Shapiro: Tribe capable of making a deep playoff run
Indians' president sits down with MLB.com to address the state of the franchise
On this Presidents Day, MLB.com is checking in with baseball's club presidents to gauge the state of each franchise. Indians team president Mark Shapiro took some time to discuss last season's trip to the playoffs, the various dynamics of running a team in Cleveland and the organization's belief that the city could experience more October baseball this year.
MLB.com: Your club won the American League's top Wild Card spot last summer, reaching the postseason for the first time since 2007. When you think back to where this organization stood following the 2012 season, how far away did the playoffs seem to you?
Shapiro: I think we have a very acute awareness of when things do come together, or when they do go well, when we do have seasons when we contend or we get into the playoffs, just how meaningful that is. I think we really realize the steps that were taken on a player personnel level and on a leadership level, with Terry Francona and what he's brought to the organization and team, to have us move that far, that quickly.
MLB.com: In regards to Francona, how much has he helped not only change the culture around the team, but also the willingness of some players to want to come to Cleveland? You hear a lot of players citing Francona as an influence to wanting to sign with the Indians.
Shapiro: That's probably one aspect that we knew. We knew that he brought great credibility. We knew he brought incredible passion and energy. I think none of us probably clearly understood the impact he would bring to our on-field competitiveness. Terry has some incredibly unique attributes to, within a schedule that's 162 games, every day still create a sense of urgency and an expectation to win and to be able to handle it with an unbelievably positive and professional attitude when we inevitably lose games. He just creates a very positive dynamic in our clubhouse and in our dugout. That's the cherry on top to the credibility that we knew he'd bring to the organization.
MLB.com: Last year, there was a slight decrease in attendance, but revenue was up for the team. Can you explain that dynamic?
Shapiro: Revenue was up over 20 percent. The attendance didn't drop. It was pretty much flat. Look, our challenge continues to lie in season tickets. To have such a large portion of our attendance dependent on single-game sales is extremely tough in running a business, because there are so many variables that affect peoples' day-of-game decision to come to a game. Weather, obviously here, is extremely volatile. Competitive cycles, even in the midst of a successful year, can be any moment in time. If we're not going through a good stretch, that could change someone's mind. The reality that the home-viewing environment is such a strong one now, that a lot of people view coming downtown to be tough, I think all those things, our opponent, so many different variables exist.
So, our ability to run the business effectively is really dependent upon us growing our season-ticket base. That went down significantly from 2012 to 2013. It hasn't gone down further. It's actually gone up a little bit, but that still remains our greatest challenge. Revenue went up, because I think we priced more effectively and understood pricing better. It wasn't just the dynamic pricing, but pricing in general. Dynamic pricing is put in place to help shape behavior, that it's better to buy earlier. You're going to get more of a savings if you buy earlier, which helps us plan.
MLB.com: How much did your September run and playing in the Wild Card Game translate into sales or season tickets over the winter?
Shapiro: I think the fact that we had over a 90-percent renewal on season-tickets is a strong positive. But, again, that 90-percent renewal was off a very low number, industry wide. So we have to continue to grow it a lot better. I think it's too early to tell where that growth is going to end up.
MLB.com: Have you seen positive signs in downtown Cleveland that might lead you to believe that things are improving in a way to help the franchise?
Shapiro: There are a lot of positive indicators downtown. Things are definitely moving in a positive direction -- the Cuyahoga County office building moving so close to the ballpark and being centralized. The development along E. 9th has a chance to resurrect a street that was a very active street 15-20 years ago and has been too quiet of late. There's positive momentum, but the reality is we need jobs. We need jobs on a large scale. The only thing that's going to move the needle on a big level is going to be more and more businesses starting and hopefully locating downtown and populating downtown to a much greater degree. We've still got to draw people in from the suburbs, and that can be a challenge.
MLB.com: Last winter, when you signed Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to long-term contracts, were you not only looking at the 2013 season, but also anticipating how the '14 free-agent market was shaping up?
Shapiro: We have an opportunistic lens in free agency. We felt like last winter presented an opportunity to acquire two players who fit the character and makeup we look for and fit positional needs for us on a multiple-year timeframe. We also had an understanding and an expectation that this year's free-agent market was going to be an inflated one, and it'd be tough for us to compete in. Just by saying we have an opportunistic approach, was acknowledging what could happen this winter. I can tell you that, if it was necessary for us to compete in free agency this offseason, it would've been very difficult to nearly impossible.
MLB.com: Last week, you signed outfielder Michael Brantley to an extension, buying out his arbitration years and at least one free-agent year. You've also done similar deals in the past with guys like Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, among others. It was also reported recently that you ranked fourth in all of baseball in international spending last year. How important is that type of spending -- on core guys, in the Draft and internationally -- to this organization?
Shapiro: It's tough to even quantify or to appropriately say how important it is. We basically have to excel at every aspect of player acquisition. And we have to continue to look for opportunities whenever they exist, because we are largely not going to be players in Major League free agency. It's going to be more of an exception than a rule. So how we draft, how we sign internationally, how we trade, how we develop and our efforts to retain our players when there's that agreeable multiyear deal are all going to be essential for us to be able to sustain a competitive team.
MLB.com: This offseason, you guys held Tribe Fest for the second year in a row. It not only seemed better organized than last winter, but a surprising number of fans attended during some very cold and snowy weather. What was your reaction to the event and its turnout?
Shapiro: When you start an event like that, you hope to grow it over two or three years to get an understanding of what the potential of the event is. It takes that long to really understand. To grow the event from Year 1 to Year 2 and to get the level of positive feedback we got, which was over 85-percent positive on the experience, it was exceptional. Our folks in marketing and promotions did an incredible job of putting on that event. The players and Francona were incredible. It was a great energy. You had blizzard conditions outside that were going to discourage and take away a good chunk of our crowd, but we had so many passionate fans inside. That was an incredibly warming feeling.
MLB.com: During Tribe Fest, you guys announced plans to honor Jim Thome with a statue as part of the 20th anniversary of Progressive Field. You've stated that the team has larger plans for the stadium's 25th anniversary, but what can you say about the types of upgrades or things you're looking to do for the ballpark in the coming years?
Shapiro: Well, there's largely two types of issues. There's one, just infrastructure that comes with a 20-year building in a cold-weather environment. We're doing that all the time. Two would be, what are the upgrades, the adaptations to a building to prepare it to be a fitting and first-class environment and a cutting-edge entertainment environment for fans for the next 20 years. Those are things we'll continue to work on. During this season, maybe even early in the season, we'll have an enhancement to demonstrate to our fans and roll out. And then, at some point in the next year, we'll hopefully start to create and execute plans that start to adapt the building to the future.
MLB.com: The organization, team and its fan base got a taste of the playoffs last year. How confident are you that with the way things went last summer -- and with what you were able to do this winter -- that this is sustainable and wasn't just a one-year, one-game postseason experience?
Shapiro: Our jobs are to always worry, so we tend to spend more time focusing on what could go wrong than what will go right. But I do feel like last year will have a transferable impact on this year, that the understanding of the power of leadership, whether it be the lessons that Jason Giambi imparted or what Tito brought to our team, or the emergence of young players like Yan Gomes and Corey Kluber, among others. We're going to have a group of players who come in here with a better understanding of what it takes to win, what it takes to play in October, and we're going to have that opportunity to again come to Spring Training with a team that's capable of winning in the playoffs and winning the last game in October. That's what we hope to do every year.