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John Blanchette: Spokane Indians trying to stay competitive as the major league landscape changes around them again

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

The last time the Spokane Indians were in the market for a new major league partner, it could as well have been an episode of “The Bachelor.”

The club had ended an eight-year marriage with the Kansas City Royals as the supplier of talent. Quality of play had eroded so dramatically that even a customer base obsessed with the nightly weather report and not the standings had noticed. Attendance fell 15% in two years.

But the Indians had a half-dozen other replacement suitors, foremost among them the Texas Rangers.

“I thought maybe they’d send two guys to come talk to us,” Indians owner Bobby Brett said. “Five showed up. We had dinner at my house, and John Hart, the general manager, rings the doorbell and has a dozen red roses for Cathy, my wife.

“She says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go with these guys.’ ”

Man, were those the days.

Now Major League Baseball tells the minor league operator whether he’s part of a farm system at all, how big the locker room needs to be, what league he’s in, how many games are on the schedule and who will be sending the players – and for the next 10 years.

Where have all the flowers gone?

So it is that the Indians have found themselves opening the season six weeks earlier than they have for 40 years and suddenly wedded to the Colorado Rockies rather than the Rangers.

Is that such a big whoop? It depends.

The Rangers were Spokane’s major league connection for 17 years, with 91 of their Indians alums climbing to the majors through 2020, not including those rerouted back on various rehab assignments or position conversions. A few fans might follow that pipeline and maybe there’s a little brand identity established – but not so many that Rangers caps outnumbered Indians caps in the stands on game nights. Or Mariners caps, for that matter.

The bigger issue is the game in front of them – and, as that long-ago divorce from the Royals illustrated, it can become a concern. A warm night and cold beer might get people in the seats, but it’s also a goal to have them there for nine innings.

With the Rangers, Spokane reached the Northwest League playoffs the past four years, and won championships in three of the first six years of their partnership. If there was a lull in the between, there was only one lousy year, in 2012.

“You want to be competitive,” Brett said. “That doesn’t mean ordering rings every year. It just means competitive.”

This is probably where the 2021 Indians’ 1-4 start needs to be mentioned, along with the caveat that it’s a 120-game season.

And let’s add the annual reminder that major league organizations aren’t especially invested in how many pennants their minor league teams hang. MLB farm directors are tracking batting averages, not games behind – some more closely than others.

“We’re a draft-and-development team,” said Chris Forbes, the Rockies’ assistant director of player development, who was in town for the Indians’ first home stand. “That’s the dynamic we have to have.”

So it’s not encouraging to hear the organization being universally dissed in the evaluation of how it drafts and develops. Baseball America ranks the Rockies’ farm system 25th, and has had it in the bottom third of franchises for four years running. The lone top 100 prospect per MLB Pipeline is 19-year-old outfielder Zac Veen. In Spokane are five of the Rockies’ top 10 prospects – good for the Indians, perhaps, but also suggesting they’re three or more years away from helping the big club.

“We have to close the gap at the upper levels,” Forbes acknowledged.

“Whatever you think the rankings are worth, you’re going to graduate a big class at some point. The last year we were in the playoffs, 2018, we had five home-grown starting pitchers and half our starting lineup was home grown.”

Alas, the rotation cratered in 2019 and hasn’t steadied itself. The Rockies also lost third baseman Nolan Arenado in a horrible trade and seem destined to see shortstop Trevor Story move on in one way or another. There’s an interim general manager – Forbes’ old boss in the scouting department, Bill Schmidt – and little help on the immediate horizon for a struggling team.

“But I think we’re on the rise,” Forbes said.

What about competitive? Well, of the 25 teams the Rockies have fielded above the rookie league level in the past five years, only three made the playoffs.

Then again, baseball is notorious for ebb and flow.

In Spokane on Saturday night, Michael Toglia hit his fourth homer in five games and rookie Karl Kauffmann pitched five no-hit innings. And it’s for better or worse anyway – in the rejiggered minor leagues, all affiliate contracts run 10 years.

“That’s not a problem with us,” Brett said. “We like long-term situations. But by the nature of the game, our people with the Indians don’t change. The change comes at the major league level. And in five, 10 years, the people we’re dealing with could be different.”

Because if you don’t win at that level, it’s no bed of roses.

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