Once Close to World Series, Tribe Fallen on Hard Times

By Bob Nightengale, USA Today

One pitch. One game. One series.

That was all that stood in the way of baseball eminence for the San Diego Padres, Cleveland Indians and Arizona Diamondbacks.

They were the future.

They fell just short of reaching the 2007 World Series, but surely, they would all be back the following year. And again.

Instead, these once-powerful contenders with championship aspirations have been reduced to rebuilding projects with bleak prospects of a quick turnaround.

“I still can’t believe what happened,” says New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia, traded by the Indians in 2008. “I mean, we just have to win one more game. Just one game. And we would not have only gone to the World Series, but I’m sure we would have won it.

“I still think about that.”

The Indians, with a 3-1 lead on the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, lost the next three games. They haven’t come close to sniffing the playoffs since. They finished this year with 97 losses, tied with the Kansas City Royals for the fourth-worst record in baseball. They traded Cy Young Award winners Sabathia and Cliff Lee in consecutive seasons. And they fired manager Eric Wedge.

“They had to make a decision,” said Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, traded in July 2008 from Cleveland. “Either stick with this group or start over again. Just one game changed the direction of that organization.”‘

Says Sabathia: “With the young guys we had, I was sure we’d be back. I really thought we’d be together for a long time.

“But once we got off to a slow start, things changed so quickly. Now, the only guy really left is (center fielder) Grady (Sizemore). It’s weird.”

The Diamondbacks were in the National League Championship Series against the Colorado Rockies. They were swept, but with the team so young, they were convinced they’d be back. They finished last in the NL West in 2009, losing 92 games.

“We got there so fast, I thought we’d back to the playoffs every year,” Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton says. “You didn’t expect this. None of us did.”

Small margin for error

The Padres were one pitch away from the 2007 playoffs. Closer Trevor Hoffman watched Tony Gwynn Jr., then with the Milwaukee Brewers, slap a two-out, two-strike single into right field, tying the score in the ninth, delaying the celebration. They wound up losing that game. And again the next day against Milwaukee. And again the next day in a one-game tiebreaker against Colorado.

“We were a good team, not a great team,” said shortstop Khalil Greene, traded the following winter to the St. Louis Cardinals, “but I still thought we’d be back. Everybody did. We had the pitching to carry us.”

The Padres instead have lost 186 games the last two years. They fired general manager Kevin Towers. They traded ace Jake Peavy. They plan on playing next year with the smallest payroll in baseball.

“There’s a small margin of error for small- and mid-market teams,” Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro says. “You have to appreciate how precious the opportunity is to get to the postseason. Our windows are smaller, and so is the margin for error.”

The most difficult aspect, Shapiro says, is knowing when to stay a contender and when to fold. If you make the wrong move, Shapiro says, the penalty could set back an organization for at least eight years.

“I thought our window was probably through 2010,” Shapiro says. “I fully expected us to be there. But it didn’t work that way. The financial realties for us were exacerbated to speed up that window.

“And that window was closing, not opening.”

The payroll problem

The Padres had a nice blend of youth and experience, favoring the older side. Yet they figured the young players would continue to improve, and the veterans had more time.

“But once guys started making money,” Greene says, “the payroll got too high for them. We lost some key guys to free agency. And everything just started changing.”

The Padres say they couldn’t afford to keep outfielders Mike Cameron and Milton Bradley, who departed as free agents. Jake Peavy, the 2007 Cy Young winner, won nine fewer games and pitched 60 fewer innings. Hoffman’s ERA soared to nearly a run higher. Starter Chris Young made 18 starts and pitched 71 fewer innings.

The Padres lost 99 games the following year, finishing with the third-worst record in baseball.

“You can’t do it year after year, not in that market,” Hoffman says. “We actually had a nice little run, starting in ’05. But if you don’t refresh your team with youth, you’re going to have problems.

“It caught up with us — big time.”

Hoffman, who is now with Milwaukee, shook his head. The days when the Padres were perennial contenders now seem like a distant memory.

“It’s not like we were winning World Series championships,” Hoffman says, “but it still hurts to see what happened. If you’re a small market, you better have minor leaguers coming. We never did.

“That’s why if you get to the playoffs, you better enjoy it. That’s why unless you’re playing for New York or Boston, you don’t know if you’ll ever get back. Some never do.

“That’s the reality of baseball.”