Coming into Thursday night, the Cleveland Indians offense has been absolutely lackluster. Having scored 12 runs over their past 8 games, they outscored themselves during that time span on Thursday alone with their 13-0 drubbing of the Cincinnati Reds.
Man, that had to feel good. It must have felt like a step in the right direction. But what got us here? What caused what was considered to be a very competitive ballclub to average just 4.25 hits per game over the course of more than a week? Better yet, which is the aberration? The 13-run onslaught of Cincinnati, or the 8 games that came before it.
To answer, let’s take a deeper look at the stats that the Tribe have put together early in this short season. For clarity, all stats mentioned from this point on come from before Thursday night unless mentioned otherwise.
Let’s start with something basic. So much of today’s game comes down to the Three True Outcomes: home runs, strikeouts and walks. The only team that has played a full schedule and hit fewer homers than the Tribe are the Washington Nationals, who have been without their premier power hitter for most of the season. Additionally, the Indians are striking out in 25.7% of their plate appearances, which is 7th worst in the league and nearly 4% more often than last season. In contrast, bases on balls are also up. They have walked on 10.6% of this season’s plate appearances (ranking 8th), and honestly, walking is the best thing this offense has had going for it.
With that acknowledged, let’s look at little closer at their strikeout rate and why it may have risen from last season. This conversation will need to start with OF/DH Franmil Reyes. Reyes, with his all or nothing style, will hurt the Indians K-rate solely by the fact he is on the team for the entirety of this season, as opposed to last year when he joined the team at the trade deadline. It’s only been 12 games, but Reyes has stuck out in 34.1% of his at bats, that’s the 19th worst rate in baseball. Obviously that number isn’t great, but it becomes worse when you consider that the only player of the 18 worse than him that has a worse walk rate is Braves infielder Dansby Swanson. He also has the 4th worst slugging percentage of any of the top 20 most K-able guys in the league. That’s not exactly what you were hoping for out of an integral piece of the heart of your order every day.
The strikeout-woes don’t stop there though. Four other main building blocks of the every-day lineup: Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana and Oscar Mercado are all also striking out at greater rates than they did last season. With Reyes included, this group is 5 of the top 6 players on the team in terms of plate appearances- the players your are depending on every day.
Ramirez and Lindor in particular seem to be swinging and missing more often in certain situations. Ramirez has swung and missed 12% more often this season on balls in the strike-zone than he did last year. In contrast, Lindor is swinging at balls outside the zone just as often as he did last year, making it seem as though he isn’t chasing any more or less than he has historically, but he is swinging and missing on those balls outside of the zone 23% more often. For his part, Mercado isn’t swinging and missing more, but rather taking more strikes, 13% more in total. All of these are likely contributing factors to each players increased K-rate.
Still, that brings us to when Cleveland actually does put the ball in play. The Indians came into tonight in dead last in all of the following categories: Isolated Power (.081, and a 32 point gap between them and 29th place Arizona), Batting Average (.181), Slugging Percentage (.262) and weighted Runs Created+ (59, 100 is average). Thursday night came at just the right time because these numbers are abysmal. What they tell us is that when the Indians make contact, they likely aren’t hitting the ball with much authority. Base hits are hard to come by, extra-base hits are even rarer. I have already mentioned the team’s inability to homer. In addition, the only teams with fewer doubles than the Tribe coming into tonight were the Phillies, Marlins and Cardinals- all teams who have had their schedules halted by COVID-19.
So, is this poor contact here to stay? The Indians also rank 27th in Batting Average on Balls in Play. Most statisticians consider this statistic to be at least partially luck-based, and that is the point. Ranking so low, with a BABIP of .233 when the standard is between .250 and .300, would suggest that the Indians are having bad luck at least some of the time when they put the ball in play. They are getting the baseball equivalent of facing the highest scoring team in fantasy football each week.
The known lack of power (another thing to suggest a lack of authority when making contact) is a very real concern though. Coming into Thursday night, the Indians ranked dead last in baseball in Hard Hit % as calculated by Baseball Savant. Essentially, the rate at which the Indians hit balls with an Exit Velocity of 95 MPH or greater is worse than any other team in the league. But that brings us to a new question. Which individual players are contributing to this bad funk and how? The obvious answer is “everyone”. No one looks good when you can’t muster 2 runs per game, but let’s be a little more concrete than that.
At first glance stalwarts of the lineup like Ramirez, Reyes and Cesar Hernandez are doing their part and have hard hits at a rate much better than the 29.5% team average, the same cannot be said for Carlos Santana. Just a quarter of his contact has been hard contact. For comparison’s sake, the median player in the league for hard contact would be Phillies shortstop Didi Gergorius, who is making hard contact 36.8% of the time. Santana ranks 218th and only two Indians rank above the median- Ramirez and Hernandez. Neither of them ranks in the top 90.
This proves that the performance data at large has been poor. The players that the Indians were dependent on to produce in this lineup have not performed in a way that would encourage you to want to continue to send them out to the field every day.
So, what has changed? Santana struck nearly 45% of the balls he hit in 2019 at 95 MPH or better. For Reyes it was more than half! We know for a fact this is a funk and not bad luck. What’s the problem?
One possible reason for this poor performance is that the Indians are all seeing less fastballs than they did in last year’s campaign. Lindor saw a combination of fastballs and cutters for 57.4% of the pitches he saw last season, according to Fangraphs. This year that number is just 43.8%. Lindor is most emblematic of the Indians problems in this regard, seeing nearly 14% less fastballs, striking out nearly 7% more often and having both worse hard hit% and average Exit Velocity than he did in 2019. The Indians as a team are being served up straight fastballs on just 45.7% of the pitches that they see. That’s the 3rd fewest in the league.
The Indians have also seen the 3rd lowest rate of pitches in the strike-zone in the entire league. This would explain their strong walk rate, but it would also show that pitchers are willing to allow those walks in the effort to generate strikeouts. A 1-out walk doesn’t matter much when the runner is stranded on first following 2 Ks. This pattern also likely ties into the heavy use of harder to control off-speed pitches.
Something strategic is happening here. Most notably over the last three full seasons, no baseball team has not had at least half of the pitches they’ve seen be fastballs. Yes, I’m sure some small sample tomfoolery is at play here, but there also seems to be a game-plan to attack the Indians hitters with the off-speed. At large, baseball is trending towards more off-speed pitches. The Tribe’s lineup is going to need to be able to adjust in order to succeed.
There have been few silver linings. Cesar Hernandez has been impressive in an Indians uniform. He hits the ball hard at an impressive rate and while an average launch angle of -0.4 degrees isn’t desirable for mos,t he wears it well when you consider his speed. There should be lots of base hits at the top of the order coming from him if he can keep it up. His .302 Batting Average and .412 On Base % show just that. Also, when Mercado has made strong contact, he’s absolutely been robbed. A good rule of thumb is that half of all balls hit at 95 MPH or more should land for some sort of hit and are especially likely to go for extra bases. Mercado is just 2 for 8 on such batted ball events and has yet to record any extra-base hits. The biggest silver lining of all of course is the 13-run rampage of the Reds which highlighted the Indians ability to take pitches and included a bases-clearing double by Hernandez on an off-speed pitch in the 10-run 7th inning.
Largely though, the actions on the field are supported by the numbers we garner from those actions. It hasn’t been pretty.
That brings us to what we have learned. I came into this hoping to find some reasons for hope; something that would suggest the Indians early doldrums were obviously fake and easily a matter of some force of bad luck. Instead, what I’ve found is bleak. Fueled by an inability to counter act a combination of off-speed pitches and pitches out of the zone, the Indians strikeout more often in 2020 but more importantly, when they do put the ball in play, they make the weakest contact in baseball. Both the best and worst of this scenario though is that it has been the stars of the lineup who have failed just as much as everyone else. That type of poor performance will absolutely tank this season if it continues, but the fact that proven commodities on this team have under-performed means that if they start playing at a level they are known to be capable of then there is a ton of room for improvement for this offense.
Personally, I will trust the proven commodities. Let’s see if they can take some momentum into the weekend series with Chicago.
I did something amazing on Saturday. I watched live baseball. This wasn’t the live baseball from half a world a way in South Korea at 5 in the morning. No, this was Major League Baseball. In prime time. On a Saturday evening! My own complaints about potentially not being able to watch my games just a few months ago seem so callous. The context of COVID-19 has thrown us all for a loop at the very least (and hopefully nothing more than the context; stay safe everyone!). Yet finally, after four months of waiting, Major League baseball games that count towards the official record will begin in just a matter of days.
Saturday’s tune-up between the Indians and the Pittsburgh Pirates got me back in the right mind-frame. It was glorious! And with that, I have a Cleveland Indians Season Preview. What you are about to see is what I determine to be the most likely roster, filled with stat projections. These are projections that I developed in my own rudimentary way for each player on the roster for the course of the 60-game season. Indeed, the numbers you will see will be a PUSTCLE exclusive. I hope to go back and compare them to the real life final stats when the time comes.
Obviously, there is going to be more static in a 60-game season then there ever would be in a traditional 162-game tilt. That small sample size could be cause for all sorts of crazy happenings. I just did my best to not overthink the situation and put together some numbers that will likely make sense.
Along with those numbers will come a profile of each player. This was quite the under-taking as I give a few sentences on each player I expect to be on the initial 30-man roster, but I hope it brings a bit of color and context for what’s to come.
With all that said, let’s get started with the starting lineup. This lineup will be based partially on what the Indians rolled out in their exhibition game on Saturday, partially what I know Indianns manager Terry Francona wants to do with its construction and partially my own thoughts on how it will break out.
Leading off for the Cleveland Indians:
2B Cesar Hernandez (PUSTCLE Proj: .270/.345/.405 6 HR 25 RBI 30 R 5 SB 0.9 WAR)
Hernandez replaces long-time second baseman Jason Kipnis at the same position and manager Terry Francona hopes to slot him in as the lead-off man for the 2020 campaign. He was signed to a 1 year, $6.25 million deal by the Indians this off-season after fulfilling his arbitration years with the Philadelphia Phillies. The 30-year could be quite capable in the lead-off role, but will need to find a way to re-find his patience at the plate. His walk rate fell from 13.4% to 6.7% between 2018 and 2019. He will have to do better than last year’s OBP of .333 if he wants to sit atop the Indians lineup. His history suggests he could bounce back, and a change of scenery might help.
3B Jose Ramirez (PUSTCLE Proj: .241/.345/.442 9 HR 29 RBI 33 R 11 SB 1.6 WAR)
Which version of Jose Ramirez will we get over the course of a 60-game season? No one knows, and the answer might be the difference between an AL Central crown and a season of disappointment. Ramirez can absolutely carry the Indians offensively at times when he is hot, but that will only come if the struggles at the plate that plagued him over the last half of 2018 and first half of 2019 (he hit .217 over that span) are over. In a season of uncertainty, that’s a hard variable to bet on, but if he can deliver then the Indians could have one of the best offenses in the American League.
SS Francisco Lindor (PUSTCLE Proj: .277/.337/.517 14 HR 33 RBI 45 R 8 SB 2.2 WAR)
Francona has made it clear he would like Lindor to hit third in the lineup this year rather than lead-off, and surrounding him with Ramirez and Carlos Santana should provide him ample opportunities to both score and produce runs. Enough has been said about Lindor’s auspicious future with the organization, but I think he sees the season through as the Indians stay in contention (spoilers!). He’s the motor that keeps the offensive machine running. He’s one of the ten best players in baseball. They absolutely need him.
1B Carlos Santana (PUSTCLE Proj: .265/.371/.477 11 HR 34 RBI 36 R 35 BB 1.3 WAR)
34 years old and in the final year of his contract, the Indians will need another strong, professional campaign out of Santana. 2019 was likely the best full season of his career, compiling his best weight Runs Created+ (135) and Wins Above Replacement (4.4). Hopefully extended rest and a shorter season will help stave off a decline but I do expect a small regression to the mean. Still, Santana’s eye at the plate is slump proof and I expect him to perform admirably in the clean-up spot behind Ramirez and Lindor.
The most immediately impactful piece of last season’s Trevor Bauertrade, Reyes jumped into the Indians lineup and belted 10 home runs over 51 games while hitting a total of 37 over the course of his first full season. The Indians finally have the true, blue right handed power hitter that they’ve been missing for eons. I don’t think Reyes will disappoint whatsoever unlike the prospects that came before him. At 25 years old, you might be looking at the best righty power hitter in a Cleveland uniform since Manny Ramirez. Reyes fills out a very respectable top 5 places in the batting order.
We now arrive where things get a bit messy: the corner outfield roles. The Indians will be Santana’s 4th team in 7 years in the Majors. Much like Reyes, he has serious power potential. He smacked 21 homers in 121 games last year for Seattle and 30 in a full season for Milwaukee in 2017. Also like Reyes, he lacks grace, coordination and especially range in the outfield. The advanced numbers dictate that right-field is where he will hurt you least, and that’s where he has played most, so that’s where I stuck him. Expect Francona to use his fully bevy of roster options to replace Santana with defense when the Tribe is leading close games late, but he will have to really on some much needed offense that Santana could provide early in games.
CF Oscar Mercado (PUSTCLE Proj: .268/.338/.432 7 HR 26 RBI 36 R 15 SB 0 WAR)
An Indians rookie that quickly became a fan favorite last year, Mercado is the one sure-fire outfielder that we can assume will be suiting up every day for the Tribe in center. He is sure-handed, but I think some of the flashy plays he made throughout last season made him appear to be slightly better than he really was. He finished 13th out of 30th in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 Games in center-field. Respectable, but not elite. Offensively, the pressure will be off as he will not likely be hitting in the 2-spot this year. I have some concerns about a sophomore slump, but not enough to not think he shouldn’t be the Indians CF in 2020 and beyond.
