It’s everyone’s favorite time of year again (well, my favorite time of year at least), as I was fortunate enough to have my annual March talk with Indians team President Mark Shapiro earlier this week. Mark and I usually talk at the team’s spring training facility in Goodyear, but owing to some extenuating circumstances, I was unable to make my traditional pilgrimage to Arizona this winter. Still, he was gracious enough to take an hour out of his very busy spring schedule to talk with me over the phone, and that’s the next best thing. If you missed the previous installments of this tradition, here’s a link to the 2013 and a link the 2014 editions. The following is a (lightly edited) transcript of our conversation this week.
Al Ciammaichella: Looking at the offseason progression of the stadium, how excited are you for the new Progressive Field experience in 2015?
Mark Shapiro: I’m extremely excited. That week I came home from spring training, about a week ago, and walked the space, it struck me just how dramatic the changes are, and I think just how unaware most fans are, that have been coming to the ballpark for over 20 years, how different that area in centerfield and rightfield is going to seem to them. How much more improved it’s going to be, and how excited they’re going to be about the opportunity to have new experiences in the ballpark.
AC: The tickets are certainly a great deal. $13 and you get your first beer paid for.
MS: Yeah, that special ticket that’s meant to really activate the bar in the corner, and people that have more of an interest in standing up and not necessarily having a fixed seat. We have a ton of standing room, with drink rails that allow people to watch the game and move all around in that rightfield bar.
AC: I know it was a rough winter in Cleveland, is everything on schedule to be completed by opening day?
MS: Remarkably, even with the winter we’ve had, at the moment we’re on schedule. I haven’t looked at the weather, but if it stays decent the rest of the way and we don’t get another big snowfall…but it’s Cleveland, and it’s weather. Anytime you’re dealing in that realm, there’s some unpredictability. I would say the one thing we’re certain of at this point is that we will have substantial completion, and the majority of the project will be done by opening day. The one thing I cannot tell you with certainty, because there is no certainty when it comes to weather in Cleveland, is that it’ll be totally complete. Just like when we moved into the ballpark 21 years ago there were still things that had to be done during the first road trip. Small things that were not complete.
AC: Were there any ideas left on the drawing board when it came to that space? Anything that you looked at doing but didn’t make it into the final plans?
MS: Absolutely. Any time that you do a project like that it’s the financial realities of having to stay within a budget. You start with the concepts. Start by researching the market, and testing it. Then you take the concepts to paper and start looking at a bunch of alternatives. And some of those alternatives that you love eliminate themselves because they’re just too expensive and they would limit the scope of the project. So there were plenty of things that I won’t dwell on that we considered doing that we did not do. But overall, I’m extremely excited, extremely happy about how the project looks when I look at it.
|Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella|
AC: Shifting to the on-field product, Jose Ramirez came up last year, a guy who was more of a utility guy in the minors. Played a lot of 2B, was on the same team with Francisco Lindor a lot in the minors. Obviously Lindor is a special SS, so Ramirez played a lot of 2B and some 3B. He came up last year and really solidified the SS position at the major league level. Did you see him as a guy who could come up and be that good of a defensive SS right away at such a young age?
MS: Jose is an interesting guy. He’s a guy who’s not conventional in much that he does. You can’t teach the game the way he plays it. He’s got a great motor, incredible hands, good instincts, he picks great hops. He’s fearless in the way he plays the game. He’s obviously got well-above average speed. So he’s a guy that adds a dimension to our lineup and to our team that we really haven’t had, and I think a jolt of youth and energy to our team last year when he came up and did a great job.
AC: Does having him at SS give you a little luxury as far as leaving Lindor down in AAA to finish his development? You don’t have quite the same rush to promote him as if there were a free agent hole at short.
MS: At this point, we’re looking at those guys exclusive of each other. There may be a time when that doesn’t happen, but at this point Francisco Lindor’s development path says he should be in AAA completing his development and his foundation. Jose Ramirez, with his major league debut last year, justifies his opportunity to be our everyday shortstop. So although things can change; that’s the nature of professional sports and major league baseball, at the moment their trajectory doesn’t impact each other.
AC: So, speaking of Lindor, I think all fans want to know, with this top-5 prospect in all of baseball, what’s going to finish off his developmental curve? What will you see that makes him ready to come up to Cleveland and compete?
MS: I think consistency. Continuing to build the foundation of his routine and his preparation. I think the quality and consistency of both his at bats and his preparation are probably the keys. He’s got very limited time left in the minor leagues, and what he has, he has to use to prepare himself to have a foundation to handle both the mental and physical side up here. As a 21-year old there’s still some maturation both physically and mentally that he’s going through.
AC: So there’s no at bat threshold, certain amount of time you want for him in AAA or anything; when he’s ready, he’s ready?
MS: Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve said it before, but having seen it over decades, with players who are very good players, they set the timeframe for you. You don’t have to make decisions on them. It becomes very clear, very quickly that they’re not being challenged at the level they’re at, and that they’re ready to contribute up here or at least transition up here.
