For the last decade, the Cleveland Indians have gone from strong contenders to mediocrity, to competing for the AL pennant, and back to mediocrity. After looking at the rosters over the last 14 years, there were trends that led to the franchises demise due to extreme dependence on growth from within the minor league system. After having just four winning seasons since 2000, the club looks to be heading in the right direction, but how did the club get here?
This is what the club has looked like over the last 14 seasons (Click to enlarge image):
The club relied very heavily on their own system once they lost the core of their dominant, late 1990’s teams (Sandy Alomar, Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Travis Fryman, Omar Vizquel, Manny Ramirez, and Kenny Lofton). The business model prior to the constant rebuilding period seemed to be acquiring useful, veteran starters and teaming them with an explosive offense to win games; however, for several years, the Indians went away from the veteran-led pitching staffs and focused on building around C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, and Jason Davis, young arms with a lot of potential whom were drafted or acquired in trades to build the next Indians, division-winning dynasty, as we all know that no titles were won even with up to five Hall of Fame worthy talents on the roster (Thome, Alomar, Vizquel, Lofton, and Ramirez – and, yes, Lofton deserved better than what he received in this past year’s vote).
The Indians did a nice job of replacing players who left via free agency, at least in the early going. Signing Juan Gonzalez after Manny Ramirez left for Boston was, quite possibly, one of John Hart‘s greatest moves in his time as the Tribe GM. From that point on, however, the Dolan ownership and payroll limitations did make those types of deals more difficult for Mark Shapiro, who took over for Hart in 2001. Shapiro made a lot of solid moves, but didn’t seem to have the financial flexibility to get the team over the hump. Even the 2007 team that went to the ALCS and lost to the New York Yankees seemed to be lightning in a bottle by career years from Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Roberto Hernandez, and Sabathia, while the top three starting pitchers (Sabathia, Hernandez, and Paul Byrd) combined to go 53-23 with a 3.56 ERA over 648.1 innings.
The franchise truly lost out on their trades of Cy Young arms C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, essentially getting a backup catcher (Lou Marson) and a solid outfielder (Michael Brantley) out of the two stars, while watching the key pieces in those trades (Matt LaPorta and Jason Knapp) fall out of favor quicker than the Harlem Shake and jorts.
Still, there were a couple of zingers over the Shapiro years, mainly robbing the Seattle Mariners blind by acquiring Asdrubal Cabrera for Eduardo Perez and getting Shin-Soo Choo for Ben “FREAKIN'” Broussard, which overshadow the Carlos Santana from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Casey Blake deal, but only slightly.
At this point, the Indians are in a very interesting place. They control of Masterson and Cabrera through 2014, while Ubaldo Jimenez can opt-out of his option for 2014 if he wants a multi-year deal or accept $8 million for next season before reaching free agency in 2015. The team has some very good, high-ceiling prospects in Trevor Bauer, Francisco Lindor, and, recent draft pick, Clint Frazier. Further offensive development out of Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Brantley around the recent free agent acquisitions of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn could lead to several years of AL Central dominance, but they will need more consistency out of their starting rotation, something that they truly have only had in one season since 2000 (the 200 season).
When there is always next year in the mind of the Cleveland fan, it is necessary to reflect on what has happened and to remember the good times, however far and few between they may have been. With the current group of talent, is it fair to say, “I can’t wait until next year!” or is this another group to scrap and rebuild around?
After another long staff email chain that wondered whether the club should give a contract extension to Justin Masterson and looking at where the Indians have come from over the last several years, I certainly don’t trust dealing him for young talent, no matter how good the three-way deal that brought Bauer to Cleveland appears on paper. How we got here isn’t as important as where this team is going, or, at least, capable of going. The question is: Does this group have a core that is capable of contending over a long-term period?