Life in the toughest division in baseball is a difficult assignment for any team, but the organization built by general manager Mark Shapiro in Cleveland should ensure that the Indians, currently leading the AL Wild Card race, should remain in contention for years to come.
Not only has Shapiro rebuilt this team within payroll, he has secured most of the key pieces for the next several years, which should provide the kind of winning stability the franchise last enjoyed during the 1990s.
The three-year extension given Eric Wedge last week, which will keep the manager with the Indians through the 2010 season, is the latest in a string of shrewd moves by Shapiro to keep the club on course. It was thought that the Indians wouldn't talk contract with Wedge -- whose old deal had a two-year option -- until after the season, but with the club playing very well and only a game behind Detroit at the break, Shapiro tore up Wedge's old contract and gave him the new deal.
"We believe Eric is part of the core here," Shapiro said. "You take the most important leader we've got on the field, and line him up with this group of players, and that further demonstrates the consistency and stability we're looking for.
"This is a guy who has maximized the talent on this team. You can go around the diamond, and individually look at some of the challenges, and he's gotten the most out of our players. He's done that by working with a staff that gives him respect, and [one can see] the way the players have responded to him."
Four days before Wedge's new deal was announced, Shapiro exercised the 2008 option on designated hitter Travis Hafner and signed him to a four-year, $57 million extension through 2012. The Indians also hold a team option for 2013.
Though signing left-hander C.C. Sabathia -- currently tied with Boston's Josh Beckett for the Major League lead with 13 victories and signed through the 2008 season -- to an extension remains an unfinished task, Shapiro has most of the franchise foundation in place for the next three years.
Shapiro, who himself signed an extension back in March that will keep him with the Indians through 2012, and assistant GMs Chris Antonetti (2011) and John Mirabelli (2010) are also secured through the decade.
Almost half the current 25-man roster is locked up through 2009 or beyond.
Hafner and center fielder Grady Sizemore (club option for 2013) are signed through 2012. Jake Westbrook (signed to a three-year, $33 million extension earlier this season) and Jhonny Peralta are secured through 2010. The Indians have a 2011 option on Peralta.
Cliff Lee is signed through 2009, with a club option for 2010. Victor Martinez's contract runs through 2009 (club option for 2010), and the pact of injured outfielder David Dellucci expires following the 2009 season. Sabathia and Jason Michaels are locked up through 2008. The club has a 2009 option on Michaels.
Ryan Garko, Fausto Carmona, Rafael Perez, Josh Barfield, Ben Francisco and Kelly Shoppach aren't signed to multi-year deals, but they are under club control for at least the next five years.
The talent is in place for the Indians to remain contenders for the next several years, and if that happens, you can credit the stability that Shapiro's decisions have fostered.
Pearls from the diamond:
The Cubs traded for Jason Kendall primarily for his bat, but one scout believes that Kendall's defense should not be underestimated when it comes to weighing what he will mean to surging Chicago. At the time of Kendall's arrival, Cubs catchers had thrown out a league-worst 11 percent of opposing baserunners attempting to steal.
Boston's Kason Gabbard has exceeded expectations since being inserted into the rotation. Gabbard has pitched so well (4-0 and 2.97 overall, including 3-0 and 1.92 in July), the Red Sox could soon find themselves in an enviable position of having more starters than rotation spots when Curt Schilling returns from shoulder tendinitis, perhaps as soon as next week.
It was expected that when Schilling returns, Gabbard would go the bullpen or keep starting in the Minor Leagues. But the Sox could decide to keep Gabbard around, which means that someone else would have to go.
Most of the trade-deadline attention in Cincinnati this week is on Adam Dunn, but a few people in the game believe that Kyle Lohse is the Red most likely to be on the move.
"He's got plus stuff," one scout said. "He's got enough going for him where teams think they'd have a shot of getting him turned around, plus he wouldn't cost a lot."
There's been no in-betweens with Lohse. In his five wins, he has a 0.65 ERA. In his 12 losses, it's 7.97. The only question is whether the Reds or some other organization can help him find the right consistency.
Dunn, by the way, has a $13.5 million club option for 2008 that voids if he's dealt and would make him a free agent after this year. That wrinkle is viewed as a roadblock by a number of teams considering the slugger.
Remember back in Spring Training, when the Indians weren't sure if Garko could play first base well enough to handle the position regularly? Garko won the 25th spot on the roster because of his bat, and the Indians haven't regretted the decision. When Andy Marte strained his hamstring in April and Casey Blake took Marte's place at third base, Garko took over for Blake at first. Not only does Garko own the Major League's best batting average in July (.460 entering play on Tuesday), he is among the top 15 in the league in batting, slugging and OPS.
"He's been outstanding at the plate, and he just keeps getting better at first," said Wedge.
The fruits of GM Dayton Moore's efforts in Kansas City become more evident each day. Since winning on June 24, the Royals are 14-9 and have one of best ERAs in the Major Leagues entering Tuesday.
"He's not wasting any time turning that franchise around," a GM from another team said. "They're playing well now, and they're just going to get better."
Moore also has leverage heading into the trade deadline, with some players whom other teams are interested in prying away from Kansas City. Take second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. Grudzielanek is making $4 million this season and has a $4 million player option for 2008 that kicks in if the second baseman makes 500 plate appearances this year. Grudzielanek, who turned 37 on June 30, won a Gold Glove last year and is hitting .299 in 65 games. Since coming off the disabled list on July 6, he is batting .418 (23-for-55).
"You're talking about a veteran guy, very good offensively and defensively, good fit in any clubhouse, playing well and not making a ton of money," one GM said. "If [Moore] can get what [prospects] he wants for him [in a trade], great. If not, he keeps him, and they're set at second base for another year. When you're a seller and you've got veterans who are producing and you're not [forced] to move them, that's a great position for a GM to be in this time of year."
Woody Williams usually has a winning streak up his sleeve this time of year, and though it's been later than the Astros would have hoped, the right-hander is 2-1 with a 3.14 ERA in his last four starts. His ERA over the last 30 days ranks 25th among all Major Leaguers.
"His fastball's better [lately], and when he has that with that good curve, he's the Woody who's very tough," a scout said.
Milwaukee's Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Braun hit his 15th home run on Sunday. It came in the 50th game of Braun's career, making him the fastest to 15 since Albert Pujols of St. Louis got there in his 49th game in 2001. Braun's Rookie of the Year candidacy, by the way, will have less competition now that Houston's Hunter Pence is expected to be sidelined the bulk of the remainder of the season with a fractured wrist.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.