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Gammons: There is hope in the heartland

Gammons: There is hope in the heartland

It's different in the case of the Indians. Oh, ascending general manager Chris Antonetti admits, "Mark [Shapiro] and I hope we can get back to the point where we're buyers, not sellers at the deadline," but they are only three years from winning 96 games and being up 3-1 in the ALCS, and five years from going to the final day of the season against the eventual world champion White Sox.

What Shapiro, Antonetti and the Cleveland organization built worked, but for misfortune, not to mention the fact that two times in three years they were beaten by the world champions. The window then simply closed, and in a market that has lost households and corporate strength as well as its professional sports identity, the window has to be reopened cautiously, gradually, without luxury or immediate solutions. The fact that they were so close in 2005 and 2007, were so good when The Jake was sold out every night in the '90s, just makes it harder when market realities forced CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez to be traded fewer than two years after being within a game of the World Series.

In the cases of the Royals and Pirates, it's been generations since they were relevant. You don't have to be Bill James to remember how good the Royals were for a decade, how they were just about the best team in the American League from 1976-78, won the pennant in 1980 and the World Series in 1985. Problem is, since the strike of '94 they've had one winning season, the only season in which they won as many as 77 games.

Sure, some folks in Pittsburgh remember how good the Pirates were in the '70s, when they won two World Series, made the playoffs six times and with Willie Stargell and Dave Parker had one of the most colorful teams of its era. But you'd probably have to be a grad student to remember when the Pirates last had a winning team. It goes back to 1992, Barry Bonds' last season in Pittsburgh, the last year of a three-year run in which Jim Leyland's teams averaged 96 wins but saw the era end with a heartbreaking NLCS loss to the Braves.

They are three small-market teams in the heartland. The Indians draw fewer than 18,000 fans a game, the smallest attendance in the game. The Pirates draw the fifth fewest, the Royals sixth fewest, a few more than the Oakland Athletics, who are stranded in the Al Davis Memorial Coliseum and Refuse Center.

"In a situation like ours," says Pirates GM Neal Huntington, "we have to try to build the most solid foundation possible. There are no easy solutions. I understand why fans get frustrated, because it's been a long time since the Pirates had a winning team. So we focus on what we hope is the right way to build a team that has some sustained success."

"There are ups and there are downs, but I try to focus on the fact that we're working in what I love -- scouting and development," says Royals GM Dayton Moore. "What we have to do is long-term. We try to make incremental deals to improve the team, but that's hard. What's important is to build an organization from the ground up and try to bring them up together and when they get to the big leagues, try to keep them together."

But as Shapiro and Antonetti know, part of the problem with the small markets is that they require bringing groups of players along at the same time so that the window allows them to win before the reality of fattening frogs for snakes hits, free agency arrives for star players, agents ring up the big-market teams and it becomes impossible to even think about retaining Sabathia or Lee.

So, when the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline came and went, what the Indians, Pirates and Royals were left with was more financial flexibility, a little more youth and a couple of guys they could dream on. Cleveland moved Jake Westbrook, Kerry Wood and Austin Kearns and got a pitching prospect named Corey Kluber and some names to watch from the Yankees organization. The Pirates moved five players they signed as low-risk free agents for six young players, even throwing in money to acquire catcher Chris Snyder from Arizona and hopefuls James McDonald and outfielder Andrew Lambo from the Dodgers for Octavio Dotel. The Royals moved Scott Podsednik, Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth and got back catcher Lucas May and prospect arm Elisaul Pimentel from the Dodgers and an intriguing 5-foot-7 fireballing left-handed reliever from the Braves named Tim Collins, who could soon be a complement to Joakim Soria.

The Royals also designated Jose Guillen for assignment, to allow Alex Gordon to develop in right field, because development is what the next 12 months is about. "We can't concern ourselves with things some might consider as bad luck," Moore says. "We have to stick to what we believe in."

In Moore's case, he had the misfortune to have David DeJesus hurt his thumb before the Trading Deadline, when the Giants, Red Sox and other teams were willing to deal two prospects apiece for him. He's seen Luke Hochevar get hurt, while the Pirates have spent months trying to figure out how in the world Ross Ohlendorf and Charlie Morton can be a combined 2-18. And the Indians? In a season in which they've had to play long stretches without their three best players -- Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera -- they brought up the centerpiece of the next generation, catcher Carlos Santana, and on Aug. 2 he hurt his knee in a home-plate collision in Boston and is lost for the season.

"The way we look at it," says Shapiro, "is that it could have been a lot worse. It could have ended his career."

As dark as it seems, all three once-great baseball towns have hope.

"The Royals and Pirates have done what small-market teams should do with their revenue-sharing money," says one big-market general manager. "The last couple of years they've gone over slot on Draft choices, they've spent heavily in the international market and really worked hard rather than waste revenues on mediocre veteran players."

The Indians are probably the closest to getting back to competitiveness. "We've looked back at where we started in the rebuilding process in 2002," says Antonetti. That season, they traded Bartolo Colon to the Expos for Sizemore, Lee and Brandon Phillips, a rebuilding trade rivaled only by the Mark Teixeira deal between Texas and Atlanta, which sent five good players, including Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus, to the Rangers.