AC: Another thing in the 2nd half of last season was the incredible run that really the entire pitching staff put together. You tried to shore that up this offseason by picking up Gavin Floyd; obviously that didn’t work out when he re-injured his arm. Are you concerned at all about the starting pitching depth, even with 7 or 8 guys competing for 5 slots in the rotation? Is that something you wish you’d done more to address this offseason?
MS: Yeah, that’s why we signed Gavin Floyd. But the financial reality of the parameters that we have and the reality of starting pitching being such an inefficient market; I would point to this, Al…Brett Anderson, who hasn’t pitched more than 75 innings in the last four years got $10 million (from the Dodgers). Just stop and ponder that for a moment. Brett Anderson hasn’t pitched more than 75 innings in the last four years and got $10 million. So we took a guy who we thought was a little better risk than Brett, and gave him $4 million in the hope that he could pitch some or all of the season for us in the rotation and alleviate some depth concern and provide some veteran presence, all the while knowing it was very high risk, but that’s the nature of starting pitching, free agent starting pitching in particular. But we still have good options, particularly the way TJ has been throwing the ball.
|Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella|
AC: TJ is another guy I wanted to talk about. Did you see him coming up and pitching that well? He probably pitched better in the major leagues last year than he did at any stop in the minors on his way up. Is there anything in particular that keyed that success at the major league level?
MS: You know, that’s a good question. He’s an interesting guy to look at, because he’s not the prospect that came up and didn’t struggle, he’s a guy that struggled, and I think it’s his struggles that helped him to define both the pitcher he is and the mental approach he takes to the game. So when I look at him, having a tough and unconventional path to the major leagues, he’s a guy that was forced to confront some significant challenges along the way. And I think those things helped him to define how he’d be successful in both approach and his repertoire.
AC: Speaking of struggles, you have three guys at the major league level that had really tough years last year due to injury, three guys who you thought coming into last season were really going to be key guys in Kipnis, Swisher and Bourn. What are you looking for from those three guys this season? Do you see them as being able to get back to the level they were at pre-2014?
MS: I’d probably separate Swish out from those other two guys. But the one thing I can say about all three guys together, Al, is that the upside with our club lies in those three players.
AC: Right. There’s almost some course correction, some improvement, that you can hope for out of those three if they are healthy:
MS: Right. And then shifting to Kip, talking to every single player that I know about what they’ve gone through when they’ve strained an oblique, particularly during spring training, that is an extremely, extremely tough injury to battle back from. And in some ways it never truly heals, particularly when you do it right at the beginning of spring training. I think that impacted his swing, his mechanics. I would say among the things we’ve seen in camp this spring, his play and his physical level of preparedness is probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen this spring. I mean, he’s rifling balls to left and right field, he’s ran extremely well.
AC: Yeah, he’s going the other way better, and when he’s going the other way that’s a sign he’s really going good.
MS: Yeah, I’d say that, and just hard contact. He’s impacting the baseball, and running extremely well.
AC: The competition in the AL Central this year…Chicago went out and got a lot better this year, Detroit is probably slipping a little with losing Scherzer and getting a little older, but what’s the challenge in the Central this year? That’s a tough division to be in right now.
MS: It can pretty much be summed up as the best division in baseball. I think there’s a lot of parity throughout the game but it’s hard to argue that the Central isn’t the best division. There are four teams that you can make a compelling case to win the division. The interesting thing is that you can probably also say here are the flaws in those teams and the reasons why they won’t win the division. But as you noted, Chicago may be the most improved team in all of major league baseball, and they were probably a lot better than most people realize last year as well. The Tigers, while they could be termed as “declining” simply because of age, they’re declining from an elite level where they were probably capable of winning 115 games. That’s probably something people don’t realize there, different things have led to them underperforming relative to their talent level over the last few years, so they could easily go out and win 100 games this year. That’s how good they still are. Kansas City, obviously, has some challenges that we fight. They’re a very young, very talented core group of players, but they’ve also lost some guys.
|Photo Credit: Lianna Holub|
AC: One good thing to look at is the 2014 draft. It’s being roundly accepted as one of the best drafts in all of baseball, getting a guy like Bradley Zimmer that a lot of people saw going in the top 10-15. Did you have a plan to get guys like that, or did they just fall to you? How did that all work out?
MS: I think what we really try to challenge ourselves to do is to have our org slotted as well as we can possibly slot it. Over the years, probably over the past 5 or 6 drafts, we’ve gotten better each year at understanding about how to position our board most effectively, and I think that allows us to react to what happens in front of you without having to target specific players. Our goal and our intent is to get the best player available at the time we pick, each time we pick. There may be other variables like signability that factor into it, particularly in later rounds, but initially we just want to be in position to get the best player available. We have a set of criteria that’s constantly evolving that allows us to slot the board that factors in scouting information and every other piece of analytical data that we can possibly get our hands on.
