Remember the drill here? We take an actual historical franchise at a particular point in time, and simulate how it might plausibly have been greatly improved, not by invoking any imaginary transactions it didn’t make, but instead by simply cancelling some key actual transactions it did make.
This time we’ll turn our attention to the Cleveland Indians of the late 1950s and very early 1960s. In the very short period upon which we’ll be focusing (a little over two years), the Indians executed a sequence of notably regrettable moves.
And there’s a simple explanation for this: Cleveland’s general manager in this period was Frank “Trader” Lane, a too-clever-by-half GM who never saw a trade he wouldn’t make. Lane wasn’t a poor judge of talent, but by this point in his career he’d completely lost any semblance of discipline. Not only did Lane fail to adhere to a coherent plan in operating the Indians, he never forged a coherent plan beyond “make a constant stream of trades so that Frank Lane’s name will constantly be in the paper.”
Lane didn’t ruin the Indians: He inherited a .500 ball club in the fall of 1957, and left a .500 ball club when he departed Cleveland in the winter of 1960-61. But in his frantic wheeling and dealing he cast aside a remarkable bounty of talent. Had the Indians in these years been under the control of a GM who exercised a reasonable degree of patience, they might have emerged as something pretty special.
What might have been: Element No. 1
June 15, 1958: The Indians traded outfielder Roger Maris, infielder-outfielder Preston Ward and pitcher Dick Tomanek to the Kansas City Athletics for infielder Vic Power and outfielder-infielder Woodie Held.
While it would become one of the more infamous trades in Cleveland history, this one was no giveaway. In Power and Held, Lane received two quality ballplayers, both of whom (particularly Held) would deliver value to the Indians for several years. And Ward and Tomanek were just role players, neither of whom turned out to have much of a future beyond 1958.
But, still. Maris was a towering talent. At this point he was still raw, 23 years of age and with just 167 major league games under his belt, struggling with his batting average, but wowing everyone with his combination of power at the plate and smoothness in the field. It’s just about never a good idea to trade away a young stud like this. Within two years Maris would be an MVP, and it was obvious this had been a bad deal on Cleveland’s part.
Let’s assume the Indians thought better of it.
What might have been: Element No. 2
Wilhelm was 35 years old, and following his brilliant 1952-54 run as the Giants’ relief ace he’d delivered a few so-so seasons. So, going into 1958, one might reasonably have figured that Wilhelm, knuckleballer or not, was nearing the end of the line.
Going into 1958, that is. Not in late August of that season, by which time it was obvious that Wilhelm was forging an impressive comeback. He’d made 24 relief appearances, as well as the first six starts of his big league career, and had performed splendidly in both roles: In 90 innings he had a glittering 2.49 ERA (148 ERA+), with outstanding peripherals.
And at this point Lane decided to chuck Wilhelm into the scrap heap.
In one of Wilhelm’s late-1958 starts for the Orioles, he would toss a no-hitter. And he was on his way to more than a decade of tremendous pitching, cruising right into the Hall of Fame.
Let’s assume the Indians didn’t dump Wilhelm.
What might have been: Element No. 3
Before he became famous as a combative and temperamental manager, Martin was famous as a combative and temperamental infielder. The difference between these two phases of Martin’s career is that he was a genuinely brilliant manager (at least in short stints), probably even better than generally understood, but he was an entirely mediocre ballplayer, not nearly as good as his reputation. Had Martin not played for the Yankees in their glory years, he’d have been properly perceived as the Fred Hatfield or Wayne Terwilliger sort that he was: a useful cog, but nothing to get excited about.
Martin certainly wasn’t the sort of talent worth surrendering two good pitchers to acquire, as Lane foolishly did here. Narleski would flame out with arm trouble in Detroit, but Mossi would remain a versatile and consistently effective southpaw into the mid-1960s.
Let’s assume the Indians kept Mossi.
What might have been: Element No. 4
Averill had been poised to enjoy a productive career in Cleveland. The son of his namesake Indians star of the 1930s, the younger Averill hit for a good average and with good power all through the minors. Nevertheless for several years the Indians were reluctant to commit to him on the big league roster, sort of holding him in limbo. They gave Averill a half-season-or-so as a backup catcher at the age of 24 in 1956, in which he performed reasonably well, but then it was back to the bushes.
In mid-summer of 1958, Lane promoted the 26-year-old Averill from Triple-A, and manager Joe Gordon installed him at third base. The trial lasted a grand total of 17 games, as Averill hit a couple of homers, but had nearly as many errors (seven) as hits (10). Back again to the minors, and then this trade the following winter.
The trade was pointless; Briggs and Bolger were fringe players. Away from the Cleveland organization, Averill never blossomed as a star, but proved to be a legitimate major leaguer, combining defensive versatility with significant power. It’s reasonable to believe that had the Indians given him a serious opportunity—that is, much more than two-and-a-half-weeks—to establish himself as their third baseman, he’d have emerged as an adequate performer at the position.
Let’s assume the Indians held on to Averill.
What might have been: Element No. 5
Well, our Indians never acquired Martin, so to that extent we can’t make this trade. But even if we could, we shouldn’t.
Temple had been a fine performer for a long time. But the “long time” was the problem: he would be 32 for the 1960 season, just about the age when many ballplayers, particularly middle infielders, begin to encounter injury trouble, and decline. And that’s exactly what would happen to Temple in Cleveland.
And to get him Lane surrendered not just Martin, but also his ace pitcher, as well as a first base prospect who’d compiled a minor league batting average of .334 with 86 homers in four years.
Let’s assume the Indians didn’t deal away McLish and Coleman.
What might have been: Element No. 6
Not every trade Lane made was bad, of course. The vexing thing about him wasn’t that he was a bad trader per se, but that he was a compulsive trader.
The deal that had brought Cash to the Indians, executed in December of 1959, was a shrewd one on Lane’s behalf. In it he demonstrated a sharp eye for the young talent of Cash and catcher John Romano, and the sagacity to leverage the market value of veteran star Minnie Miñoso before he declined.
But then, just four months later, what the heck was this all about, dumping Cash in exchange for a humdrum minor league veteran for whom the Indians clearly had no use?
Let’s assume the Indians stuck with Cash.
What might have been: Element No. 7
Ah, yes. The pièce de résistance, the crème de le crème, the magnum opus of Frantic Frankie Lane’s tortured frenzy of a career.
The utter ridiculousness of this trade is well-known, so we won’t belabor it here. Suffice to say that the dynamic behind this deal had zero percent to do with any kind of rational baseball analysis, and 100 percent to do with Lane’s jealousy that the photogenic young Colavito was the star of the Indians’ show instead of Lane himself.
What might have been: Element No. 8
No one ever doubted Moran’s defensive chops. But through 1960 he hadn’t yet hit a lick at any level higher than Class B, including an extensive opportunity on the Indians’ major league roster as a 24-year-old in 1958. So it was no surprise to see the team lose patience with him at this point, given that the Indians had both Johnny Temple and the capable journeyman Ken Aspromonte on hand to handle second base. (Subsequently, Aspromonte would be lost to the expansion draft in December.)
But in our scenario Temple isn’t here, so the Indians would be motivated to retain the slick-fielding Moran. Let’s assume they did.
We’ll find out how this might all have come together in 1961.