© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
CLEVELAND -- Somewhere between the Cavaliers' historic 55-point loss to the Lakers and the Browns' hiring of what seems like their 55th head coach since 1999, the thought occurred to me that the most pessimistic sports town in America must be feeling particularly pessimistic these days.
For the Cavs, it's just like starting over, in the wake of LeBron James' departure and the startling revelation that, during his tenure here, he might have actually had some impact on the team regularly being a playoff contender. With James gone, the Cavs have taken their "All for One, One for All" slogan a bit too literally, winning precisely one of their last 22 games, as of this writing. To the lottery they limp.
Then you have the Browns, for whom turnover is even more frequent than turnovers. The only constant with the "new" Browns over the last 11 seasons -- aside from losses, of course -- has been fan support. But that loyalty has, aside from one lone and unfulfilling playoff appearance, largely gone unrewarded, thanks to objectionable acquisitions and dismal drafts. Last year, it appeared the new regime, led by Mike Holmgren, got it right on the latter end, but as much as Browns fans can talk themselves into anything, it will probably take at least one or two more of those strong showings on draft day for the team to turn it around.
All of which brings us to the Indians, possessors of the longest-tenured leader in town in manager Manny Acta (he's, uh, been here for 15 months) and a reputation for retooling, thanks to the trades of two Cy Young Award winners and, well, everybody else over the age of 28 not named Travis Hafner.
Yet when held up to the standards of their Cleveland counterparts, suddenly the Tribe's rebuilding résumé doesn't look quite so repugnant, does it?
Thanks to a little thing known as the salary cap, the rebuilding concept is, in theory, much more efficiently seen to its fruition in the NBA -- where, as the Cavs proved, you just need one premier guy to build around -- and the NFL. Immediately -- and not even delving into the muddy waters of baseball economics -- this places the Indians at a disadvantage, when it comes to capturing the imagination of the local fan populace.
Never mind that the Indians' last rebuild, tenuous as the end result might have been, saw the club win 93 games and barely miss the postseason just three years removed from the initiation of the process. And never mind that such a turnaround looks like -- wait for it, "Spaceballs" fans -- "ludicrous speed" when compared to the ongoing and longstanding droughts in places like Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Cleveland possesses a bit of an impatient fan base. A nearly 50-year wait between titles will do that to a town.
But the Cavs' downfall presents an interesting opportunity for an Indians team that, in recent years, has seen even its most attractive first-half games suffer at the gates, thanks in no small part to LeBron, ahem, lighting it up like Las Vegas next door at the Q.
While 2011 is not projected to see the Tribe take that grand leap into contention, it is most definitely a time when this team, which attracted the lowest attendance total in the Majors last season, has a chance to win back the hearts of -- or, at the least, generate some interest from -- even the most fickle fans.
In order for that to happen, a lot must go right for an organization that, to be sure, has seen more than its fair share of things go wrong and has not majored in good luck the last few years. As I wrote last week, the Indians need to prove this season that they got some value out of the CC Sabathia trade, and it's up to Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley to do the proving. But there are certainly some other pieces here that could allow the Indians to take that step from rebuild to respectability.
To me, it all begins with Carlos Santana, whose Major League debut created the only legitimate buzz in Progressive Field last season -- aside, of course, from Stephen Strasburg taking the mound for the Nationals and the gates opening at Snow Days.
It is completely unfair to place a heavy burden of expectations on a guy who has just 150 big league at-bats to his name and who is coming off an injury. But Santana's surgery wasn't invasive enough to lead to major concern about him being ready for Opening Day, and his premier plate discipline is a skill that carries over considerably well.
The bottom line is that an Indians lineup with Shin-Soo Choo (whose rising star I'll address in a later column) and Santana in prominent spots is infinitely more interesting than many of the injury-riddled lineups Acta and his predecessor, Eric Wedge, were forced to turn in the last couple years. And any fans still bemoaning the loss of Victor Martinez have plenty of reason to stop crying into their catcher's mitts.
Hey, Santana was even the subject of a "Jeopardy!" question the other night. His star is rising.
Another asset the Indians have working for them is closer Chris Perez. The horrid bullpen endured by the Indians in recent years has been corrected considerably by Perez's maturation into the closer's role, and his presence at the back end can have a calming effect on the rest of the ballclub. What's more, in Perez's personality, the Indians have a new marketable asset. He has true closer's confidence (not to mention the right hair for the job), and his candidness resonates well in these parts. The Indians should take advantage of that.
Speaking of marketability, the Indians figure to have Grady Sizemore back on the field. Of course, it was Grady's boyish good looks that won him over with the female fan base and his uncompromising style of play -- equal parts fearless and reckless -- that won him over with the men. Rest assured, ladies, the former survived two years' worth of injuries, but the latter led to a complex knee surgery that leaves Sizemore's future performance in potential peril.
Much like the fictitious Billy Mumphrey in that equally fictitious "Seinfeld" episode, Grady's unbridled enthusiasm led to his downfall. The people firmly expecting him to contribute at his 2008 level this season are probably guilty of a bit of unbridled enthusiasm themselves. But again, from an advertising standpoint, having a player of Sizemore's caliber on the field, in any form, is a good thing for this ballclub.
Where the Indians will suffer, obviously, is in the rotation. Incremental improvements and a Fausto Carmona comeback aside, the Tribe still possesses a rather rag-tag bunch, relative to the likes of the Tigers, White Sox and Twins. That said, who's to say Carlos Carrasco, who provided some September sizzle last season, isn't ready to take the leap toward the forefront? And an Alex White debut -- which appears possible in the second half, if his 2010 performance at the Double-A level is any indication -- would attract interest, as well.
I think back to that Strasburg game and the packed house at Progressive that Sunday afternoon. It was an all-too-necessary reminder that burgeoning baseball talent -- not just fireworks shows or bobblehead giveaways -- still resonates with people in this town. The Indians need it to resonate enough to start generating adequate revenues, because then and only then will they have an offseason in which signing Austin Kearns doesn't constitute the extent of their expenditures.
Of course, fans here were slow to warm to even the 2007 team that won an AL Central title and finished a win shy of the World Series, and they'll be slow to adopt this latest incarnation of the Indians, too. But if the Indians can show that some of the seeds they've sown the last few years are ready to bloom and can hover around .500, they can finally start to register on the radar again.
After all, given the exploits of this town's NBA and NFL entries, the current sporting standard here is not all that difficult to overcome.