A Mini-Dynasty in the Makingby David Gassko
September 19, 2005
In October 1995, after a seven-month-long strike and a shortened season of baseball, the Cleveland Indians were the best team in baseball—the only team to win 100 games (in only 144 games for a gaudy winning percentage of .694) and the owners of the best offense around. The Indians, a team whose previous playoff appearance had come 41 years ago, were on top of the world.
A murderer's row consisting of Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and an aging Eddie Murray hit the team into the playoffs, the first-ever featuring a Wild Card and a Division Series. Near the top of the lineup were Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga, and the only below-average hitter in the lineup was Omar Vizquel—who won his third consecutive Gold Glove that year, his third in a series of nine.
The Indians had some pitching, with Dennis Martinez and Orel Hersheiser leading the way, but the starters were only there to pitch six innings and give way to their fabulous bullpen; while the starters were being credited with wins, it was the batters who were actually responsible for them.
The Indians lost the World Series that year, but there were no worries—general manager John Hart's strategy of locking up his young stars meant that the Indians would be competitive for years to come, and indeed they won five division titles in the next six years. Hart had built a mini-dynasty, but his policy of trading away young talent like Sean Casey, Richie Sexson, Brian Giles, and Danny Graves in return for declining veterans meant that the dynasty was eroding, and that the Indians were headed toward darker times. So Hart did what any smart, hard-working GM would do. He quit.
In came assistant Mark Shapiro. Shapiro determined that the Indians had problems. He knew that the team was near crumbling. And with a mandate from ownership to lower payroll dramatically, Shapiro blew the whole thing up. Traded everyone.
Having re-upped with Hart in 2001, Juan Gonzalez was allowed to sign with the Texas Rangers after the season, which was to be his last great year. Kenny Lofton was let go as well. Roberto Alomar was traded in a blockbuster to the Mets, with Cleveland acquiring Matt Lawton, Alex Escobar, Earl Snyder, Jerrod Riggan, and Billy Traber. Marty Cordova—gone. Dave Burba—gone.
In mid-2002, the Indians made two more big deals, sending Chuck Finley to the St. Louis Cardinals for Coco Crisp, and acquiring Lee Stevens, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore for Bartolo Colon. Paul Shuey was traded as well, for Ricardo Rodriguez, Terry Mulholland, and Francisco Cruceta. After a miserable 2002, Thome, Travis Fryman, and Charles Nagy were all let go as well. The 2003 Indians had only three players remaining from the 2001 playoff team. Accordingly, they went 68-94.
But a turnaround had begun. Shapiro's policy of bringing up young'ns and letting them play started paying dividends last year, when the Indians were only one game out of first place on August 14, and finished a respectable 80-82. Young hitters like Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, and Coco Crisp were progressing fast, and pitchers Jake Westbrook and C.C. Sabathia showed themselves to be a competent 1-2 punch. All Cleveland needed was a little more hitting and a little more pitching. If they could just cut down on the blown saves (28 in 60 opportunities last year), and if their young players just kept progressing, the Indians could challenge for a division title. If.
Shapiro did all he could in the offseason. He signed Kevin Millwood at a bargain price when no one would give into Scott Boras' demands. He traded Matt Lawton, who had no spot in the Indians' young outfield anyway, for Arthur Rhodes to shore up the bullpen. Scott Sauerbeck and Aaron Boone, both signed in 2004 with the knowledge that they would not play until '05, were also going to play an important role in bringing back the Indians.
But mostly, Shapiro was just patient. He had a young team—a good young team—and he knew it. He knew that Crisp, Sizemore, and Jhonny Peralta were just going to get better. He knew that Cliff Lee, with his Barry Zito-esque curveball, was on the cusp of stardom. He knew that if he just waited, his patience would be rewarded. No Hart-like mistakes here; this was going to be an all-out youth movement.
The Indians started the season out strong. By the All-Star Break, they were 47-41, third in the division, 11 games behind the White Sox, and two out of the Wild Card race. They were hanging tough. No one really expected the Indians to make the playoffs; with the Central all but tied-up, they were going to have to compete against the Yankees and Twins, two teams with much more experience, and seemingly better talent.