C Roberto Perez (PUSTCLE Proj: .231/.318/.420 8 HR 21 RBI 15 R 0 Passed Balls 1.0 WAR)
The Indians took a gamble last season and tradedYan Gomes, handing every day catching duties to Perez. Lots of fans scratched their heads as Perez hadn’t shown a real ability to be productive at the plate, but it appears regular at bats was all Perez needed to get rolling. Perez went on to slug 24 home runs, and while he will swing and miss, the combination of being the best defensive catcher in baseball (30 Defensive Runs Saved! Next closest was JT Realmuto with 12. Twelve!) and having the ability to hit the ball out the park is more than comforting to be able to pencil into the lineup if you’re Francona. Perez should have been an All-Star in 2019. Hopefully continued at bats mean continued production.
LF Greg Allen (PUSTCLE Proj: .254/.313/.325 2 HR 12 RBI 18 R -0.3 WAR)
Allen has been penciled into left field for his defensive prowess, hopefully compensating partially for Domingo Santana’s foibles by pairing him with two more rangy outfielders to help cover ground. Also equipped with a very strong throwing arm, Allen can handle the fielding duties of playing every day. Whether he can hit will be another question. He isn’t a power threat and only walks in a brutal 4.6% of his plate appearances. Without a high average, he won’t put his speed, his best offensive weapon, to use. If he can’t hit, Allen might not be in the starting lineup for long.
C Sandy Leon (PUSTCLE Proj: .183/.246/.290 2 HR 8 RBI 8 R 0 WAR)
Former Red Sox backstop Sandy Leon will be the reserve catcher on the roster in order to spell Perez. He takes up the mantle after the Indians did not return last year’s backup Kevin Plawecki. Leon is what he is, a serviceable back-up catcher and nothing more. Honestly, he is a tiny bit of a downgrade offensively from Plawecki if my projections turn out to be right, but Leon is an above average pitch framer (12.5 Fangraphs Framing Runs for the Red Sox in 2018), something the Indians definitely value historically. If he can’t generate runs, maybe Leon can prevent some behind the plate.
IF Mike Freeman (PUSTCLE Proj: .251/.327/.338 0 HR 6 RBI 8 R 0.1 WAR)
Freeman got his first real opportunity to play every day down the stretch last year with the Tribe due to a number of injuries. While he has some significant limitations as an every day player, he showed an ability to contribute, hitting .300 from August 1st until the end of the season. A versatile fielder who can play an position on the infield, his familiarity will be welcome off the bench and spelling the occasionally starter. Expect sure-hands and above average range on the infield. He could play more if Hernandez proves ineffective at second.
IF Yu Chang (PUSTCLE Proj: .206/.294/.333 1 HR 5 RBI 6 R -0.1 WAR)
In my opinion, the winner of the final position player spot on the roster because he has absolutely knocked the cover off the ball during Summer Camp. Having come up and played late last season for the same reasons that Freeman did, Chang appeared often over-matched at the plate in his brief run at third base before getting injured himself. He had just 4 extra-base hits in 84 plate appearances. The Taiwan native might have been all the better for his first taste of the Majors though. However, there is definitely a bit of a head and heart situation going on for me. Chang seems like a qualified kid with a good head on his shoulders. I want to root for him, and I’d love to see him hit at the Major league level. The numbers right now don’t dictate that will happen, but it seems he has done enough this summer to earn this spot.
OF Tyler Naquin (PUSTCLE Proj: .261/.301/.387 3 HR 15 RBI 15 R 0.2 WAR)
If anyone benefited from the prolonged layoff, its Naquin. He would have missed the beginning of the regular season in March as he was recovering from a torn ACL, but that is all ancient history now. Naquin is primed to be ready on Opening Day and probably has the best case of anyone to replace Allen or Domingo Santana in the starting lineup. It either falters expect to see a lot more of Naquin. Often referred to as a platoon player, Naquin’s wRC+ against lefties is actually better than vs. righties (111 vs 98, respectively), although its in limited left-handed at bats. He absolutely can play every day if needed.
OF Jordan Luplow (PUSTCLE Proj: .261/.353/.483 6 HR 18 RBI 23 R 0.3 WAR)
Luplow made a name for himself playing smashing left-handed pitching for the Tribe last season. Unlike Naquin, his reputation as a platoon player is deserved. Last year saw a wRC+ of 198 against lefties and just 48 against righties. That’s staggering! Expect him to play often against lefties again this year, probably spelling either Allen or Naquin, and adding another strong outfield arm to a squad that has a number of them.
UT Jake Bauers (PUSTCLE Proj: .213/.315/.370 4 HR 18 RBI 17 R -0.2 WAR)
I said Chang would be the last man on the roster. Honestly, it might actually be Bauers. A former top prospect gained in the Yandy Diaztrade (remember, along with the return of Carlos Santana), Bauers was given every chance to play and succeed last season but struggled. He needs to put the ball in play more, striking out on over 27% of his at bats last season. This spot could have easily gone to Bradley Zimmer who has hit the ball in Summer Camp as well as Chang has, but Bauers is more versatile and durable. He can spell Santana at first base as well as play the outfield. That being said, if Bauers struggles again expect him on the taxi squad and Zimmer in the show.
(edit: it turns out Bauers was sent down today. Oh well, I am leaving him in since this is my projection. My outlook on him stands, and the fact is Zimmer has earned the right to still have the chance to make the team with how he has in in the lead up.)
Bieber has been named the Opening Day starter by Francona and he hopes to prove that last year’s uptick in production is sustainable. 2019’s All-Star MVP put together a great sophomore season that saw him finish 9th in baseball in Swinging Strike rate- that was better than Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard. Bieber loves to pound the strike-zone, but a move to throw effective pitches outside of the zone last year likely aided him. We will have to see if the league adjusts, but at this moment he seems fit to fill the void left by the Corey Kluber trade.
The decided #2 starter on the squad can be absolutely dominant for stretches and will try to bounce back from injuries that put a damper on what was otherwise a really strong 2019 season. Clevinger averaged a career high of over 95 MPH on his fastball last year after a winter of tinkering with his mechanics at Driveline in Washington. His K/9 went up while both BB/9 and HR/9 went down. Clevinger found another gear, and comes into the fold this season as the second head of a 2-headed monster at the front of the Indians rotation. Either Bieber or Clevinger can be aces. The Tribe hopes they have a pair.
Honestly, its just good to see him back in full form. 2019 wasn’t a great season for Carrasco on the field and it was an even worse one off of it. The worst full-season ERA of his career is nothing in comparison to the leukemia diagnosis he received a little over a year ago. The fact he returned to the field last year was astonishing. The fact that he wants to pitch during a pandemic is awe-inspiring in regards to the love he must have for the game and his teammates. Great pitcher, even better person. I see no reason why a clean bill of health wouldn’t mean the 33-year old Carrasco returns to form.
SP Aaron Civale (PUSTCLE Proj: 3-4 51.1 IP 3.74 ERA 0.8 WAR)
Civale burst on the scene during the chaos that became the 2019 Indians starting rotation and immediately left an impression. He put together the best resume last season of any of the young starters that could fill the remaining rotation spots, posting a 2.61 ERA between July 23rd and September 27th of last year (the calendar dates of this season). At 25, he attacks the zone much like Bieber and can do it with multiple breaking pitches that project to make a formidable repertoire. If he can make the kind of leap that his teammate did in throwing purposeful pitches off the plate then look out. If not, then expect a pitcher that had a hard hit rate of 38.4% last season to have more batted balls find green grass or the other side of the outfield wall. The Indians have built a young pitcher factory though, so I am leaning towards a solid year from Civale.
SP Zach Plesac (PUSTCLE Proj: 4-3 55 IP 4.30 ERA 0.4 WAR)
Another youngster thrust into the show last season due to attrition that performed admirably and might end up better for it. I remember his first start. It happened in a downpour in Boston. He competed and handled the Red Sox in Fenway during a deluge until the game got delayed for over an hour. Then he came back out and battled some more when the skies cleared. The Indians won 7-5. That was his first start!That’s proof enough of the moxy that Plesac has. Concerns with Plesac are much like with Civale. Did he get a little lucky last year while pitching to contact? A Batting Average on Balls in Play of .255 would suggest he did (.300 is average and lower suggests good luck hitting balls at fielders) and so would a Hard% of 38.1. Plesac will have to miss some more bats in 2020 in order to be successful and his stuff doesn’t project as well as Civale’s. I’m a little less bullish here.
SP Adam Plutko (PUSTCLE Proj: 2-3 40.2 IP 5.43 ERA 0.3 WAR)
Likely headed for the long-relief role to open the season, Plutko will take up that duty at a time when it might be more important than ever. A shortened training camp might mean the Indians staff won’t be at full stamina, especially their youngsters, and Plutko could play a vital role some nights bridging the gap between someone like Plesac and the regular bullpen. He could also take the reigns on the 5th starter role if someone falters and while his Major League career hasn’t been mind-blowing so far, he can eat innings and keep the Tribe in ballgames if he stays away from the home run ball (2.09 HR/9 over his career)
Everyone’s favorite fire-balling young reliever prospect. The Indians were so devoid for power arms last year the people were left clamoring for Karinchak’s ascension. They didn’t get it until late September and by then it was too late. Karinchak has an absolutely electric fastball that averaged nearly 97 MPH in his brief Major League stint last year, but control is a question. Still, this kid posted a negative FIP at AA in 2018. I didn’t even know that was possible. I’ve got him slated as not throwing a lot of innings, but bullpens are fickle and susceptible to the hot hand. The Indians could ride Karinchak a lot if he is firing on all cylinders.
RP Hunter Wood (PUSTCLE Proj: 2 Holds 23 Ks 23.2 IP 4.99 ERA)
Acquired from the Rays in a seemingly low-key trade at the 2019 deadline, Wood was placed into Major League action last season with the Tribe and sported a respectable 3.86 ERA in that time. Projecting as a control pitcher with a good cutter, he would do well to return to a 2018 form that saw him give up less than a homer per 9 innings and led to an ERA of 3.70. His home run rate was nearly double with the Tribe last year. That will be key Wood’s success out of the pen.
RP Oliver Perez (PUSTCLE Proj: 13 Holds 32 Ks 25.1 IP 3.77 ERA)
The only member of the Indians staff affected more than Perez by the 3-batter rule would be Francona himself. Perez was in the top 5 in appearances of 3 batters or less last season. So was former Indian Tyler Olson (according to Ben Lindbergh of Fangraphs’ Effectively Wild podcast). Two of the top 5 played for the Tribe and while Olson is gone, how Perez will be used will be a new puzzle for Francona. The grey-bearded 38-year old that debuted as a starter back in 2002 actually has allowed an OBP Against of .320 vs righties over the last three seasons, which is serviceable enough to get by. This suggests that he can pitch full innings, provided there’s at least a lefty or two mixed in and I expect to see him a lot as one of the few relievers I wouldn’t consider a question mark.
RP James Hoyt (PUSTCLE Proj: 1 Hold 21 Ks 17 IP 3.63 ERA
The Indians took a flier on Hoyt in 2019 and he proceeded to bank 42 relief innings in the minors before piecing together a 2.16 ERA over 8.1 innings in the show. That was good enough to be supplied with a 1-year Major League contract and a chance to prove himself after multiple seasons of not being able to stick in the Astros organization. If he can induce ground-balls with his combination of a sinker and slider, he could prove a very valuable asset in the Indians bullpen, but Francona has yet had opportunity to show real confidence in him.
(edit: Hoyt was sent down today as well. Things are happening in real-time. The season starts in 2 days. So be it.)
RP Phil Maton (PUSTCLE Proj: 2 Holds 20 Ks 17.2 IP 4.96 ERA)
Maton is a former Padres farm-hand that the Indians got for the low, low price of some International Slot Money last July. In trying to bring his career back to prominence, he pitched 12.1 innings for the Tribe in 2019 and had an impressive 2.92 ERA. That was night and day from the horrific 7.77 ERA he had with the Padres. The biggest difference was staying out of the middle of the plate in Cleveland. Even though his walk rate spiked, he allowed homers at less than a third of the rate that he did in San Diego. The Tribe will have to find out if that is small sample static or if Maton can work to make more quality pitches, even if it means more walks.
A four-year veteran that will be on his 5th Major League team the first time he suits up for the Indians, Leone had his best season in 2017 with Toronto. He now comes off a much worse 2019 campaign with St. Louis that saw him create soft contact a paltry 8.9% of the time. The Indians are very much going out on a limb here and trying to recreate a ballplayer that had a 2.56 ERA over 70 innings just three seasons ago. The Cardinals believe that was an aberration. The Indians plan to find out.
RP Adam Cimber (PUSTCLE Proj: 5 Holds 21 Ks 22.2 IP 3.95 ERA)
Cimber was acquired in the 2018 trade that also netted Brad Hand from San Diego and while he was dynamite for the Padres early in his rookie year, he hasn’t posted an ERA below 4 since. He’s going to have to be better this year as he along with Perez, Nick Wittgren and Brad Hand are likely going to be arms that Francona is going to have to trust most. He’s walked more than 3 batters per 9 innings since joining the Indians, and that will have to change if he is going to be the dependable piece they need.
