your big free agent signing in October when NOBODY ELSE would have taken a chance on him until February? Was Acta the guy who thought Johnny Damon and Shelley Duncan as the left field platoon was a good idea? Was it Acta who decided to put together a lineup that was nothing but left-handed bats and featured two all-glove, no-hit corner men? Was it Acta who thought Ubaldo Jimenez was worth selling your two best pitching prospects?

I could go on and on. The guy who should be losing his job along with Acta is Antonetti. When unearthing Esmil Rogers is the move you hang your hat on, it’s probably not a good sign. There is no depth at AA or AAA to speak of. September was a 4-A convention. The team had chances to sell high on both Chris Perez and Shin-Soo Choo at the deadline and did nothing.

At the end, Shapiro and Antonetti came together to pull the all time organizational coup, landing the most sought after managerial free agent on the market, World Series Champion Terry Francona. Tito said it all at his press conference: He was only here because of his relationship with Shapiro and Antonetti. This bought them four year at least – the length of Francona’s first contract. The deal also had specific language that tied him to his guys. If Shapiro and/or Antonetti were let go, he could be let out of his deal.

None of this was taboo. Everyone knew the stakes and nobody believed this would actually become a topic for conversation. That was until last week. Word began to leak out through FOX Sports’s Ken Rosenthal that Shapiro had become a top choice to become baseball czar of the Toronto Blue Jays, replacing President Paul Beeston who is retiring at season’s end.  Shapiro hasn’t spoken on the subject, a non-denial. There is no doubt he is thinking about leaving after 23 years in the organization. Francona was asked Friday to comment on his out clause. His statements left himself open as well.

“I have no intention of ever using something like that as leverage for either another job, or … because I don’t want to. When I came here…I came here because of Mark and Chris, because my relationship with them, that’s what originally brought me here,” Francona said. “Because of that, I guess I wanted a little protection, I don’t know if that’s the right word, just in case the organization decided to go a different way. I was so close to them, I just believed in them so much that I was pretty adamant. That’s probably the only thing I asked for in my contract. I think sometimes guys get country club membership, whatever. I wanted that.

“Since I’ve been here, my relationship with them has certainly grown, but also with the other people here, to the point where… I guess my point is I would never use that as leverage and that’s not the way, that wasn’t the spirit in which it was written, nor would I use it like that.”

With the way things are built here in Cleveland, I don’t see Francona walking away from it unless both walked to Toronto together. The top three in the lineup (Jason Kipnis, Lindor, Michael Brantley) along with the top four studs in the rotation (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer) give the Indians as bright of an immediate future as anyone in baseball.  But what about Shapiro?

If I am Mark, I take the Toronto job. He’s been here for 23 years and as he said in January “nothing lasts forever.” As much as he’s been a fixture here and loves the city, you’d think he would love to take on a new challenge with a brand new reality. The Blue Jays have deep pockets and aren’t afraid to spend. They have the best offense in baseball and are trending in the right direction to make their first playoff appearance since 1993. Mark could once again have his hands deeper in the baseball decisions and hand pick his GM.

Here in Cleveland, things are still a little muddy. As long as the Dolan Family is in charge and treat the Indians as their primary business rather than their toy (like Dan Gilbert does), Shapiro will always be at a disadvantage. The team is currently a distant third in the eyes of most Cleveland sports fans and they have a real hard time drawing patrons. It’s a constant uphill battle for him. Shapiro is guilty by association, viewed negatively by a large faction of the fan base due to the reputation of others. These are things that may never pass.  His sister, Julie Mangini, has finally moved to San Francisco with her family to join her husband Eric, the defensive coordinator of the 49ers. There may not be a better time for him to leave and a better job for him to take. I for one wouldn’t blame him if he did. Shapiro has done all he can do in Clevealnd.

Paul Dolan loves stability. As I said at the top, that is an admirable quality. But you can’t argue with the facts: Shapiro and Antonetti have overseen just one division title in 14 years and one Wild Card game. At a certain point something has got to give, doesn’t it? The thing is, the organization is in good shape for the future. The drafting has been better, the trades made to stock the current roster have been sensational, and the ballpark upgrades are fantastic. It is quite conundrum down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. That could all change if Shapiro takes the job in Toronto.

The old saying is you don’t know what you got till its gone. I have a feeling many will be singing that Joni Mitchell tune should Shapiro leave for the greener pastures Great White North. But it’s still the right move for him.