Indeed on August 1, at 55-51, 14.5 games behind the White Sox, the Indians seemed to be falling out of it. They had moved a game ahead of the Twins for second place in the Central, but were in third place in the Wild Card chase, four games behind the surging Oakland A's, and two games back of the ready-to-surge Yankees. The goal now seemed to be .500—in their third year of rebuilding, that would have to be considered a successful record.
But then something happened: The Indians' offense went from slightly above-average to resembling the Indians of the mid-90s while Cleveland's top three starters started to resemble the Koufax, Drysdale, and Podres—two young starters, one coming into his own and the other continuing his success from an early age, with an older veteran presence providing good innings. Those are Lee, Sabathia, and Millwood, respectively.
Sabathia had been pretty bad through July, averaging under six innings per start to go along with a 5.23 ERA. What had happened to him? After improving two consecutive seasons since his debut, Sabathia's ERA had risen more than half a run in 2004. Now, at age 25, he seemed to be regressing. Something clicked, and Sabathia has averaged almost 7 innings a start in August and September, with a tiny 2.29 ERA. His improvement has been by far the largest for the Indians.
A 6'3" lefty, Cliff Lee could be easily mistaken for Barry Zito, with his big curve and nice fastball. That is, until he opens his mouth. Lee, an Arkansas native, and a professional, serious ballplayer, is practically the opposite of California-born Zito, who is so laid-back that he has drawn criticism for not caring enough about baseball. Lee was good before August of this season, averaging a hair over 6 innings per start with a 3.98 ERA through July. But since, he has been lights-out, with a 3.10 ERA and over 6.5 innings per start over the last month-and-a-half. Lee has been mentioned as a Cy Young candidate, and at 17-4, he has a chance at winning the award.
Lee might have the best chance of all Indians pitchers to win the Cy Young, but he is not the most deserving of the award. That honor goes to Kevin Millwood, who signed with Indians almost accidentally. In 1999, a 24-year-old Millwood burst onto the scene with the Atlanta Braves, tossing 228 Innings with a 2.68 ERA. He was to continue the great tradition of Atlanta pitching, be the next Glavine, the next Maddux, the next Smoltz. That was not to be.
Millwood had two very frustrating seasons in 2000-01, and after a nice showing in 2002, the Braves determined that they could not afford to keep him. Millwood was traded to the Phillies for Johnny Estrada, a trade that was considered to be a joke at the time. In Philadelphia, things were not much better and after 2004, the Phillies were determined to move on. Scott Boras began demanding a three-year contract for Millwood, who at that point was damaged goods. On January 8, as the market for free agents was wilting, Millwood signed with the Indians for $7 million. It was a win-win situation for both sides: Millwood would get a chance to prove he could still pitch and the Indians would get an ace for their rotation.
Both sides have won big. Millwood has thrown 173 innings with a 3.02 ERA. In the first half of the season, he kept the rotation afloat. In the second, he has simply upped his performance with the rest of the team, averaging well over 7 innings per start since August 1, and putting up a 2.68 ERA in that same time span. He'll have no trouble getting that big contract this off-season.
But it hasn't just been the pitchers. Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Coco Crisp, Grady Sizemore, and Travis Hafner have all been spectacular. The best part? Their average age is 25. They're only improving and their second-half surge has shown that. But let's not just look at offense. We know these guys can hit (.287 GPA since August 1).
Let's look at defense, where Crisp and Sizemore are maybe the two best defensive outfielders in the game. What about Peralta, one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball? And Martinez, who reportedly calls a game like Jason Varitek, all at the tender age of 26? These are guys who can hit, but who can also run. Whether it means running the bases, or into a wall, or right into the playoffs. No, they're not dancing into the postseason, these young'ns are running into October.
And the best part? They're young. These guys aren't going anywhere; they're going to stay in Cleveland a while and make Mark Shapiro look smart. This core will be with the Indians for a long, long time. Another mini-dynasty in the making.
David Gassko is a former consultant to a major league team. He welcomes comments via e-mail.
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