Wittgren was the Indians most pleasant discovery out of a bullpen that had a lot of question marks last season. He was traded to Cleveland in February 2019 for a mere minor league relief pitcher and posted his second season with a sub-3 ERA in a row after also doing so in 2018 with Miami. There are concerns with Wittgren in that his homer rate spiked in 2019 and he relies predominantly on his fastball only, but 2019 was also the home of the best WHIP of his career and he should have the opportunity to really settle into a role as the 8th inning guy this season for the Tribe.
CL Brad Hand (PUSTCLE Proj: 14 Saves 40 Ks 27.1 IP 1.83 ERA)
Which version of Brad Hand will we get? The one who posted a 2.58 ERA between the start of 2016 and the end of June 2019 or the one that has posted an ERA of 4.91 since? Something was physically wrong with Hand as last year went on and that can explain the woes he faced. Only 5 full seasons of relief, even taxing ones of 70+ innings is far too soon to be suffering from the syndrome too many miles. Hand will likely be fine, he may even be the dominant self that got him to the 2019 All-Star Game. He will absolutely be relied upon, and probably be ridden harder than ever in a 60 game season where every lead matters, particularly when the rest of the bullpen has so many questions.
Who Did We Miss?
OF Delino DeShields– defensively minded center-fielder received in the Kluber trade. Currently has COVID but should make the roster assuming a full recovery.
OF Bradley Zimmer– healthy for the first time in 2 seasons and really hitting well in Summer Camp. Could take a spot if someone like Chang or Bauers struggles.
IF Christian Arroyo– Received last season from Tampa along with Wood. A versatile infielder that could step up if Freeman or Chang don’t work out.
SP Jefry Rodriguez– acquired as part of the Gomes trade, can start or relieve and did both last season in between an injury. Pitched admirably as a starter early in the year but ultimately only has 2 dependable pitches. Probably a good reliever long-term.
RP Emmanuel Clase– received in the Kluber trade but got popped for PEDs this off-season. He throws absolute fire, but we will not see him until 2021 at the soonest due to the 80-game suspension.
If you made it this far, congratulations! For a team that’s light on payroll, the Indians are fairly star heavy. They have 2 pitchers and 2 hitters (assuming Ramirez is right) that are at the absolute top of their craft. The first 5 spots in the batting order are formidable, but after that we get to some questions.
Domingo, Allen, Mercado, Naquin, Luplow, Bauers… can at least 3 of those guys be above average offensive players? Can Roberto Perez replicate last seasons production with the bat? The Indians are talented enough to win the AL Central, but they need these things to happen offensively.
Starting pitching should be strong. The top of the rotation is one of the best. If Carrasco is right and one of Civale, Plesac or Plutko can be on then this is going to be one of the best rotations in baseball, but someone must emerge from the bullpen to get games to Brad Hand.
To me, this is a good roster but far from a flawless one. I don’t trust that there are three strong enough outfielders in that bunch or that there is enough arm talent in the pen to make the Indians a top team. They will be competitive, they always are, but this roster feels like it has the same needs that it had back in November. Hernandez is an upgrade over Kipnis at this juncture in their careers. Everything else is marginal.
Projected Record: 32-28, 2nd in AL Central, 1 Game short of a Wild Card Spot
I write this late in the day of an ultimatum. An ultimatum that appears it will go unanswered.
I am paraphrasing, but Saturday, after weeks of dickering back and forth between the Major League Baseball owners and the Players Association the players came to a conclusion. That conclusion was that any further negotiations between the two sides would be fruitless. Their effort to bring baseball back to the public for the 2020 season has gotten nowhere. Knowing that the agreement both sides signed back in March allows the Commissioner’s Office to unilaterally impose a season that allows for full prorated pay for the league’s players (their biggest sticking point), those players essentially told the owners to let them know when the season will begin. They don’t want any more offers.
To be fair, their frustration is understandable. Negotiations from the ownership side never showed much good faith. Offer after offer, all seemingly shared with the public before the Player’s Association, essentially amounted to about the same thing: playing a season of games totaling anywhere from about 70 to about 80 contest, while being paid for only a portion of those games played. The owners, in an effort to cover the losses they know are coming by playing any games at all, were trying to pass that cost on to their most expensive employees by trying to get them to pay games for free. Meanwhile, when the owners actually did budge a minute amount, when the number of games they were willing to pay for went up, that benefit came with the caveat that that additional pay came as playoff bonuses. These bonuses hinge on the hope that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t worsen in October to the point where the playoffs would be cancelled altogether. No playoffs would mean no slightly raised percentage of pay, which would mean no guaranteed extra benefit for the players. I could see why they are frustrated.
For me though, the truth from very early on is that these negotiations, and possibly even the entire baseball season, has been doomed from a very early point in time in this process. There is one little detail early in this disappointing story that I point back to and consider the moment things went awry. I think this element will ultimately derail the season when it does inevitably return at the Commissioners imposition, which today seems even less likely to happen that it even did yesterday. But I digress from my point, what was that early moment?
Meanwhile, there are no such dates for MLB. We can be somewhat confident that baseball is coming, but the organization of such matters has suffered while the players and owners fight like cats and dogs over cash. There are other matters that could be pointed to that would be at fault for this, namely the owners’ inability to provide an offer that committed more monetarily to the players than the bare minimum, but ultimately I actually think the hitch in giddy up of both sides was that the bubble concept was thrown away early on.
After Trout, probably the games’ best player right now, and Kershaw, the best pitcher of the last decade, went public about their distaste for the idea it seems to have really lost all traction in baseball circles. To be fair, there were some major obstacles with its execution to begin with. Any type of bubble or hub would have had to have been in some combination of Arizona and/or Florida. There would need to be enough facilities between the pro ballparks, or even spring training and college facilities in those states in order to cover all thirty teams. How would you decide who gets to play where and with what perks? Playing at your home ballpark vs. playing at a college yard vs. playing in your home spring training facility can provide unfair advantages and disadvantages all in their own rights. Additionally, time zones would play a factor, as would playing in the Arizona or Florida heat. Night games would be a must, and with the possibility of east coast teams playing continual 9 PM start times in order to start late enough by Arizona time then fans would bear the burden of late nights.
However, even with all the issues involved, going to a bubble or hub format would have been the best thing for baseball. Why? Because it would give the best opportunity to make sure the season happens from start to finish. Remember, it’s the idea that the disease expert is touting.
With the bubble system scraped, the league intends to try something else. The league will be broken into three groups of 10 teams, based on proximity to one another by location. Home ballparks, albeit empty ones, will be used and teams will travel. The biggest problem Trout and Kershaw appeared to have with the bubble was the inability to see their families. This regional plan will obviously counteract that. They’ll be playing from home like any other season.
So while breaking MLB up by its three divisions would likely mean travel between cities like Pittsburgh and Kansas City, trips that would be around 13 hours long if done by bus, even with these shrunken footprints it’s likely that air travel would not be eliminated. That means increased exposure for players and personnel. That means upping the likelihood of contamination between those same players and personnel as they live in their homes and behave likely differently than they would if they were being monitored from hotels. When you factor in that the majority of the NBA and NHL seasons are done and the playoffs are on the horizon, it all means that chance that something will go wrong is a lot more likely in baseball than it is in basketball or hockey. At some point the law of averages will come into play.
And here is what I think its ultimately the crux of the issue. The MLB owners are doing their darnedest to do two things. Those things are minimizing the financial loss of operating a season without attendance and making sure that the playoffs happen because that’s when their TV contracts pay out the most cash. No playoffs mean even worse losses. Not playing in a bubble raised the likelihood that something will go wrong, therefore raising the likelihood the season doesn’t get played in full and therefore raising the likelihood that the owners don’t get that playoff money. Its why they wanted to tie more money for the players to the playoffs in the first place. With that situation placed in front of them, with the added carrot of the fact they would also be having to maintain their regular facilities (I would assume having to upkeep your spring training park or the University of Arizona’s facility would cost less) it became apparent to them that they needed to play, or at least pay for fewer games.
On the other side, the Player’s Union refuses (and rightfully so) to play any more games than the playoffs for free (players don’t get paid for the playoffs in a regular year anyway). They don’t want to set a precedent that would be used against them in the approaching Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Rock? Meet Hard Place. I hate to think that perhaps some of this heartache could have been avoided if Trout and Kershaw had not been so steadfast in their early refusal to go into a bubble.
After all, LeBron James has agreed to go into a bubble. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He’s only the most famous and impressive American athlete on the face of the planet right now. His brand outweighs that of Trout or Kershaw by leaps and bounds. If he’s not too good for a bubble, then why should they be?
Yet, it’s not that simple. Trout’s wife is expecting and honestly, the owners in MLB never really did a good job of selling the idea of a bubble to begin with. In contrast, the NBA sold it marvelously by comparison. It’s not a bubble, it’s a campus. It sounds like players and personnel will be allowed to mingle about and socialize among their facilities quite well as long as they just don’t leave. Further, the league is allowing family visitation once a certain number of teams are eliminated from the remainder of their season. Maybe most importantly, the bubble idea was suggested for Major League Baseball while the hope still existed that the season could be several months long. Kershaw mentioned this directly, not wanting to be deprived of his family for months on end.
Which leads me to my final point. The season is no longer going to go on for months on end. On Saturday Jeff Passan suggested on SportsCenter that a perceived season of about 50 games wouldn’t even have to start until August in order to be completed by the end of September. For example, had the regular season gone as scheduled, the Cleveland Indians would have played their first 50 games in less than eight weeks. We are no longer talking about locking players away for five months at a time. Should the bubble concept be back on the table for baseball? If they want to ensure they get their season in, then it should be. This spring has already been a sham for the league and its players, the last thing the owners and players need now is to have drug each other through the mud for a month just to return, have something go wrong and have the remainder of the season cancelled. The NBA laid a blueprint. Play your regular season in Arizona and Florida and allow family in the bubble once the regular season ends.
It’s the best solution that you have, and it’s been staring you in the face for months now.
Besides the obvious situation the league finds itself in, this NBA season has been without recent precedent in one other way. For the first time in more than a decade, the 2019-2020 NBA league year does not include a “Super-Team” among its two conferences. Sure, there are super-star players coordinated together in different cities in an effort to bring themselves a title. You don’t need to look any further than either Los Angeles team in order to see that. But largely, of the major contenders that will exist when the NBA makes its hopeful return at the end of July, it will be a group- the Bucks, Raptors, Nuggets and Jazz, for instance- devoid of the kind of “Big Three” (or more) that has run roughshod over the league since the Lakers and Celtics came to blows in the 2008 Finals.
In a year where a vile disease has forced nostalgia upon us sports fans, it is ironic that the 2020 NBA landscape looks a lot more like the landscape of the ‘90s than 2019. The answer for how we got here in 2020 is one of simple circumstance. Super-teams have burned themselves out. They aren’t sustainable. Prime players age out of their prime (see photo). Egos eventually collide and big pieces want to go their separate ways. One or two poorly placed injuries take a Super-Team out of contention. LeBron-led teams burn through their assets trying to keep their best player and best chance to win a title in the best position to do so. Most of this is a matter of circumstance and league rules, and while a lottery trip for the Golden State Warriors combined with a healing roster could disprove my theory, for the moment it stands unrefuted.
But what about the past? Why were Super-Teams, at least in the way we think of them today, conglomerations of established star players, not a thing before 2008?
Well for one, the health and structure of the game made the 2010s possible. While the NBA has been a salary cap league both now and in the 90s, in the past Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players it was established that no player can be paid more than 35% of a team’s cap room. He also cannot be signed for more than 5 years. This is known as the Super-Max contract. No such thing existed in 1997, because contracts had no such restrictions. Knicks’ star center Patrick Ewing soaked up 76 percent of the Knicks salary cap in the 1997-1998 season. Spurs center David Robinson took up 46 percent of it in the same year. When players from the 90s say that in their day they wanted to win on their own as a matter of pride and when they claim it’s in bad taste to team up with other stars, just know that is its easy for them to sing that tune. The climate of the time never really presented them the opportunity for anything else. The rules of the time lent themselves to that type of one, or at most two, stars per team- prove to be the bigger alpha- mentality.
It wasn’t a large step, but it was an important one. As I stated before, the rules of the time in 1996 made it hard to accumulate top-level talent through free agency. How both players and front offices behaved made it nearly impossible. Strangely, what has brought on player empowerment and the ability to move from team to team is the massive television contracts that have pumped revenue into the league. With the league flush in money, both a salary cap in general and maximum contracts dictated by a percentage of that cap have made it so that Giannis will only receive 25% of his team’s cap if he decides to return to the Bucks in 2021, but he will still make vastly more than Patrick Ewing did when he sucked up three quarters of his team’s cap. Being less greedy individually has allowed for the players to get what they want in other ways, namely the ability to choose where and with whom they want to play. They choose their own destinies now, something that could be considered priceless. Meanwhile, Super-Teams have been great for television ratings, feeding into the cycle and keeping the money machine running.
Back to 1996. If the ’96 off-season were to occur under today’s standards, it would be right up there with 2010, 2014, 2019 and the like in terms of interest. Players that were available and on the market during that off-season include: John Stockton, Alonzo Mourning, Hakeem Olajuwon, Gary Payton, Reggie Miller and Shaquille O’Neal. Naturally, because of the way teams and players handled the cap at the time all but one of those players returned to their respective teams for the 1996-1997 season.