AC: It has to be good to see guys like Zimmer and even Bobby Bradley, a kid who came right out of high school, already fitting in spring training games at the major league level, holding their own, showing that they belong there.
MS: Those are exciting guys. Both Zimmer and Bobby Bradley…Bradley may be one of the most exciting high school position players that I can remember. We’re excited about the draft. I’m hesitant to pay attention to what people talk about, judging draft classes too early. Judging draft classes should be 5 or 6 years later.
AC: You see a big explosion, seems like every year around this time, of pitchers going down with Tommy John, pitchers getting hurt, needing season-ending surgery. Is there anything the organization is doing to try to protect themselves against that? Obviously there’s no way to completely eliminate it, but is there anything you’re doing to try and reduce arm injuries? Are you avoiding young pitching prospects?
MS: No (not avoiding pitching prospects). We have certain things we look at that are somewhat predictive in terms of ability to stay healthy, ranging from arm action to delivery to usage…other physical parameters. But they’re not perfect. Human beings are far from perfect. We’re constantly seeking to learn and understand, there are adjustments kids have to make to keep guys healthy once we get them. Matt Harvey is a good example. He’s a guy we thought profiled to stay healthy and he still got hurt. Pitching is a tough, tough area. It’s an area where you never feel completely confident and secure. You do the best you can to control what you can control.
AC: Right, there’s clearly no magic bullet that says “this guy will have TJ, and this guy will never get hurt.”
MS: The likelihood with pitching is that at some point guys are probably going to have some type of arm injury. There may be some freaks of nature that don’t, but it’s an unnatural movement and motion, one that gets repeated a lot over a career.
AC: Seeing the opening of Cuba as a market, more so that before with defectors, as both the Indians President and a guy on the competition committee, what do you think of some of the big deals that are getting thrown to the Cuban guys that are coming over? Do you ever see an international draft because of some of the factors in the market down there?
MS: Well, it’s a little bit, probably, Indians-centric of me as a judgement, but I’d like to see some adjustment that allows access to that talent. As it’s currently being distributed, we are going to be marginal to non-players in that area just because of the level of risk, and that risk comes from lack of information. We just don’t know much about these guys. Unless there’s information being illegally obtained, they’re being signed largely from a tryout environment. I understand, and I’d probably take that risk if I ran a large-market team, but we don’t have that luxury. It’s not an area we can play in. We can’t risk tens of millions of dollars on players that we have far less information on than players in the draft that cost a lot less. So it’s just a very tough market for us to play in. I would like to see something that allows access to that talent on a more proportional basis, that’s not so market-based.
AC: Does it at least offer you an opportunity, with the big-market guys paying the Cuban players? The Red Sox can’t spend international money (bonus over $300k per the CBA) next year. Does that give you a little more of a market share with the Dominican, Venezuelan and Colombian kids?
MS: Slight. They’re going to do what they did this year. It might free us up a little for that one year, but they’ve already spend the money. For the next year maybe, maybe, for one team it takes them out of it. But that’s just one team, so it’s not going to dramatically change it.
AC: Looking at some of the excitement around the team this year, you have a lot of national guys, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, picking the Indians as a dark horse for the AL pennant. Some guys picking you to win the Central despite that tough competition we talked about earlier. Do you like being more of a dark horse or in the favorite role?
MS: If I had my preference, I’d probably prefer to fly under the radar. But I also like the credit, like seeing the credibility generated by the way we’re going about our business. People are starting to recognize the talent we have in our clubhouse, how we have some of the best players in major league baseball on our team. I like to see that recognized. But internally, very few people pay attention to that stuff. Our players probably have no idea, other than that there’s been a little more attention this spring.
AC: Ok, I can’t possibly go an entire interview with the Indians team President without talking about Yan Gomes. How happy are you with the contract that you were able to sign him to, and how good does that look moving forward?
MS: You and I have talked about that a lot (laughs). I love Yan. I love Yan the player, I love what he represents. He’s a winning player, the kind of guy, the kind of player that I’d prefer to have represent the Indians. The fact that we can control him, and the fact that he’s so happy to be a part of the long-term plan here. I think it’s empowered a guy like him, and Michael Brantley, to take even more of a leadership role here. Leadership gets asserted in different ways by different guys, but those are both guys who, the way they go about their business, is a form of leadership and is inspirational in some ways. I’m excited to watch Yan continue to mature, and there’s not much doubt at this point, already, that he’s one of the best catchers in the American League.
AC: Speaking of Brantley, his 2014 was one of the best seasons by an Indians position player in recent years. Do we think that 2014 Brantley is the new normal? Or is that going to be a little bit of an outlier for him, with him coming back to earth a little bit?
MS: Obviously, there’s an analytical case to be made that he will regress some. But I think what offsets some of the analytical concern is knowing the guy. He’s a determined guy, extremely committed to his level of preparation. So while I wouldn’t be surprised to see him regress some…but look, guys like Kluber and Brantley, the years they had, some regression is not unexpected, but that would not mean they had a bad year.
AC: Thanks again so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me again, and good luck this year.