The Eric Wedge Scouting Report, or "Who Screwed Who?"

I live in Cleveland, so  I figured I'd drop by and write this, so you guys have some idea of what to expect. Life with Eric Wedge is going to be interesting-- and it might even be good.

Wedge left town to mixed reviews, with two big questions about his ability unanswered Neither could be answered until he joined a new team. Some people feel he's an excellent manager; some think he's worthless. I'm with the first group, but there is a possibility that Seattle bought a bag of snakes.

 Question 1.  Is Wedge any good with young players? That is, "Does he like to play young players?" and "Is he any good at developing them"  The Indians' track record under Wedge was mixed, but there's no way to assign responsibility for that.

 At the start of the 2001 season, Mark Shapiro was promoted to GM replacing John Hart. Shapiro inherited Charlie Manuel as manager, and the two did not get along. In 2001, his second season as manager, Manuel.decided that he wanted C.C. Sabathia-- who was 20 and had pitched only 248 innings, none above AA-- on his roster.

 Shapiro, who has stated more than once that he likes young players to spend at least a year at every minor-league level-- was violently opposed to it. Manuel fought for it both in the clubhouse and with the media-- and Sabathia pitched well enough in spring to justify it. So he went north with the team.

 Shapiro never forgot it-- even though the Indians made it back to the playoffs (losing to this overrated team having a fluke year), he didn't reward Manuel with a contract extension. In mid-2002, Manuel went to Shapiro and said "Either give me an extension or fire me right now-- I can't do my job if everyone thinks I'm a lame duck."

 Shapiro fired him and promoted Joel Skinner to interim manager. After the season, Shapiro expected to retain Skinner, but gave Wedge (the AAA manager) and some other guys courtesy interview. Wedge knocked Shapiro's socks off and won the job.

From 2003-2009, the Indians had a very mixed record with young talent. They developed two Cy Young Award winners (Sabathia and the current Mr. October) and produced three other All-Stars: C Victor Martinez, CF Grady Sizemore and DH Travis Hafner (P Fausto Carmona was not selected until after Wedge was fired). 2B-SS Asdrubal Cabrera looks like a keeper; for a while, SS-3B Jhonny Peralta did.

However, the Indians failed miserably with 2B Brandon Phillips-- and ended up giving him away. 3B Andy Marte was a "can't-miss player" who has, so far, missed; 1B Matt LaPorta (payment for Sabathia) hasn't established himself yet.  2B Josh Barfield, after a good rookie year in San Diego, cratered in Cleveland and also got dumped. RF Franklin Gutierrez did not establish himself and was traded.  And, while it no longer seems like a black mark, Milton Bradley staged his first public eruption on Wedge's watch.

There are a bunch of other players who get dragged into the negative side-- Ryan Ludwisk, Coco Crisp, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeremy Sowers Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez, Ryan Garko, Kelly Shoppach, Luke Scott..

At the same time, a ton of veterans who proved to be utterly worthless-- Jason Michaels, David Dellucci, Trot Eduardo Perez,, Brady Anderson, Ricky Gutierrez, to name the first five I can think of-- were brought in. They played. And played. And played.

Did this happen because the manager was as some charge) is a worthless pile of crap who hated rookies and loved old guys? Or was it the fault of the  risk-averse Shapiro (who always seemed to be able to find a reason not to take a chance with a kid)?

It might have been some combination of both. Wedge often talked about how it was disrespectful to bring in a veteran and then humiliate him by not playing him. It's possible, had Shapiro not stuck him with guys like 3B Aaron Boone and RP Roberto Hernandez, he would never have asked for them. Or maybe it was Wedge's decision to ask for them and he approved every decision.

We don't really know. Both Shapiro and Wedge are closemouthed, and every decision was supposedly a joint decision. If a decision began to look bad, Shapiro would tell his pet writers that he'd "given Eric what he asked for."  Asked for his side, Wedge would refuse to talk.  As a result, Wedge is credited/blamed with the decisions to dispatch Phillips and Bradley and Barfield-- which, if true, would not reflect well on him


Sidebar: If you like Ozzie Guillen, Lou Piniella, Buck Showalter and Bobby Valentine, you will absolutely despise Eric. Wedge. He's an old-fashioned 'What happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse' guy who won't give the media a thing-- not even if it is making him look bad. Get used to hearing "it was an internal decision and I'm not going to comment."  I lived through Marty Schottenheimer and Bill Belichick and they're Tommy Lasorda compared to Wedge.