To prove that it was a matter of how teams and players managed themselves, I actually investigated the moves of a number of the biggest free agent spenders that off-season seeing if I could put together something resembling a modern-day Super-Team. I did this based on the free agents involved and the amount of money those teams used to bring in new players. The closest resemblance I could get was with the New York Knicks, having them forgo the signings of shooting guard Allan Houston and point guard Chris Childs. Without those transactions they would be able to sign vaunted rival sharpshooter Reggie Miller in a move that would rival some of the ones that would occur in real life twenty years later. Adding a third piece to create a true big three however would prove difficult. Signing Miller would mean not swapping power forward Anthony Mason to Charlotte for more expensive forward Larry Johnson. Instead, the closest I could get to spending the same amount of money the Knicks did without going over was to instead trade Mason for Portland point guard Rod Strickland. Strickland was traded by Portland in the real-life summer of ’96 for Rasheed Wallace. A Strickland-Mason trade would still supply Portland with a power forward and would give the Knicks a former Assist champion to run their offense. Having not signed Childs, the Knicks would certainly like to have Strickland, but to consider him a member of a true “Big Three” would be stretching it. A squad of Ewing, Miller, Oakley, Strickland, John Starks, Charlie Ward and Buck Williams (who I was still able to add with leftover cash) might be on par with something like some of the 2-star teams we have seen this season (maybe like the Sixers), but to refer to them at the Super-Team level isn’t quite accurate.
Now of course, the Knicks didn’t do what I just described in 1996. The story of what did happen lies in the one exception in the one big free agent that did leave his respective team that summer, Shaquille O’Neal.
However, it takes two to tango. O’Neal couldn’t leave Orlando without another destination in line that both had the want and the means to bring him on. Queue Jerry West, former Lakers’ star and top Lakers executive at the time. West oversaw a 1995-1996 Lakers team that saw a 36-year old Magic Johnson come out of retirement (again) mid-season to try to further LA’s playoff chances. Beyond Magic, their best player was one-time All-Star small forward Cedric Ceballos. Predictably, the Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Houston Rockets and Johnson went back into retirement for good.
The writing was on the wall for West that although a Johnson-less Lakers were competitive, their .571 winning percentage before Magic’s addition would have been good enough for the 6th seed in the West, they were not building a genuinely championship-level team. Stuck outside the lottery, West needed to a way to bring in a star player in some sustainable way, so he forged a relationship with Shaq before and during that summer and did one thing that no General Manager had really ever done before.
He cleared cap space. (That’s right, this big lead up has all been for something a nerd could do with a spreadsheet. Look, it might not be glamorous, but it’s a really big deal).
Much like the moves we see by GMs on the regular today, this strategy had to be pre-meditated. This is proven with my Knicks experiment. The only two teams to bring in more than $10 million worth of new players to their roster and payroll in 1996, a big year of free agent opportunity, were the Knicks and the Lakers. New York did it by apparently having cap room. Ewing’s contract hadn’t exploded yet in 1996 and the Knicks spent $13.8 million on new additions, while only shedding $3.3 mil in non-returning players. Meanwhile, West and the Lakers added $11.9 million total in new players that summer, but their total payroll only increased by $1.1 million. Here’s how:
Basketball-Reference.com doesn’t say for certain, but I am to believe that the amount of money that came off the Lakers’ books with Johnson’s retirement would be about $2.5 million. That would be in line with the salaries he would have made in similar previous seasons. With that assumed, the Lakers then sent center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for some kid straight out of high school on a rookie contract named Kobe Bryant. That trade for that netted Kobe was at least in part a move to clear cap to bring in Shaq. A few days later West then dealt rotation players Anthony Peeler and George Lynch along with 2 second round picks for 2 future 2nd rounders. West played quite the price for those future 2nd rounders, but that obviously wasn’t the end game, getting Lynch and Peeler’s combined $3.6 million off the Lakers’ books was.
Between the removal of Divac, Johnson, Lynch and Peeler, West removed $10.8 million from team payroll. How much did he pay Shaq for the 1996-1997? $10.7 million. West nailed it. He did something that was unheard of in 1996, and while no team would even attempt to strategize their cap room in an even greater way until the Magic tried in the 2000 off-season, this would be the beginning of the league never being the same.
Or perhaps it will be the same again someday soon. We live in uncertain times right now and for the first time in even longer than the 24-year period that I have described here, the NBA’s money-making machine is sputtering for circumstances that neither the player’s nor the league can control. It is almost certain that next year’s salary cap will stagnate, probably even go down, and the players and the league are going to need to either get together and decide that either they are okay with that or they need to come to some sort of solution. A financial system built on the basis that revenues perpetually increase is about to break, and while it’s going to be far from the end of the league as we know it, regulations will likely change in some way. If they don’t, then maybe that 25% of the cap that Giannis is supposed get won’t pay him more than Ewing.
Police need to start behaving with more care for the lives that they know they hold in their hands. That goes for whoever they are interacting with: black, brown, white, blue, whomever. Our government should not consider anyone’s life disposable. But it ESPECIALLY goes for those who have been perpetually disenfranchised.
Now I am not going to belabor my point. The frustration I feel as a white man is minuscule to the pain, anguish and fear that some that don’t look like me likely feel right now. For me to make this moment about me would be a disservice to them.
But we all bare responsibility. Our government at every level is a reflection of ourselves. That’s what popular sovereignty is all about. The preamble of the US Constitution begins: “We the People, in order to perform a more perfect union”.
Let’s make this union more perfect. Let’s eliminate the errors of our ancestors.
This isn’t going to get resolved with a Tweet, Facebook post, or with this entry. It won’t be resolved with a couple of weeks of protesting either. It will take long, deliberate action by individual people purposefully doing the right thing.
This is a link to #8CantWait. Its a project that’s been put together to do scientific analysis on the methods police forces can use to reduce the number of deaths they encounter. They have come up with 8 policies that can be enacted by police forces throughout the country.
Change will come through protest and the enlightening of hearts and minds. Beautiful work has already begun there, but there needs to be an end game. There needs to be actual policy. I encourage the readers of this space to become educated from sources like #8CantWait and become civically involved. Getting policies enforced like the ones described there will ensure that our society doesn’t fall back into its nastiest and most dangerous indiscretions.
In short, its cool to vote. Its cool to be civically involved. Its cool to care about those that both do and don’t look like you. Its even cooler to try to take action and even cooler than that to continue to care about this six months and six years from now.
In even shorter, Black Lives Matter. And they will continue to as long as we say they do.
By the off-season before the 1992 MLB season, the Cleveland Indians were well on their way to putting the building blocks in place that would one day become “The Dynasty That Almost Was”. Though this era of baseball was as bittersweet as that nickname suggests, there was a lot to cherish from those teams, including six American League Division Titles in seven years and two World Series appearances.
That off-season was likely most memorable for the additions of future long-time centerfielder Kenny Lofton and more short-term power first baseman Paul Sorrento, but there was one more incredibly significant addition that happened that winter as well. Eric Plunk.
That’s right. I said it. Eric Plunk. Probably best remembered for his giant 90s style glasses, and his unfortunate last name, Plunk would pitch for the Indians for the better part of seven seasons before being traded to Milwaukee in July of 1998. He pitched in a staggering 373 games all told during those seven seasons out of the Indians bullpen and helped solidify the bridge between starting pitchers and closers for the very successful teams that came between 1994 through 1998.
However, by the end of his tenure in Cleveland, things had taken a turn for the worse. Namely, with how fans perceived him as a pitcher. The reliever gained a horrible reputation for being what I will call a member of the “Gasoline Gang”.
What is the Gasoline Gang you may ask? In regard to relief pitching, it’s easy as a fan to get hung up on one or two bad outings or blown leads that are especially memorable. Remembering all the small leads relievers effectively preserve in the 6th, 7th and 8 innings usually proves much harder. They tend to be non-descript. Conversely, ever since one very memorable, warm Miami night in late October of 1997, Indians fans have had a very harrowing relationship with relief pitching. This has led me to a theory.
At any point in time since 1997, there is at least one relief pitcher in the Indians bullpen that makes fans queasy every time he steps on the mound. The purposely not-referred-to-by-name Jose Mesa (darn it, I just did it…) would be a perfect example. Further, whoever the Indians’ manager is at the time usually loves to also use this pitcher in question in high leverage situations (also see Mesa, darn it… I did it again). However, if you ask a fan, they will likely say putting one of these pitchers in a game is like throwing gasoline on a fire.
Hence, the Gasoline Gang. A group of pitchers over the course of the Indians’ last 23 years that I will be reviewing as a recurring segment for this space. The premise here will be to separate from the echo-chamber of fandom and decide whether or not each of these players really deserved the torment that they received, or whether there are more of those uneventful but successful late innings then we remember.
Our first nominee for the Gasoline Gang is the aforementioned Plunk. Why? I will let Plunk’s manager with the Indians explain. The following is an excerpt from Mike Hargrove’s biography: Mike Hargrove and the Cleveland Indians: A Baseball Life (a great read, by the way):
[F]ans were calling him Kerplunk, and things like that… One time I brought him into a tough situation to face Frank Thomas, and as I was coming off the field a guy ran down the aisle right to the dugout, and he’s screaming at me. The veins are popping out of his neck, and his face was purple. I’m thinking ‘this guy’s going to have a stroke’. He’s screaming ‘Bring in Kerplunk? You dumbass! What are you doing?’
Mike Hargrove and the Cleveland Indians: A Baseball Life
From what I understand, the idea behind calling him “Kerplunk” was that balls that the Indians’ righty would pitch would end up landing not just over the outfield fence, but into Lake Erie with a loud “Kerplunk”. Clearly, for some, this perception was a potential harm to their health. That’s the legend at least.
Now what is the truth? Were the fans right to be so weary, and honestly kind of abusive, regarding Eric Plunk? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
As previously stated, Plunk pitched for the Indians over the course of seven seasons. From his time with the Tribe one thing is easily obvious. He was an innings eater. No one pitched more relief innings than his 462 for the Indians over the course of those seven seasons and in fact, no one else pitched more than 350.
Additionally, those 462 innings would count for the 10th most out of any relief pitcher in Major League Baseball between 1992 and 1998 (even without including the innings he pitched after the trade to Milwaukee). Out of the 28 relievers that pitched 400+ innings between those seasons, he ranks in the top half in ERA, adjusted ERA- (where he ranks 5th!), strikeouts (3rd!), WAR and Win Probability Added (WPA).
Among those 28 relievers is a respective who’s who of the best set-up men and closers of the time. Names like 1997 World Series MVP John Wetteland, Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, 2-time All-Star Roberto Hernandez and fellow trusted Indian reliever Mike Jackson pervade this list. If nothing else, these are the 28 most depended on relievers of this mid 90s era, essentially one per team. And there Plunk is, holding his own in many major statistical categories.
So, what gives? What bridges the gap between what we know to be true about Plunk, and how the fans perceived him? Something that Hargrove said, and I initially left out, is ultimately key to all of this.
“Toward the end of his time here fans were calling him Kerplunk, and things like that…”
This. This is the key. I ran the same statistical analysis that I just described for Plunk, but I ran it using two separate time frames. First, I ran it from 1992 to 1996.
And Plunk was masterful. His 355 innings pitched out of the bullpen were once again the most of any Indians reliever and this time were the 6th most of any reliever in baseball. Of the 21 relievers that pitched 300 innings or more over that course of time he finished 4th in ERA (2.81) and 3rd in ERA- (63, lower numbers are better, and 100 is average), 5th in WPA (7.35), 6th in WAR (6.2) and 7th in FIP (3.39). All in the top third of his class.
If all that sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo, just know that he gave up earned runs at a lesser clip than Randy Myers (36.2 saves per season), pushed his team towards wins more often than Hernandez (2.71 ERA) and was more valuable to his team than Mel Rojas (84 1/3 innings pitched per season) over the course of those 5 seasons.
He still seems great, probably even better! But then, I ran the same stats again, this time for the combined 1997 and 1998 seasons. The results aren’t nearly as pretty.
For one, Plunk’s usage went down greatly. No longer was he in the top 10 in relief innings, but rather his 106 2/3 IP (excluding his innings after the trade to Milwaukee) would rank 102nd among relievers. Remember how he was ranked 3rd in ERA- among that smattering of the most depended upon relievers of his era? This time he ranks 96th out of the 122 relievers that pitched 100 innings or more over the course of the 1997 and 1998 seasons. He also logs both negative WAR (-0.1) and WPA (-1.49), meaning he performed worse than a “replacement level” pitcher and did more in the aggregate to cause his teams to lose than to win. His WHIP of 1.47, coming in at 89th, is his best statistic.
Clearly, Plunk was really darn good, until he wasn’t. That one thing that made him special, that ability to eat innings, was likely the thing that led to his demise. By the time, the 1997 season rolled around, the 13-year veteran had pitched in 578 Major League games and had logged 1041 innings. He had made 50 or more appearances in six of the last seven seasons and threw fewer than 71 innings in a season just once in his career.
And THAT is likely why he started getting called “Kerplunk”.
He would bounce back a little bit after the Milwaukee trade and post a 3.69 ERA for the remainder of the season for the Brewers, but 1999 would be Plunk’s last season in the show. As rubber-armed as ever, he would pitch another 75 1/3 innings and make 68 appearances, but he would do it to the tune of an ERA- of 110, the worst of his career as a full-time reliever.
So, does Plunk make the Gasoline Gang?
Hardly. A dependable and sometimes dominant performer for five of his seven years with the Tribe, Plunk posted the kind of numbers that you would love to get out of a setup man in any era that involves bullpens. His bad reputation is likely caused by two factors. For one, his unfortunate performances came at the end of his tenure with the Indians, leaving them as the last thing that Indians fans remember. His performance in 1997 ALDS Game 1 vs the Yankees (see below), for instance, would be the type of meltdown fans would remember more than a smooth 1-2-3 7th inning in April. The second factor is the curse of Hargrove’s continued trust in the bespectacled righty. Even in Plunk’s final month as an Indian, when you think confidence would be wavering, Plunk came into games where the Indians either led by 3 runs or less, were tied or were losing by 3 or less in 4 of his 7 appearances. He allowed at least one run in every one of those opportunities. Hargrove and the Indians’ front office just cut ties too late.
