In Spring Training in 2004, Indians outfielder Milton Bradley was pulled from an exhibition game for not running out a popup that dropped in for a hit. Bradley clashed with manager Eric Wedge over the incident, and then stormed out of the team’s spring complex in Winter Haven, Florida. Days later, he was traded to the Dodgers for Franklin Gutierrez. It didn’t matter that Bradley was not quite 26 years old. It didn’t matter that in 101 games for the Indians the previous year, he’d put together a .321/.421/.501 line with 10 home runs and 34 doubles.
In trading Bradley, the Indians were drawing a line in the sand—a line that stayed there for some time. Seeing Bradley in the news last week (as the target of domestic abuse allegations) reminded me of the many headaches the team avoided by trading him when they did. But it also made me think about the character of the Indians rosters of the past decade. The decade since the trade. Certainly team chemistry can and does “just happen” sometimes. But it can also be facilitated through a careful vetting process, a deliberate avoidance of bad apples.
One of the first stories that came to mind was the time in the summer of 2011 that, unasked, Jack Hannahan’s teammates pooled their resources to charter a private jet to get him from Boston to Cleveland in the middle of the night to be with his wife, who was going into labor. This spoke volumes of the clubhouse bond. It showed how much these guys genuinely care for one another. Where so often the immaturity or ego of young athletes grabs the spotlight, this young Indians team was making headlines with class.
To be sure, individual Indians players have made mistakes over the years. In 2011, Austin Kearns and Shin-Soo Choo were each slapped with a DUI just two months apart. In 2010, Josh Tomlin was one of a few Akron Aeros in a bar fight. Of course, in 2008 the team took a chance by drafting Lonnie Chisenhall following a dorm theft incident for which he was kicked off the baseball team at South Carolina. I don’t mean to excuse any of these acts, but there is a huge distinction to be made here. One NFL exec made it just last week when he commented on his team’s mindset in light of the Te’o girlfriend hoax: on draft day, criminality may (may…) be forgiven, lying definitely won’t be.
The executive was not saying that legal issues aren’t troublesome—they are. But it’s impossible for a team to gel without trust. How a player fits in the clubhouse, how he meshes with his teammates and the manager, is more than just an afterthought. It’s that “it” factor that can put a team over the top or keep it from going anywhere. Looking back, the Bradley trade, whether inadvertently or not, seemed to signal the beginning of a period in which the Indians embraced this kind of “no noise,” character-driven approach to teambuilding. But in both good and bad ways, character is the backstory of the team’s most significant moves this offseason.
On the good side, no discussion of what Nick Swisher will do for the Indians is complete that doesn’t talk about his personality. Swish (and his many faces) will bring positivity and showmanship to a clubhouse whose most outspoken member of late (Chris Perez) is best known for his criticism of the team’s fans and front office. Swisher wears his passion for the game on his sleeve. And though some commentators think his over-the-top style also make him an agitator at times, by all accounts he is a great motivator. He should get the players fired up the way Victor Martinez used to with his individualized handshakes. It’s easy to see why Chris Antonetti considers him a “perfect complement for the team.”
Then there’s Trevor Bauer. Bauer has all the talent in the world. He became the first of his draft class to reach the majors, breezing through AA and AAA with a 12-2 record and a 2.42 ERA, striking out 157 in 130 1/3 innings along the way. It wasn’t a lack of faith in their Minor League Pitcher of the Year’s raw ability that compelled Arizona to trade him away just a year and a half after guaranteeing him $4.45 million.
If we take Bauer’s word for it, he’s “a person who is easy to get along with.” But there’s plenty of reason to question whether this is true. Rumor has it he didn’t get along with UCLA teammate Gerrit Cole, and in his first-ever stint in the majors (what should amount to a honeymoon period of player bonding) he managed to ruffle enough feathers that this offseason, prior to being traded, he felt compelled to call some of his teammates and apologize for his attitude.
In some circles Bauer already has a reputation as an uncoachable loner. He warned drafting teams of his unwillingness to deviate from his nuanced pregame ritual, which includes a long toss of over 450 feet, but it goes beyond that. He’s made all of four big league starts, but there have already been instances in which he’s refused to defer to veteran catcher Miguel Montero (as well as Arizona’s coaches) regarding pitch selection and the manner in which he should attack certain hitters.
Bauer comes to the Indians with a clean slate, but as spring approaches it’s worth thinking about how he will fit on a team that has heretofore placed such a high value on clubhouse chemistry. I can’t help but wonder about the extent to which the Indians are counting on Terry Francona to inspire some give and take from Bauer, and the extent to which they’re willing to just accept who he is and how he goes about his game. With his meticulous approach, Bauer’s also the kind of pitcher that may grow to prefer one catcher over another, as Cliff Lee did with Kelly Shoppach.
The Carl Pavano signing is the last time I can think of that the Indians brought aboard a pitcher with a shaky reputation among former teammates, and that signing worked out relatively well. But that was a very different situation. Pavano’s time in New York was marred by injuries (some of which were unusual) and his lengthy recovery phases led some teammates to question his competitive spirit. It seems highly improbable that anyone will ever question Bauer’s competitiveness.
Nor will they question the competitive drive of Brett Myers—though he, too, comes with baggage. His own domestic dispute from 2006 follows him around like a personal rain cloud, seemingly finding its way into every story in which he’s mentioned (even though the charges were dropped). But this story aside, Myers has been characterized as a “loose canon.” In Philadelphia, he once exploded on a reporter after blowing a save. Another time he lied to the team about how he suffered an eye injury. But the Indians are counting on him to provide some veteran leadership (and of course, innings).
It remains to be seen whether the Indians’ acquisitions will be in the news more in 2013 for what they do on the field or off. For what it’s worth, I’m fully on board with each of the moves. But clearly if the team ever made a habit of shying away from players that don’t fit the quiet, workmanlike, good guy mold, they’ve broken that habit this offseason.