"Looking at what we had then and what we have now, I think we're probably deeper elong time."

Sizemore is only 28 and returns next year to an outfield with All-Star Choo, Michael Brantley and Trevor Crowe. Nick Weglarz, all 240 pounds of him, has an .893 OPS in Triple-A at the age of 22. Cabrera is an outstanding shortstop. Matt LaPorta is a developing bat at first. Santana has a chance to be a star; he had 82 walks and 68 strikeouts between Columbus and Cleveland. At Akron, 21-year old Lonnie Chisenhall is a potential middle-order hitter, Jason Donald has played very well for the Indians, while they have three other second base prospects: Jason Kipnis (.908 OPS, 13 HR between Kinston and Akron), Cord Phelps (.316 between Akron and Columbus) and Josh Rodriguez, who can play short and third and has a .902 OPS.

Finding power arms has been a problem. Since Adam Miller's promising career was cut short by a finger injury, the Indians have found a number of command lefties, but have lacked strikeout pitchers. Last year's top pick, Alex White, moved up to Akron and has dominated with a mid-90s fastball that has helped produce a 1.84 ERA.

"What helps make him special is that he is hyper-competitive," says Antonetti, who would not be surprised if White jumped into the big leagues sometime next season.

Carlos Carrasco throws in the 90s with three pitches, is 9-4 in Columbus and is only 23. Jason Knapp, who also came from Philadelphia in the Lee trade, is throwing in the high 90s in the lower Minors. Last year's third-round pick after White and Kipnis, Joe Gardner, is 10-5, 2.92 with a 123-48 strikeouts-to-walks ratio between Lake County and Kinston. Jeanmar Gomez threw well in his brief stint in Cleveland. Hector Rondon is a big arm. And they got Kluber from the Padres and will know in the next 10 days if they can sign this June's No.1 pick, Mississippi left-hander Drew Pomerantz, or whether they'll take the same pick in the deeper and more talented 2011 Draft.

If the Indians can develop a couple of their pitchers and avoid the plague of physical misfortune that has made 2010 so difficult, they can quickly be back in the competitive AL Central. It may be a season longer for the Royals, but by this time next season they will have a year's experience for Gordon in right field and Kila Ka'aihue at first base and DH. Billy Butler is an All-Star hitter and their two best prospects, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas, should be ready for the Majors.

Moore is cautious. "I'd rather be a little late bringing a kid to the Majors than too early," he says. But Hosmer and Moustakas are impact, character players.

"Wherever Moustakas plays, his team wins," says Moore, who has seen his third baseman jump a teammate for complaining about his manager pinch-hitting for him. Farther on down the road are athletic outfielders Jarrod Dyson and Derrick Robinson, as well as 19-year old catcher William Myers. Their top pick in June, Long Beach shortstop Christian Colon, should be quick to Kansas City.

Obviously, it's been a frustrating season for Zack Greinke, but he is a No. 1 starter without run support. Hochevar's develop has been slowed by injury, but in Soria they have an affordable, high-end closer to protect their young pitchers as they come up -- Mike Montgomery, Aaron Crow (who has struggled in Double-A despite his great stuff), John Lamb and Chris Dwyer.

"Looking at how they're building," says one NL GM, "they can start to be very interesting the second half of next season."

As should the Pirates. They are already a far different team than what they were at the beginning of last season. Andrew McCutchen has already won over Pirates fans. Now they have Pedro Alvarez at third, Jose Tabata in the outfield, Neil Walker at second. McDonald had a dazzling debut Thursday. They have to allow Brad Lincoln to develop, hope right-hander Bryan Morris makes it sometime next season, and try to patch until their best arms like Rudy Owens, Zach Von Rosenberg, Tim Alderson, Jeff Locke and Quinton Miller develop and identify themselves as what they can be in the Major Leagues.

By signing a number of over-slot power arms last season, this June they could think about talent rather than signability and rapid big league ascension and took what may have been two of the three best high school arms in Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie; now they have to get them signed in the next 10 days.

Adding Snyder gives them a pitcher-oriented catcher who buys time for 2009 No. 1 pick Tony Sanchez, a surefire Major League catcher whose jaw was shattered by a pitch six weeks ago in the Florida State League.

What is frustrating for Shapiro, Antonetti, Huntington and Moore is that while they are trying to build for the long haul and they hope for the soundest structure around their windows, their fans don't want to hear about the future.

In Cleveland, they see Sabathia and Lee in the World Series, and hear the magic number "1948" -- the year the Indians last won the Series. Pirates fans have been through failed, ill-financed rebuildings and remember only that's it been almost 20 years since Bonds left, and they last won. Royals fans know what it's like to be a premium franchise, and what it's been like since the strike.

"We have to do what we believe to be right," says Huntington. "But we also have to appreciate why our fans lose patience. It's been a long time, which is why getting it right is more important to small-markets than ever before."

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["columnist_peter_gammons" ] }
{"content":["columnist_peter_gammons" ] }