Ultimately, the sum of his tenure with the Tribe is greater than some weak moments towards the end. I’d rather choose to remember Plunk as the guy with the goofy glasses that bridged the gap to the closers’ role and did it proficiently night after night. Anything else isn’t worth the stroke-inducing frustration.
Have a thought about Plunk or any of the other 90s Indians? Disagree with my decision or have a suggestion for who should be the next former Indian reliever to be up for the Gasoline Gang? Leave a comment or reach out to me at my literally brand new Twitter account @PUSTCLE
It is a regular opinion that the sport first out of the gate to bring a return to major American athletics to the general public in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic will reap major rewards.
That’s the view for today, and its no wonder then why the NBA, NHL and MLB are just as thirsty to return to action as their respective fanatics are to consume their products upon re-establishment. While news from each league has been encouraging at different levels, its increasingly likely we will see at least some of these major leagues return as spring continues to turn into summer and as we continue to combat the vile and ugly pandemic that has threatened life as we know it.
Naturally, the chief reason for these leagues to aspire to a speedy return is their finances. The loss of television and attendance money alone will trouble each and every one of them. There are MLB teams that find themselves to be cash-poor and looking to continue to run business with stability. They need revenue to ensure not having to fire non-player staff, in the name of maintaining a healthy business. Meanwhile, the NBA remains concerned with its own money in-take as well, and how that will effect its revenue-based player payroll system. This alarm is especially significant when the league has already lost one major revenue stream during this past season when it alienated itself during Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey’s foible with the Chinese government. The NBA’s financial system is predicated on the idea that revenues continue to increase, and this year could effectively break that set-up. Lastly, the NHL even at a base level would certainly like to draw the cash it generates from televising its playoffs with NBC, recouping the brunt of their television contract. Yes, dollars and cents are the first and major reason to want to come back this year and crown champions.
Obviously, there is also patriotism involved and a feeling that the show must go on for these entities. Sports are the public’s pleasant distraction, and if there was ever a time for such events- a time for a little normalcy for a few hours- it is now.
The fact remains though, getting back on the field, hardwood or ice is a matter of opportunism. It is a chance for leagues to get eyeballs in your direction and to captivate an audience. Its a chance for one of your franchises to win a topsy-tervy championship and become denoted as the new “America’s Team”. For a league like the NBA that continues to brim with popularity among younger crowds, this is obviously a big deal. However, for the NHL and MLB, it might feel like a way to turn a tide that might be heading the wrong direction. This could be a chance to ensure a greater interest and welfare for the future or your sport for years to come.
All of this reasoning relies on one specific premise, and that premise, assuming the safety of all participants, is that it is of the utmost importance to get your product in front of the public and get it there yesterday. But really, how certain are we that this premise is true?
The fact is that we aren’t. It is merely hypothesis, but as the world starts its slow turn back towards business as usual, that will include sports. Further, while the major leagues are still ironing out their specific details, we have see returns for other, individual sports with less complications. We have also see the return of select foreign sports leagues. Perhaps any of these could work as a barometer.
The next far east baseball league to get through the gate can’t say to have been as fortunate, at least with American viewers. The Korean Baseball Organization opened up on May 5th, with the power of the World Wide Leader in Sports behind them and a complete lack of other live sports products around them to compete with. With that much going their way, the KBO gained only 173 thousand viewers on their first night. A lot of that can be explained by timing. The game was shown at 1 AM eastern time in the United States, but the fact that the KBO was incredibly outpaced by the lesser quality CPBL while having the backing of ESPN, either speaks to the power of the internet or lack of interest by the American public. Perhaps both. Had the games performed better though, best believe ESPN would have considered tape delaying games for prime time spots. The need just wasn’t there.
A better barometer though could be comparing popularity domestically within South Korea’s own borders. Opening Day was a big hit on the internet enabled sports app Naver TV in South Korea, where nearly 4.5 times as many viewers tuned in as did on the previous year’s Opening Day. While regular television ratings were only slightly up, it is certain there was some extra interest that manifested online. However, beyond Opening Day now several weeks ago, facts and figures about the KBO’s TV ratings are hard to find both domestically or for in America. ESPN editor Daniel Kim remarked during last Monday’s NC Dinos-Doosan Bears broadcast that Korean TV ratings were up, but not as much as you would expect. Meanwhile, the only further state-side ratings that I can find for the KBO come from Twitter’s @SportsTVRatings who suggested ESPN’s first Wednesday telecast of the KBO posted a paltry 68 thousand viewers. Truthfully, if the KBO’s tv ratings were doing that well, ESPN wouldn’t make them so hard to find. Further strengthening such speculation is Sports Media Watch’s reference to the KBO’s ratings as the low end of the spectrum in their predictions. Its clear to say, the American KBO experiment hasn’t been a good one, and while internet-based interest in Korean seems good (Kim didn’t say if he was just talking of TV ratings and not streams, but I would believe so) television ratings don’t seem to be through the roof in South Korea either.
What about a foreign sport other than baseball though? The German Bundesliga soccer league kicked back off on Saturday the 16th, and while its American home Fox Sports, has regarded their return in a luke-warm fashion, there seems to be some genuine interest from its American fandom. For one, last weekend’s games broadcasted on FS1 garnered viewership numbers in the 360 thousand range. Not only is that more than double the viewership of the biggest KBO game (admittedly the Bundesliga benefited from not being on in the middle of the night as well) but these are the best ratings any Bundesliga matches have ever received while being shown on FS1. They were also the 6th and 7th games all-time in American viewership for German soccer. That includes games that landed on the flagship, over-the-air Fox network. Meanwhile, the third game of the weekend, which didn’t have the privilege of including either Bayern Munich or Dortmund (like the Lakers and Celtics of the Bundesliga) had 33% better viewership than any other Bundesliga game that had ever been hosted on FS1 before last weekend. Fox threw a crappy hand at German soccer by leaving it on FS1, and while American viewers didn’t necessarily blow the doors off in terms of tuning in at large, interest really did appear spike in some lesser way.
But before we end, let’s look state-side. Both UFC and NASCAR have returned to the public psyche in recent weeks, and while they are both individual-based sports and clearly a little more niche than the four majors, there could still be something to be learned from them.
UFC had its first major showing with the presentation of UFC 249 more than 2 weeks ago. For the preliminary fights that could be seen over regular cable, viewership was up a startling 42% from a comparable night in 2019. However, ratings for those same prelims were also 3% worse off than similar ones held this past March that were both pay-per-view and competing with other concurrently running sporting events. Beyond the prelims, the actual main event seemed to perform strongly, bringing in 700 thousand pay-per-view purchases for a fight card that didn’t include a name that would regularly suggest that level of interest. To hammer home this point, UFC’s top brass Dana White gushed over the interest in interviews. The profile of UFC’s return was dictated by the combatants and media as well as the quarantine, and even without a perfect card, it appears that they had a strong showing.
So what is to be made of all of this? First, I am absolutely certain that the concept at hand is no longer as cut and dry as “get your product on TV and people will just find it because they want sports that badly”. There are a lot of other factors at play here. Packaging, presentation and distribution are all part of the deal. For as much as the idea that people are begging for any new content gets thrown around, if that were really the case than whether or not NASCAR is on on Wednesday or Sunday wouldn’t really matter. Whether the Bundesliga was on Fox or FS1 wouldn’t matter either.
People want their sports, but that’s just the thing. They don’t just want any sports, they want their sports. That’s why a lack of knowledge of the who and what of the KBO (plus the ridiculous handling of broadcast times by ESPN) has led to little interest. Baseball fans want baseball, but better than that, they want baseball they are familiar with, and they want the best caliber of baseball in the world. Quality matters. This could also explain an impressive interest in UFC’s pay-per-view main event while prelims interest was not as impressive, and it could explain the health of NASCAR’s interest at its highest tier.
Getting your game going and giving the public the chance to consume it is a big deal, but its not the whole deal. Its not certain that hockey fans will be jumping up to see NBA games if the NBA is first league to return. We know that because excess sports fans right now aren’t jumping to watch NASCAR or Bundesliga as they have returned. Numbers are up. Interest is there, but it isn’t the type of interest that would suggest a sports fan will take whatever they can get, especially in this era of personalized playlists and television algorithms. The pandemic will not up the profile of any sports league on the merit of being first to return alone, but that doesn’t mean this can’t be a time to create an advantage. Doing so will just take more effort. It will take innovation.
The little, four-team CPBL, barely comparable with AA level baseball, did the second best viewership of any of these sports I listed. They broadcasted their games through Twitter. Yes, I do think they benefited from being the first true sport to return, but they must be commended for their innovation (and its simplicity). They made their game easily available for the public, and the public responded. There were no subscription services, no cable packages, no paywall. The games could be watched live in the middle of the night, just like the KBO, or on demand at any time that you could locate them in the broadcaster’s Twitter feed (and they still remain this way now, by the way). They used the internet to their advantage and at least in the short run, it paid dividends.
We know the same of the KBO’s Opening Day within in South Korea as well, where fans watched from the internet-based Naver TV at a clip that was 4.5 times greater than the previous opening day.
The same old, same old isn’t going to cut it. Being the first American league back in the limelight will be a great step, but if there was ever a time to innovate, ever a time to use new technology to captivate an audience, the time is now. Getting your game in front of as many eyes as possible is key, and as people spend more and more time on their internet connected devices and as cable slowly works its way into becoming more and more of a dinosaur, now is the time to act.
If you want your sport to be the home of the new “America’s Team” you had better get cracking, because the next “America’s Team” will be witnessed online.
While not quite the stage that is the Olympics, that unfortunate tournament outcome was the first of its sort for the Americans since a 2006 bronze medal at the same event in Japan. Two even more memorable under-achievements of the most talented basketball playing nation on the planet came two and four years earlier when the US finished 6th at the 2002 FIBA tournament, and earned a measly bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics in Greece.
Why bring all this up? Well for one, with the lack of Olympics this year and a lack of basketball right now, its on my mind. I love international competition and I love it even more when its applied to the sports that are on the forefront of my attention most often. I enjoy watching swimming, track and field, cross country skiing, curling, and what have you. But I love Olympic basketball and the World Baseball Classic (sadly being postponed from 2021 to 2023) even more. The stars I see on a regular basis playing for their country. What could be better?! It doesn’t even have to be America!
On top of all that, current media has Olympic basketball on my mind as well. ESPN’s documentary The Last Dance has one large, heaping helping of Michael Jordan in it. Of course, any Michael Jordan conversation is not complete without mention of the 1992 Dream Team, which is indeed included early in the series. Additionally, the basketball/fantasy mash-up web series Game of Zones is currently trending on YouTube with its finale slated this week. And for those who may not be following along, the ending story-line is set as the Dream Team has arrived from the past re-invigorated and about to do battle with today’s modern stars.
This got me thinking. There have been seven “Dream Teams” since the inception of professional NBA players being allowed to participate in the Olympics in 1992. Those teams have seen plenty of ups. All but the aforementioned ’04 team have won the gold.
But how do the US Men’s teams stack up against one another? That’s what I am here for. After an exhaustive amount of research I am here to rank the seven US Men’s National Basketball teams that have participated in the Olympics since 1992. Naturally, we start at number 7.
Average Point Differential: +4.6 ; Outcome: Bronze Medal, 104-96 over Lithuania
Best Win Share Team (based on Win Shares per 48 minutes from previous NBA season)
Top Tournament Scorer: Allen Iverson (13.8)
Top Tournament Rebounder: Tim Duncan (9.1)
Top Tournament Assist Man: Stephon Marbury (3.4)
Most Minutes: Iverson (217)
He Was Really on the Team?!?! Award: Emeka Okafor (14 minutes played)
Would you believe that a roster that contained LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade was the least talented Men’s National team of all time? It is. When you consider the fact that they were all coming off their rookie season’s in the NBA it becomes a little more realistic. Naive and cocky, those three were not much help to this squad and head coach Larry Brown was reluctant to even given them minutes at the time with Anthony being only one of two players to not play in every game (the other was fresh outta college Emeka Okafor).
Really, this roster is Tim Duncan and a bunch of solid NBA pros rather than super-stars. Iverson, the leading scorer also led the team in minutes despite playing only 48 games in the 2003-2004 NBA regular season due to injury. Something I will reference throughout this list are the teams’ collective per game averages during the previous NBA regular season, in order to give a feel for the talent level of the team based on their stats in reference to each other. Rather than try to compare them entirely based on their international stats, when international talent has dramatically increased over 24 years, they will be compared in part using their NBA season performance. With that said, the ’04 team’s 2003-2004 NBA season totals were lack-luster. They scored the fewest collective points, dished the fewest assists and had the fewest Win Shares Per 48 Minutes of any of their Dream Team counterparts. Duncan was also the only player to be voted All-NBA or in the top 8 in MVP voting. Richard Jefferson, who played more minutes in the tournament than James and Anthony combined, while playing the same position, was never an All-Star once in his career.
This team’s best scorer was coming off of injury, they completely lacked any ball-distributing point guard (Marbury? blech) and really suffered in how they were designed as a team. This was really just a conglomeration of talent, not a well thought out basketball squad.