I'm leaning on Wedge's side in this one, simply because we did get to see Shapiro run the team for two years without Wedge, and you saw the same sort of veteran scrubs being brought in. Plus there is the past season. Shapiro has always argued that the Pre-Wedge veterans were desperation moves, trying to squeeze a title out of an aging talent core.

Maybe it's true. Maybe Wedge loves journeyman. We'll see what he does with the Mariners

Question 2.  Why were his teams so terrible in April, September and October? If you're old enough to remember Earl Weaver, Eric Wedge will seem oddly similar. Only once-- in 2007, when they won the division-- did his team have a .500 record in April. Usually they had horrendous starts.

In Wedge's good years, the team would right itself in late May and come down the stretch, grinding every opponent they met into mush. They'd even finish with a Weaver trademark-- the late collapse:

  • In 2004, they had a chance to finish .500, but had a 2-7 stretch in September against the Tigers and Royals.
  • In 2005, they were 92-63 with seven games left and looked like they were going to blow by Chicago. (93-61 and puffing hard). They lost six of the last seven-- three to the Royals and Devil Rays and then three straight to the Wihte Sox..
  • IN 2007, they didn't choke down the stretch, but they gagged with a 3-1 lead on the Red Sox in the ALCS.

In the other years, the Indians started bad and never climbed out of the toilet.

Wedge's defenders have very convincing explanation for most of the slow starts. Typically there were some major moves in the off-season-- most of which busted out on a grand scale. The team would spring a gigantic hole (twice in the bullpen, once in the offense, once in the rotation) and blow games repeatedly.

In April and May, you'd see Wedge, his coaches and the font office trying anything and everything to make the bleeding stop. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

On this one, I'm in Wedge's corner on one point and against him on the other. Every winter, the front office would make deals where you could tell going in that it wouldn't work. In 2006, the opening bullpen was Rafael Betancourt, Guillermo Mota, Danny Graves, Scott Sauerbeck and Matt Miller. Bob Wickman was injured; the front office had let Bob Howry go.

When a team has a terrible start and ends up having to cut a bunch of players-- and all of the guys they dumped do nothing-- that suggests the front office is to blame. When they keep battling and climb back into it with the new crew, that says something pretty impressive about the manager. Eric Wedge won't quit, and neither will his teams.

But, like Earl Weaver, there's nothing positive to say about the record in critical games. As Bill Parcells says, you are your record, and Wedge's is bad. I don't know if he has players too tight, or whether he gets outmanaged. Maybe the problem was that it wasn't clear that Sabathia was the new Don Newcombe (Newk went 0-4 with an 8.59 ERA in five postseason starts).

We'll see if Wedge can do anything about that with another team. I wouldn't bet on it, though. Managers with bad post-season records tend to carry that along (Tony La Russa .being another).

Strengths: Marvelous hand with a rotation. He and Willis were the ones who built Sabathia and Cliff Lee. They grabbed Jake Westbrook and bullied him into throwing his sinker. Wedge got one year with Kevin Millwood and the guy led the league in ERA. He somehow managed to get two consecutive healthy seasons from Paul Byrd . He gets at least some credit for Fausto Carmona.. And his ability to get value from guys like Brian Anderson and Scott Elarton is spooky.

I'm sure Cliff Lee wouldn't give Wedge any credit for it, but he and Martinez were crucial in Lee's development. At one point, Lee liked to do nothing but throw high fastballs, with an occasional breaking ball. Because he was pretty much a one-pitch pitcher, he'd have to pitch carefully and run his pitch counts very high. 
Wedge, WIllis and Martinez kept badgering Lee to throw his breaking stuff and to stop nibbling. Lee wouldn't do it-- and in 2007, the Indians sent him down to the minors with a bloated ERA, telling him to work on his breaking stuff.
Lee yelled and screamed and fumed and moaned about it   But when he showed up in 2008, he wasn't the same pitcher. I'm convinced it happened .because Lee knew he wouldn't play if he wasn't doing what Wedge wanted. Very powerful tool, simetimes.