Average Point Differential: +22.5 Outcome: Gold Medal, 96-66 over Serbia
Best Win Share Team (based on Win Shares per 48 minutes from previous NBA season)
Top Tournament Scorer: Kevin Durant (19.4)
Top Tournament Rebounder: DeAndre Jordan (6.1)
Top Tournament Assist Man: Kyrie Irving (4.9)
Most Minutes: Durant (230)
He Was Really on the Team?!?! Award: Harrison Barnes (31 minutes played)
This team is a symbol of the beginning of the slow crawl back towards mediocrity that ultimately reared its ugly head a with the 7th place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. With that being said, the previously ranked 2004 squad is in a league of its own. The leap from the 7 spot to this 6 spot is significant.
This is Durant’s team, having proven himself to be worthy for the cause in the 2012 tournament (more on that later). Without other top level scoring talent (exception given to Irving) Durant was allowed to go buck wild on all competitors, most notably dropping 30 points on Serbia in the Olympic final. And what a difference four years makes. Concerns abounded at the time about if team chemistry would be effected by Durant’s free agent decision to join the Warriors a mere month before this Olympic tournament, particularly between Durant and Irving. Now he and Irving, who played for the Cavs team that was likely most effected by Durant’s move, are teammates in Brooklyn.
The 2016 version of Team USA was also home to a prolific version of DeAndre Jordan that no longer exists, coming off of 1st Team All-Defense and 1st Team All-NBA honors in the previous season NBA season. More in reference to the context of the NBA coming off that 2015-2016 season, this team was a middle of the road squad in comparison to their fellow Dream Team peers. Their previous season numbers were middling at best but they never ranked last in any of the statistics that I checked. They lose points for having a score-first point guard in Irving as their main distributor of the ball and for having another never-All Star on the team in Harrison Barnes. Durant carrying the load was a bit of a need rather than a luxury for them, particularly in comparison to just four years previous, and that’s how they have ended up sixth.
Average Point Differential: +21.6 Outcome: Gold Medal, 85-75 over France
Best Win Share Team (based on Win Shares per 48 minutes from previous NBA season)
Top Tournament Scorer: Vince Carter (14.8)
Top Tournament Rebounder: Kevin Garnett (9.1)
Top Tournament Assist Man: Jason Kidd (4.4)
Most Minutes: Carter (181)
He Was Really on the Team?!?! Award: Vin Baker (110 minutes played)
This is the first USA Dream Team where you will see a real slip up in the amount of talent after the institution of pros in 1992. Though I will say while their names might underwhelm slightly today in comparison to the 2016 team, I think that is just recency bias.
The 2000 version of Team USA is a bit of a team of specialists with the only one notable exception in Garnett. Carter is a scorer at the peak of his powers. Jason Kidd is handling and distributing, Alonzo Mourning is coming off winning the Defensive Player of the Year award and Ray Allen, Steve Smith and Allan Houston can shoot the lights out. What this team lacks though is the type of interchangeable, multi-talented stars that you will see on teams ranked better than them.
Their biggest strength is around the rim. Between Mourning and Garnett you have two lock-down defenders and a team that blocked more shots in their previous NBA season than any other Dream Team. They could just bludgeon to death their Olympic opponents and it shows, the front-court tandem were the only double-digit average scorers outside of Carter. Their biggest scare came in the semi-final vs. Lithuania, which saw them sneak away with a 2 point victory on the shoulders of Garnett’s 14 & 12 performance that included a crucial steal with 25 seconds left and a 1 point lead. All that being said, I think the close call was more a question of motivation rather than talent, so they place fifth.
4. 2012 Olympics in London (The Re-Deem Team 2.0)
Average Point Differential: +32.1 Outcome: Gold Medal, 107-100 over Spain
Best Win Share Team (based on Win Shares per 48 minutes from previous NBA season)
Top Tournament Scorer: Kevin Durant (19.5)
Top Tournament Rebounder: Kevin Love (7.6)
Top Tournament Assist Man: LeBron James (5.6)
Most Minutes: Durant (209)
He Was Really on the Team?!?! Award: Deron Williams (145 minutes played)
I’m not a huge Durant fan. I’m from Cleveland. He ruined any potential for a continued, fair and balanced rivalry between the Cavs and Warriors, but is he possibly the best Olympic basketball player of all-time? I said before he proved himself in this Olympics, and that he certainly did. Coming off of a Finals loss to James and the Heat this was a statement, and his first successful shot at real glory.
It wasn’t all Durant though. This is the first team we will look at with a real depth of talent. There were five double-digit average scorers on this team in Durant, James, Anthony, Kevin Love and Kobe Bryant. However, those scorers came at the cost of front court depth. Tyson Chandler is coming off a season as Defensive Player of the Year, but he is the only center on the team outside of the fresh outta college Anthony Davis. Its clear the strategy here was to try to be as proficient as possible offensively, and that they were, scoring in triple digits in 6 of 8 games in the tournament. They even dropped an Olympic record 156 points on Nigeria in pool play. Melo had 37 in 14 minutes in that game… I don’t even know how that’s possible. Finally, their previous NBA season ranks 3rd best in terms of Win Shares per 48 when compared to all other Dream Teams.
Average Point Differential: +27.9 Outcome: Gold Medal, 118-107 over Spain
Best Win Share Team (based on Win Shares per 48 minutes from previous NBA season)
Top Tournament Scorer: Dwyane Wade (16.0)
Top Tournament Rebounder: Chris Bosh (6.1)
Top Tournament Assist Man: Chris Paul (4.1)
Most Minutes: LeBron James (198)
He Was Really on the Team?!?! Award: Michael Redd (72 minutes played)
That one missing element is skilled size and Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh provided it for the 2008 team. Howard is a season away from making the Finals as the center-piece of his late ’00s Orlando Magic teams coached by Stan Van Gundy. Bosh is proving himself to be quietly one of the best picks in the highly touted 2003 NBA Draft. He leads this team in rebounding despite getting only the 7th most minutes. Once again, this team has five double-digit scorers on it in Wade, James, Bryant, Anthony and Howard and once again they scored in triple digits as a team in six of eight tournament games.
In comparison, their previous NBA season resume is greater than the 2012 squad as they finished with the 2nd most collective Points per Game of any US Men’s team and also finished 2nd in assists between incredibly capable passers like Paul, James, Kidd and Williams. They had four of the five members of the 1st All-NBA team (Howard, James, Bryant and Paul) as well as the league MVP (Bryant). On top of all this, Spain finishing within 11 points of Team USA in the Final was as close as any opponent would get in a game that saw the steady hand of Kobe Bryant score 20 and lead the team with 6 assists, foreshadowing his final two NBA titles in the two coming years.
Perhaps another rim-protector outside of Howard could have been in order. He was the only player on the team to record more than 1.5 blocks per game in the previous NBA season for this team, but having the rebounding of Howard, Bosh and Carlos Boozer gives them the leg up on the 2012 team. It just doesn’t put them in the stratosphere of our final 2.
2. 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (Dream Team 2.0)
Average Point Differential: +31.7 Outcome: Gold Medal, 95-69 over Serbia and Montenegro
Best Win Share Team (based on Win Shares per 48 minutes from previous NBA season)
Dream Team 2.0 had one very obvious omission, several capable additions and a number of significant hold-overs from the original Dream Team. Obviously, Michael Jordan is nowhere to be found, but Pippen and Karl Malone still rank in the top 5 in minutes for this 1996 team along with one of the best shooters ever in Reggie Miller and a star that burned out far too soon in Penny Hardaway. It was “no Jordan, no problem” in 1996 as Barkley took over the mantle as the team’s best player, leading in most points and rebounds despite finishing 7th in minutes played.
Maybe surprisingly, this team was the most prolific scoring team of any Team USA when counting up their previous season NBA stats, and it comes from a plethora of front court players that all scored more than 20 points per game. Among them, a 23 year old Shaquille O’Neal, a veteran Hakeem Olajuwon and ’92 hold-overs Barkley, Malone and David Robinson. This team also had that previous NBA season’s 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th place MVP finishers (Robinson, Olajuwon, Pippen and Payton, respectively) and it had 4 of the five first team All-NBAers (Robinson, Malone, Pippen and Hardaway) as well. The only player to not at least have two of the following three accolades for the 1995-1996 season- All-NBA Team, All-Defensive Team, be an MVP vote recipient- was Reggie Miller, and like I said before, he was only one of the best shooters in the history of the game.
Don’t get it confused. They are actually neck and neck with our obvious-by-now first place finisher. You would think this would be an easy decision, but it wasn’t. As great as our 1st place team is, the ’96 Olympic team really was right there in terms of depth of talent. They didn’t finish worse than third in any of the stat categories I compared between these teams previous NBA seasons.
However, neither did number 1.
1. 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (The Dream Team)
Average Point Differential: +43.8 Outcome: Gold Medal, 117-85 over Croatia
Best Win Share Team (based on Win Shares per 48 minutes from previous NBA season)
Top Tournament Scorer: Charles Barkley (18.0)
Top Tournament Rebounder: Karl Malone & Patrick Ewing (5.3)
Top Tournament Assist Man: Scottie Pippen (5.9)
Most Minutes: Michael Jordan (185)
He Was Really on the Team?!?! Award: Christian Laettner (61 minutes played)
Jordan was smart, he let a lot of his comrades do a lot of the heavy lifting, a smart move, considering the sizable talent gap between this US National Team and the rest of the world at the time. And they still managed with ease. That point differential is staggering! They scored in triple digits in every…single… game. Barkley once again led the squad in terms of scoring, and is on my short list with Kevin Durant for best US Men’s Olympic basketball players ever. Meanwhile, Pippen handled the ball a lot due to Magic Johnson’s lack of wind (having not played the ’91-92 season) and the fact John Stockton only played in 4 games due to injury.
Barkley, Jordan, Malone, Chris Mullin and Clyde Drexler were double-digit scorers in the tournament. If I include Johnson’s ’90-’91 NBA stats to go with everyone else’s ’91-’92 stats they are the best rebounding and assisting team of any of the US Olympics Men’s Teams. They’re also the best in terms of WS/48 and are second in steals (to 1996) and blocks (to 2000). Without Magic’s numbers they still finish 3rd in assists! He’s one of the most prolific passers in the history of the game, and they are still 3rd without him! All five 1st Team All NBA members are present, four of the five 2nd team members are and the top 6 in MVP voting are all here. Oh, and everyone except Johnson, Larry Bird and college kid Christian Laettner is between the ages of 26 and 29. I could keep going.
With no professional team sports being played on the North American continent right now, many have turned to classic games as a refuge to help distract them from the very difficult real world problems that we are dealing with as a sports-loving people. I am no different in this and as the time approaches where I hoped to be able to do either a Crunch-Time Breakdown or a Sports Cliff Notes of something like an NBA Conference Finals or an MLB regular season game, that obviously won’t be happening.
Hopefully a classic game can once again be a good substitute. In my choosing I decided to go with a Game 6 of a fairly recent MLB playoffs and a game that was close throughout, but I didn’t have much memory of. We will be perusing Game 6 of the 2015 American League Championship Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and hosting Kansas City Royals.
Kansas City arrives home for Game 6 up 3 games to 2 in the series. The Royals had taken an easy 2-0 lead at home in the first two games through the help of adequate starting pitching and an absolutely lock-down bullpen that became the prototype for successful bullpens throughout the league in future seasons. Toronto won Game 3 at home but was absolutely demolished in Game 4, 14-2, behind home runs by RF Alex Rios and 2B Ben Zobrist. The Royals looked ready to take the series after such a Game 4 shellacking. but the Blue Jays re-grouped and scored 5 runs off Royals Game 5 started Edinson Volquez. SS Troy Tulowitzki’s 2 hits and 3 RBI stood out as the Blue Jays sent the series back to KC, 7-1 was the final.
Price looks shaky early. He allows a solo homer in the 1st to former Tampa teammate Zobrist and another to Royals 3B Mike Moustakas in the 2nd. Conversely, Ventura comes out confident and guns blazing. After allowing a double to leadoff man Ben Revere in the first, he sets down ten Blue Jays in a row.
After the Moustakas blast, Price makes an adjustment and begins relying on his curveball more. The move pays off and he strikes out four batters in a row in the 4th and 5th innings and cruises deep into the middle innings, actually outlasting Ventura in this game after seeming unstable early.
Ventura has his streak of ten straight set down snapped by Toronto RF Jose Bautista’s solo home run in the 4th. One of the better sluggers of his time, its Bautista’s first homer of the series. From there, Ventura appears on the brink of unraveling for the rest of his outing. With his emotions on his sleeve, he stares down Tulowitzki after punching him out to end the top of the 4th then walks the first two batters of the 5th before Moustakas bails him out with a diving catch of a Josh Donaldson line drive at 3rd to end the frame.
However, Royals manager Ned Yost felt he needed just 5 innings from his starter and he gets them with a 2-1 lead intact. A 1-out double by Blue Jays DH Edwin Encarnacion chases Ventura from the game in the 6th but the threat doesn’t come to pass as reliever Kelvin Herrera puts out the potential fire before it starts to blaze.
We pick up the action for our crunch-time breakdown in the top of the 7th. I’m embedding the YouTube video of the game below and I will provide timestamps for the action I describe so you can follow along. Feel free to watch the whole game if you are missing baseball and feel the need. It is what I did, and I enjoyed every minute. Being able to skip commercial breaks is a god-send. Without further delay though, enjoy!
The Royals stick with Herrera in the 7th (2:13:40). He’s the workhorse of their bullpen in this series, pitching more than any other reliever and doing so without allowing a single run. He sets the Blue Jays down in order, the only notable occurrence being bad body language from Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin as he flies out to start the frame. This act is a carryover from how he reacted when nearly colliding with teammate 3B Josh Donaldson while trying to catch a pop-up to end the previous half inning (2:10:20).
Price returns for the bottom of the 7th and allows a lead off single to Moustakas the at bats following the single are a pivotal point in this game (2:26:10).
Royals catcher Salvador Perez smashes a deep drive to left that the nifty-fielding Revere leaps for and catches against the wall. He collects himself and rifles the ball back into the cutoff man. They nearly double up Moustakas in the process if only first baseman Chris Colabello is able to squeeze the return throw to the base. The play is quite the swing of emtions. If Revere doesn’t make a phenomenal play then Perez has a double and Moustakas probably scores. If Colabello holds onto the throw at first there would be 2 outs and no one on. Instead the outcome is somewhere in the middle. 1 out, and a man still on first.
(2:30:54) Royals LF Alex Gordon then hits a hard grounder to second baseman Ryans Goins’s left that he fields with a dive. His only play is to first. Moustakas advances to second, but there are now 2 outs.
Price is removed after this third hard hit balls in the inning. He nearly makes it through the order 3 full times and on the 3rd time through the Royals only go 1 for 8.
(2:35:54) Aaron Sanchez enters in relief, one of the few relievers Toronto manager John Gibbons trusts. He hasn’t allowed a run in the playoffs but immediately allows a rocket of a single to left to 9-hitter Alex Rios. For all the defensive effort in the inning, Moustakas still scores. 3-1 Royals. Insurance run acheived.
Removing Price is dubious in my eyes. Like I said, the Royals were 1 for 8 the 3rd time through their order and Rios was the 9-hitter. The other side of the coin is that Rios had hit the ball well in his last at bat and according to the broadcast had good historical numbers against Price. Was it the right call? That’s hard to judge, but the truth is that Sanchez immediately allows the inherited runner to score.
The inning ends however, without further damage, but during a mound visit the broadcast accidentally shows a graphic promoting Game 1 of the World Series between the Royals and Mets, even though the Royals obviously haven’t won yet (2:40:47). Earlier in the inning, broadcaster Joe Buck had slipped up and said this was going to be soon to be free agent David Price’s last time in a Toronto uniform (2:32:53). Signs that the fix is in?! Hardly. I hate people that claim sports are fixed. Its still funny though.
Ryan Madson relieves Herrera in the top of the 8th and immediately allows a slap infield single to the left side against Revere (2:46:55). Sure, its a 3-1 lead, but the tying run now comes to the plate in the forms of Toronto’s top sluggers Donaldson (the AL MVP), Bautista and Encarnacion (the three of them combined for 120 HRs that season) again with no one out. Wade Davis, the Royals lockdown closer is warming in the pen. The broadcast repeatedly suggests going to Davis. Yost sticks with Madson.
Madson locks up Donaldson with a 97-mph 2-seamer for strike three (2:48:10). But up comes Bautista who picks out a fastball at the top of the zone and smashes it over the left-field fence for his 2nd homer of the game (2:49:15). We are tied. Bautista hit a heck of a pitch. 96 mph and at the top of the zone, but you can see Perez wanted the ball down and away. No such luck.
The broadcast is critical of Yost for sticking with Madson. I think its silly. Madson had allowed a mere infield single and then blew away Donaldson. If you’re that jumpy to get your closer in the game, then just bring him in to start the 8th. If not, then let your qualified set up man try to do his job. It just didn’t work out. Once again, its 3-3.
I would have gone away from Madson after the homer though. Yost stays with him to face Encarnacion who walks (2:51:50). THEN Yost brings in Davis.
Davis gets Colabello to pop up but a wild pitch with Tulowitzki at the plate sends Encarnacion to 2nd (2:57:40). Davis is behind 2-0 to a very good hitter with the go-ahead run on 2nd and the struggling Russell Martin on deck. Rather than walk Tulo, he battles back from a 3-1 count and strikes him out with heat on the outside corner. Great perseverance by Wade Davis, the tie is at least preserved.
Rain had been in the forecast all night, and it finally comes. Between half innings the tarp is laid out and the game is delayed. Its a 40 minute delay in all and the suspense builds. As the tarp comes off it is 3-3 and we are entering the bottom of the 8th. During the delay Toronto manager John Gibbons is interviewed (3:06:10). He’s very straight forward in his answers including his mention of his desperation for bullpen help. He hopes the delay is short so he could allow Sanchez to continue to pitch. It isn’t. Instead he relies on closer Roberto Osuna (insert booing) upon our return.
Royals CF Lorenzo Cain leads off and puts up an great at bat (3:46:40). He sees 8 pitches and ultimately works a walk on a full count, laying off a good slider down low. Remember, we are coming right off a rain delay and Osuna is a closer at the top of his game. It would have been all too easy to not be focused enough to put up the at bat that Cain does.
The amazing then happens. If you only want to watch one sequence of this game, then pick this one (3:52:00). 1B and clean-up hitter Eric Hosmer singles on a line drive down the line to right. Bautista does a great job of cutting the ball off (with a bum ankle no less, we learn that in the Gibbons interview too) before it gets to the wall and holds Hosmer to a single. He also fires a strike to the infield, but there is confusion. Goins is lined up wrongly for the cutoff throw so Bautista gets the ball into Tulowitzki at 2nd base. This confusion doesn’t just allow the smart and speedy Cain to go from first to third, but he comes all the way around and scores on a single due to incredibly heads-up baserunning. The Royals steal the lead away, 4-3.
Let me say that again, Cain scores from first on a freaking single! In the 8th inning of an elimination game! How is this play never mentioned or brought up ever? It was incredibly clutch and I completely forgot that it existed. If Derek Jeter or David Ortiz had done what Lorenzo Cain did, this play would already have its own statue at Cooperstown and national broadcasts would mention it every time any runner ever goes from first to third. Cain manufactured this run all by himself.
(3:54:00) Turns out though that Cain would’ve scored anyway. DH Kendrys Morales singles as the next batter and the threat of a rally is on with men on first and second and still no one out, but Osuna settles down and gets Moustakas to pop out (3:57:30) and Perez to hit into a double play (3:59:10). The damage is minimized, but the Blue Jays must score to keep their season alive.
Due to the rain delay, Royals closer Wade Davis hasn’t pitched in over an hour, but he’s back out on the mound and facing the bottom third of the Toronto order, looking to clinch a trip to the World Series for Kansas City.
I am surprised Gibbons doesn’t pitch hit for Martin, who hasn’t gotten a hit to this point in the series, but it pays off that he bats. Martin singles to center to start the ninth (4:03:00). Dalton Pompey pinch runs for him and not only steals 2nd base (4:04:00) but also 3rd (4:07:05). The usually speedy Royals are suddenly being victimized by their own game. The tying run is on 3rd and there’s no one out.
This all happens with Kevin Pillar at the plate, who ultimately walks (4:08:10). It looks like a mistake to bring Davis back out. With men on the corners and no one out, the Blue Jays desperately need to just put the ball in play. They have Dioner Navarro pinch hit for Goins. Navarro’s K rate is 15%, 9 percent better than Goins’s 24%. Pillar steals second and brings the go-ahead run into scoring position, but Navarro strikes out in the process (4:10:58). 1 out.
Revere comes up and immediately gets ahead 2-0 in the count. A strike follows and then a VERY questionable fastball up and away that also gets called a strike (you be the judge, 4:13:10). Revere also fails to just put the ball in play. He strikes out on a 2-2 slider. He’s beside himself, probably both for the bad 2-1 strike call and for not executing. 2 down. The tying and go-ahead runs are still in scoring position.
Davis still has to face AL MVP Josh Donaldson. Royals legend George Brett checks his heart rate and pulse from one of the suites in the ballpark. But the drama turns out to be no matter (4:16:10). Donaldson grounds one to Moustakas. The opportunity to score by just putting the ball in play has come to pass. Mous fires across the diamond to Hosmer and the Royals are going to the World Series. 4-3 is our final.
Toronto goes 0 for 12 with Runners in Scoring Position for the game. That, along with the controversy involved in Moustakas’s homer in the 2nd which was reviewed and upheld, Toronto’s inability to double-up Moustakas on the phenomenal play Revere made at the wall in left, and Cain’s incredible base-running are the keys to this game. The Royals simply executed better than the Blue Jays, despite the great efforts of David Price, who would leave in the off-season for Boston.
Speaking of pitching, the game misses Yordano Ventura. I had forgotten how fun it was to watch his personality play baseball. I loved his competitive spirit in this game, even if he hadn’t entirely harnessed it yet. What a shame that he was never able to have the opportunity to meet his potential.
I only vaguely remembered little parts of this game from back in 2015, and I can’t understand why. In a way I’m thankful now because I was riveted throughout. This game is now an instant classic to me. I consider the Royals a division rival and I still found it great. Why I don’t hear about this game more and especially Cain’s base-running, is beyond me.
I thought for sure the Royals style of play was going to be the wave of the future. With teams resorting to the shift more and more I thought for sure the counter-move would be to put the ball in play and wreak havoc on the shift with speed and good base-running. It turns out I was completely wrong. Teams just try to hit the ball over the fence along with the shift. What did get preserved from this Royals team though was their bullpen, who’s only runs allowed in the series came on the 2-run bomb Madson allowed to Bautista.
This game reminds me of a time not too long ago, but long ago enough for me to be nostalgic. The game was played slightly differently and there were enough names that are now gone or in different places that it made me smile to remember (in fact, I don’t think a single one of the players I mentioned one either side is still with one of these teams). I will leave you with this, take the time some time to pick out a game you wouldn’t normal think about from sports history and give it a shot. If you haven’t done this yet, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised with how much the simple pleasure of the memories might bring.
Because free agency is approaching. Betts hits the open market this coming off-season and the Red Sox, with eight of their top ten WAR earners in 2019 gradually reaching arbitration and free agency in the coming years, decided that saving their money to spread it around to many lesser talents was more important than handing most of it to just one talent. So due to that and a lack of interest in getting deeper into the luxury tax, off Betts went. Time will tell if the move was savvy, but this kind of operation out of a Major League front office is becoming less and less of a faux pas.
We know this now, but we only began to become so enlightened about a dozen years ago. I can speak as a Cleveland Indians fan who watched his team trade Cy Young Award winners away in back to back seasons (CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, ’08 and ’09 respectively) as they were about to hit the open market. The Indians, who have been an inventive and innovative baseball factory since Hank Peters began a baseball tree that has now run through John Hart, Mark Shaprio, Chris Antonneti and Mike Chernoff (just in house, there have been other General Managers that have forged their own path elsewhere that have come from this tree) were absolutely lambasted locally for making both of those deals. Fans hated them and hated Shapiro, the GM of the time, for making them. They were called cheap and gutless. How could they possibly compete while trading Cy Young Award winners away in back to back seasons? The 2008 trade of CC Sabathia ultimately yielded Michael Brantley (among others including bust Matt LaPorta, to be fair), who while no longer an Indian, I would consider to this day one of the best pure hitters in the game. The 2009 trade of Cliff Lee yielded starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco, poised to make his return from cancer this year with five of his previous six seasons for the Indians sporting an ERA of 3.30 or less. Sabathia and Lee were both great after departing the Tribe, but in the long run the moves were justifiable.
At least for the Indians and their fans though, those moves were earth-shattering. They were the an early example of selling high on your biggest stars and making sure you get something for them in case they depart for more lucrative pastures. For much of the decade previous to those trades the Indians learned the hard way, losing Hall of Fame slugger Jim Thome, would-be Hall of Fame slugger if he didn’t use steroids Manny Ramirez and should-be Hall of Fame defensive maestro Omar Vizquel in free agency. However, the Indians did perform a trade like this in 2002. It was the one that really proved this school of thought when they received prospects Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips for their ace at the time, Bartolo Colon. Before that the only thing resembling a Betts/Sale/Sabathia type deal the Indians performed during their 1990s run of dominance was the 1997 trade of Kenny Lofton where they received not prospects but 2 very qualified Major Leaguers in outfielders David Justice and Marquis Grissom. That ’97 team made the World Series. Justice in particular had multiple productive seasons for the Indians and Lofton even actually ended up returning in free agency in 1998. John Hart made a great trade. He made a trade on the brink of this idea, but not exactly the expiring star for prospects type deals that his disciples would eventually make.
That is why we are here. I want to implant new-school baseball thought into the head of 1990s John Hart. As the 1996 season approached the Indians were coming off of a World Series appearance where they lost in six games to the Atlanta Braves. They came into ’96 with an incredibly deep lineup that included Lofton, Vizquel, Ramirez, Thome, and another Hall of Famer in Eddie Murray among other talents. Their triple-A squad in Buffalo would be home to outfielders Brian Giles and Jeromy Burnitz, both future All-Stars in their own right.
And manning left-field for the 1996 season would be Albert Belle. Intense, studious, relentlessly competitive in the batter’s box and equally vicious to pitchers and fans or reports that rubbed him the wrong way, Belle would hit .317 in 1995 along with 50 dingers in a season that was shortened by 18 games due to the player’s strike. He led the American League in doubles, homers, RBI and slugging percentage. He is the only player to ever hit 50 doubles and 50 home runs in the same season. And he was one year away from free agency, intent to receive the most lucrative contract in baseball history at the time.
What a perfect opportunity to sell high if you’re a GM from 2020 trapped in John Hart’s 1996 body. So that’s right. I am going to try to trade Albert Belle in 1996 for prospects… twenty-four years after the fact.
I obviously have the benefit of hind-sight. I know who will be good in the future and who won’t. I will try not to use that to my advantage. A trade like this was unprecedented in 1996 and even more so when you consider the position the Indians were in. Its hard to find historical comparison for it so I will do my best to cobble together a fair trade. Allow me to walk you through the process.