 Wedge's pitchers usually don't get arm injuries (unless they had bum arms before they got to him). He'll pick five guys that he likes and stick with them (in most seasons, he'll get 130-150 starts out of his front five). If he doesn't like anyone, he'll hold open auditions.... but if he likes someone, he'll stay with the guy. Except for the last year, he won't et a starter go much past 100 pitches.

Second strength is an absolute commitment to what he believes in. Wedge can't stand pitchers who don't throw strikes. He isn't one of those guys who says he does-- and then keeps using Ryan Rowland-Smith, so players get mixed messages. A player who isn't doing what Wedge has asked for won't be playing long, unless he  has no other options.

When Bradley stopped running out grounders and pops, Wedge chewed his butt. When he didn't run on a spring-training pop-up that got dropped and should have been a double, Wedge pulled him out of the game, told him to go home and pack. He then went to the front office and said "if you don't get rid of him, get rid of me. If you keep him, you won't win."

It was gutsy and proved to be substantially correct.  If Wedge is sure he's right, he will fight for what he believes in. When he was hired as manager, Shapiro suggested that he go with Eddie Murray (Shapiro's favorite player, from when he lived in Baltimore as a kid) as hitting coach and Mike Brown as pitching coach..

Midway through spring training, Wedge told Shapiro that he needed Willis. They'd worked together in the minors, they were on the same page. He and Brown didn't agree on pitching philosophy and it wouldn't work out. Shapiro asked him to try it for a year. Wedge said he couldn't-- that if they were going to rebuild, he needed his guy from Day One. And Shapiro caved.

Pretty gutsy move for a rookie manager. And there has been pitching problems, he would have paid for it. But he stuck to his guns and it worked.

And, because he keeps everything internal, there won't be any public fights.

 Weaknesses:  We've covered two of the big charges, so here's some other stuff. When Wedge makes up his mind about a player, he doesn't change it easily. Or maybe at all.

Wedge grew up on John Wayne movies, and its imprints are deep. He likes to talk about "respecting the game"-- and if someone isn't behaving like he wants them to, he's gonna get frustrated with them.   He and Phillips didn't get along, and I think he did run the kid out of town.  I can't imagine Shapiro tolerating a Bill Lee or Jay Johnstone, or managing the Gas House Gang-- or the 1970's Yankees or A's.

Not a great X's and O's manager. Because he is very confident in his judgment, he is very patient with players-- which will cost him games. He'll go with a guy who isn't hitting his weight-- or a reliever who hasn't gotten anyone out in a month-- and you'll go crazy.

Often this works out long-term-- if your #1 prospect is hitting .115 in April, he'll still be playing in May (the only guy who didn't was Marte). But it's very painful as it happens and he isn't always right.

He's not fun to watch. Doesn't believe that running produces wins (he thinks more in terms of losing outs than gaining bases), so he won't do it. Intensely dislikes the bunt and isn't fond of the hit-and-run (forcing the batter to swing is what gets him). So, if nobody's hitting, it'll appear like he isn't doing anything

 Whether he'll change in Seattle (the Cleveland park was neutral), I don't know. If he's a good manager, he'll adapt. If he is what his critics charge, he'll refuse to change.

Bottom Line: Yes, hiring him is risk. If Shapiro was really the brains of the duo-- if Wedge screwed up the GM's blueprint-- this could get awfully ugly. He'll want Bradley gone-- that's a given-- and if he decides that Ichiro and King Felix don't "respect the game", he'll make it a "him or me" deal.

But Wedge presided over the complete teardown and rebuild of a franchise-- 90 wins to 90 losses to 90 wins.. 'Despite having no draft picks who were any good-- it was all done with foreign players and trade pickups-- he had a record over .500 until his final year.

If Jack Zduriencik can get Wedge some players-- and they're Wedge's kind of players-- I could see the Mariners getting very good, very quickly.  If Shapiro was the guy who screwed-- Wedge, by not giving him young players and importing all the Ronnie Belliards and Jason Johnsons-- Seattle might actually have another Earl Weaver.

I can think of much bigger risks.

For More Information:  After the 2007 season Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto wrote a book on the rebuilding process. It's an interesting book, with a lot of inside stuff. Wedge is a major character and since it's probably remaindered for $1.19 now, it would be a good place to get acquainted.

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