First, it takes two to tango. I need to find a trade partner. I scoured Baseball-Reference.com’s 1996 transaction log for activity that would suggest interest in a player of Belle’s skill and pay rate. Namely, I looked for trades that were performed before and during that season that included star players or noteworthy power-hitting outfielders. Two deals jumped out at me.
The Padres, looking to make a playoff push, bolstered the middle of their order by adding Vaughn. He hit fourth or fifth 19 times each for the Padres down the stretch while playing left-field replacing the all-time great but aging Rickey Henderson. He would hit only .201 for the Padres in ’96 but would smash 10 homers in 43 games. He played two more seasons for the Padres and finished 4th in MVP voting for them in 1998. He made $5.9 million in 1996 and the Padres were committed for 2 more seasons. Belle was paid $5.7 million in 1996 and later committed to 2 seasons in free agency with the White Sox. Financially, there are similarities there.
In this new world I am creating, rather than sign Henderson to a 2-year deal at about $3.1 million per year before the 1996 season, the Padres have decided to pool that money plus the $5.9 million they would need in order to cover Vaughn and will use it to trade for Belle and pay his salary. In terms of fit, they have an obvious need. They have a recognizable hole in left-field as without signing Henderson they are left with 1995 holdover Melvin Nieves to play the position. He hit .205 in 98 games that previous season. Bip Roberts was another left-field possibility until the speedy utility man was traded in a separate deal to Kansas City on December 21st. Making that deal confirms their need to trade for Belle. It will help put them over the top in the NL West. It will be a feather in the cap of new GM Kevin Towers.
The one thing the Indians always lacked in those ’90s playoff runs was a front of the line ace starting pitcher. My goal in this exercise was to trade for one, plus other supplementing young players. Unfortunately I have had to settle a little in this trade. The Padres’ top pitching prospect according to Baseball America in both 1995 and 1996 was Dustin Hermanson, a man who inexplicably only relieved in professional baseball until he exclusively started for the Montreal Expos in 1997. Even as the 3rd overall pick in 1994 and the 18th best prospect in all of baseball in 1995, his lack of starting credentials aren’t what I am looking for.
The next best choice was the number 69 overall prospect in 1995, Marc Kroon. Kroon was a 2nd round pick of the New York Mets in 1991 and traded to the Padres in 1993 in a exclusively minor league deal. His numbers weren’t staggering, but a 3.51 ERA at the AA level in 1995 was a marked improvement and at the age of 22 he still seemed to have time to improve coming into ’96. The Padres however seem to disagree with me as in real life he was relegated to the bullpen in 1996, once again at the AA level. Having fallen out of favor with the San Diego front office would mean he is expendable for our trade.
The next two pieces, Newfield and Florie were part of the Brewers-Padres deal that actually happened and landed Vaughn for the Padres.
Newfield hit .295 with an .812 OPS in 73 games at AAA for the Padres and Mariners (he had been traded to the Padres mid-season) in 1995 and actually earned himself a call-up to the show, spending time in the Majors for both teams. He only hit a combined .236 with 4 homers in the big leagues, but at only 22 there was reason to believe in his talent.
Florie is an example of bullpen depth, something Hart personally always seemed to love to trade for, whether it was Alvin Morman, Steve Reed or Ricardo Rincon. Still, he was a legit relief pitcher for the Padres in 1995 on a team that had depth at that role. Coming off his first full season in, he pitched 68.2 Major League innings and earned a 3.01 ERA in the process, good for a 135 ERA+. A capable sinker-baller, there is reason to believe he could have been plugged into the Indians bullpen in 1996 immediately.
Johnson was a speedy center-fielder who swiped 85 bases in A ball in 1994. While he was a light hitter, with one career professional home run going into the 1996 season, there was reason to consider that the Indians could mold him like they molded the very raw Kenny Lofton from University of Arizona basketball player to Major League All-Star. Further, don’t forget Lofton is 2 seasons from free agency himself. There is a potential void to be filled here. Johnson hit .293 in 81 games at High A in 1995. He wasn’t a complete lost cause and I deem worthy of a look.
The benefit of hind-sight however tells us that this trade is ultimately a lost cause.
Kroon pitched 26.2 Major League innings in his career and none of them ever came in a start. He went five years between big league opportunities between 1998 and 2004, and never caught on in the Majors.
Newfield actually played a lot in ’96 for the Padres and Brewers, scoring an ever-so-slightly better than average 101 OPS+ in 1996 but he never really performed even that well ever again. His baseball career was over by the turn of the millenium.
Florie would never again pitch as well as he did in 1995, but is actually the highlight of the Indians return in this trade. He would pitch six more seasons in the Majors and post an ERA+ of better than 100 in four of them though he would be traded twice more in his career.
Johnson would never get the chance to face big league pitching due to an inability to hit at the AA and AAA level. Both of his batting averages at those levels were below .250 at a time when such a figure just wouldn’t fly, especially for a speedster.
This is however just one of two trade possibilities that I have come up with. I started this exercise by scouring the 1996 transaction log for trades that would seem similar to a deal for Albert Belle. The Padres have created one opportunity, however the baseball’s evil empire, the New York Yankees created the other.
The Yankees also had a need in left-field coming into the 1996 season. Gerald Williams played the most real-life games for the Yankees in left in both 1995 and 1996, but he never played over 100 games in either season due to both injuries and poor performance, especially in the latter year. New York also had a need for a clean-up hitter. Real-life trade deadline addition first baseman/DH Cecil Fielder hit in the clean up spot more than any other Yankees hitter in 1996, suggesting a need for someone to fill the four hole on Opening Day. Who better to fill it than Albert Belle?
So the Yankees, without and every day left-fielder or clean-up batter, and with the backing of the biggest market in the country and money to blow going into the 1996 off-season are a prime candidate to take on Albert Belle. But what do the Indians receive in return?
Now, there is one name in that list of players that will jump out at you, and I promise we will get there. But, once again the main goal of this exercise was to try to bring a future ace to the ’90s Indians. I had considered targeting Ramiro Mendoza, who ended up making 11 starts at the age of 24 for the Yankees in ’96, as the headline prospect here, but decided against it. In order to make this trade I thought it was only fair to alleviate some of the financial burden of bringing Belle to the Yankees by deciding it would mean they would not sign Kenny Rogers. Without Rogers, the Yankee rotation isn’t nearly as deep and Mendoza becomes a much more important cog there aren’t willing to part with.
Drews, on the other hand, was taken 13th overall in the 1993 MLB Draft and by 1996 was the Yankees best pitching prospect, ranked 12th overall by Baseball America. He was a control specialist who posted a 2.27 ERA in high A ball in 1995. In the winter between the 1995 and 1996 seasons he would make an ideal return for the type of trade that I want.
Okay, now let’s get to the name that obviously sticks out twenty-four years later.
Minor league catcher Jorge Posada was a 43rd round pick for the Yankees in 1989 that just kept improving and worked his way into the Majors for a incredibly brief one game cup of coffee in 1995 that didn’t even include an at bat. While not being an overwhelming prospect, Posada showed some ability as an offensive catcher in the minors, nearly skipping AA entirely before playing parts of three seasons at AAA. Additionally, Posada was on the block in real life during the off-season in question, made available in both the trade talks for Martinez as well as Cincinnati pitcher David Wells.
From the Indians’ perspective, catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. was incredibly capable, but often injured, having not played 90 games or more since 1990. His back-up Tony Pena was 39 years old in 1996 and in his last season with the Tribe. Posada, who wouldn’t really take on full-time catching duties for the Yankees until 1999 anyways, could spend most of the 1996 season at AAA for the Indians, much like he did for the Yanks and could become Alomar’s backup in ’97. If a log jam really appeared, he could always be traded.
Pavlas is a lottery-ticket addition based on Hart’s aforementioned penchant for trading for relief pitching. He was a journeyman minor leaguer that actually was out of American professional baseball for several years but pitched well for the Yankees both in AAA and the Majors in 1995. The Indians can always use bullpen depth. I decided to tack him on.
Additionally, Riggs hit .330 (with an OBP of .479!) in 238 plate appearances at AA in 1995 as a utility player. He may be minor league depth, as he was at the advanced age of 27 going into 1996, but might have been worthy of a look in a time where we didn’t know he would never rise above AA. He did however play for the Indians AA affiliate in 1997, suggesting the Indians would have interest in his inclusion.
The outcome of this trade, while ultimately better for the Tribe than my Padres proposal, is ironically acceptable on accident. The main target of the deal, a future ace starting pitcher, never comes to fruition. Drews would go on to post a 5.12 career ERA in AA ball and 7.51 career ERA in AAA. The highly-touted prospect would never make the Majors.
Pavlas would pitch in 16 games for the Yankees in 1996, and pitch quite well actually. He’d throw 23 innings, have an ERA of 2.35 and even collect a save. John Hart would love this guy! Maybe he’d pitch effectively in the Indians pen in ’96 as well, still he this would be his last pro season.
Riggs would be released by the Yankees after hitting .290 for them in 1996 and as I said before, the Indians would give him a look in ’97. There’s is little to believe his career path would change from playing in AA for the Tribe for a year before deciding to play his final year of pro ball in Taiwan in 1998.
That of course leaves Posada. He would go on to play 17 total seasons for the Yankees in real life, peaking in 2003 when he hit .281 with 31 homers and finished 3rd in the American League MVP race. He’d have a career OPS+ of 121 and hit 275 round trippers life-time. He actually would be the steal of this trade, especially if the Indians could lock him up long-term while he was young like the Yankees did.
So here we are, two fairly realistic trade deals that send Albert Belle away from Cleveland in exchange for a package of prospects. One package is a little underwhelming and ultimately rightfully so. The other is accidentally a very intriguing deal for the Tribe with the benefit of hind-sight. I personally think the Padres deal is more likely, but the Yankees deal is obviously more fun while not being outrageous, so let’s dig into that a little more.
Trading Belle in ’96 would have been an unprecedented move by itself, but can you even imagine if John Hart traded Albert Belle to the Yankees?!?! I don’t care that he just engineered a team that brought the Indians to their first World Series in 41 years. The fans would have run him out of town on a rail. The Yankees, while not a divisional rival after the switch to Wildcard play in 1994, were and are still venomously hated in Cleveland to this day. Sports talk radio callers would be comparing Hart to Frank “Trader” Lane in a matter of seconds, the man who traded beloved slugger Rocky Colavito in 1960 (my dad still isn’t over this by the way). Hart would essentially use up all good will that he ever had. This had better work. His job is on the line. Ironically for that reason, he better go with the Yankee trade because that is the one that will work.
Now its time to explain why the Yankees does trade work. Real life statistics would show that while Belle would come into this trade like a lion, he would come out like a lamb. In 1996 he is one of the most feared hitters in baseball, but who is to say he would stay in New York past 1996? In real life he signed the most lucrative contract in baseball with the Chicago White Sox upon reaching free agency before the 1997 season. He played 2 seasons including a year where he had an OPS+ of a staggering 172 in 1998 for Chicago. Belle then opted out and once again signed the most lucrative contract in baseball with Baltimore before the 1999 season. All that was great. He continued to be a monster in the right-handed batters box for three years following the end of his deal with the Indians, but then a degenerative hip condition brought his career to a shocking and premature end. He never played beyond 2000 and collected 18.3 WAR in his career between 1996 and his last game.
On the other side, let’s say the Indians find a way to extend Posada’s contract, much like the Yankees did and much like the Indians did with the likes of Thome, Vizquel and homegrown pitcher Charles Nagy during the early years of their rise. Posada didn’t reach free agency with the Yankees until after the 2007 season at age 35. I will be a little more modest. Let’s say the Indians are able to keep Posada under contract until 2004 instead. That would put him in line with when the remainder of the Indians core (ie: Vizquel) were let loose into free agency. Posada would be worth 26.2 WAR between 1996 and 2004. Even if by some miracle if Belle had decided to remain in Cleveland following 1996 (which was never going to happen anyway), he would not have been as productive in the long-run as Posada. Even with Drews, Pavlas and Riggs all falling on their face, the Indians arguably get the better of this deal.
Now, there is a lot to be said for context. Posada wouldn’t show immediate dividends by spending a year at AAA and then backing up Sandy Alomar Jr. A lot of his production would come in the latter years of ’02, ’03 and ’04 when the Indians began their down-turn. Maybe he would have even been traded at some point for other future players. Meanwhile, its likely the ’96 Yankees, who won the World Series without Belle, would win the World Series with him. But perhaps the bright New York lights, the obnoxious media coverage and Belle’s awful temperament would torpedo the Yankees title run, allowing the Atlanta Braves to be back to back World Series champs. I certainly don’t see Belle remaining lasting in New York beyond ’96 for this reason.
So, what have we learned here? All trades are a crap-shoot. They can be made with the best of intentions. You can do all the due diligence in the world. You can be as theoretically sound as you possibly can, but you never just know who is going to produce, which prospect is going to blossom, or which player’s body is going to break down.
In neither instance that I came up with did I solve the Indians starting pitching problem. One trade was a total bust. In the other I lucked into the secondary prospect I grabbed being an All-Star level player with a long career. As the fine folks at The Ringer would suggest, trading stars for prospects in baseball isn’t the fool-proof plan that it is assumed to be. While at the same time, at least trying to get something for a player that you know won’t be returning is still probably the right decision. This makes me think avoiding the sure-fire “can’t miss” prospect who will eat up all your trade capital in lieu of casting a wider net and grabbing multiple players of potential might be the real moral to the story. The more chances you have to fall into a Brantley, a Torres or even a Posada, the better.
Its part of what makes baseball so wonderfully frustrating.