In the third of our series, we look at the best outfield/DH groupings of the past 20 years. The Jacobs/Progressive Field era has seen so many powerful bats, but easily the top of the heap came from this group. From Albert Belle to Travis Hafner, we have been blessed to see some incredible performances. But who was the best of the best? I’m sure it won’t be hard for you to guess…..
LF Brian Giles .268/.368/.827/17 HR/61 RBI/ 62 R/13 SB
CF Marquis Grissom .262/.317/.713/12 HR/66 SB/74 R/22 SB
RF Manny Ramirez .328/.538/.953/26 HR/88 RBI/99 R/40 Doubles
DH David Justice .329/.418/1.013/33 HR/101 RBI/84 R
It was a big transition year for the Indians outfield. Just before the season started, March 25th to be exact, GM John Hart shocked the baseball word by sending his All-Star Center fielder Kenny Lofton, a free agent to be at the end of the season, to Atlanta along with reliever Alan Embree for outfielders David Justice and Marquis Grissom. Lofton was hurt, as were Grissom and Justice, but both arrived with 1995 World Series rings in tow, ready to embrace the Tribe culture. Also gone was Albert Belle, who fled for the money in Chicago. The newly reshaped outfield would feature youngster Brian Giles in left with Grissom taking over for Lofton in center. Breakout hitting machine Manny Ramirez would be the lone holdover in Right. Justice would be the primary DH, while splitting time with Giles in left.
Judging strictly by the numbers, Ramirez had an off year for him, but was still extremely productive in the middle of the order. Giles did what a first year starter hitting in the bottom of a stacked lineup should do. Grissom by all accounts did not come as advertised. With the glove, he was very solid, but he struggled most of the year at the plate. So much so that Manager Mike Hargrove moved him out of the lead-off spot and hit him ninth for a two month stretch. Justice had the best of his four plus years in Cleveland and became a leader in the clubhouse. Without Belle, the team was more loose. As we all know, the Tribe ended up back in the World Series.
LF Coco Crisp .300/.345/.810/16 HR/69 RBI/86 R/15 SB/42 Doubles
CF Grady Sizemore .289/.348/.832/22 HR/81 RBI/111 Runs/22 SB/37 Doubles
RF Casey Blake .241/.308/.746/23 HR/58 RBI/72 R
DH Travis Hafner .305/.403/1.003/33 HR/108 RBI/94 R/42 Doubles
Don’t ask me why, but I have a real affinity for that 2005 team. The amazing story here was that we were not supposed to have seen Grady Sizemore appear. When camp broke, Sizemore was in AAA and Coco Crisp was the center fielder. Juan Gonzalez was brought back on a one-year incentive-laden deal and made the team as the left fielder. Casey Blake would convert from third base to right field with the team adding Aaron Boone to play the hot corner.
On his first at-bat of the first game of the season, Gonzalez pulled up lame, clutching his hamstring running out a ground ball. He was never heard from again. To the DL went Juan Gone and up came Sizemore. The rest, as they say, was history.
Sizemore burst onto the scene with his all out, balls to the wall style of play. 2005 Grady was hitting for power and average. He was more patient than the guy we saw later in his Tribe career. Plus defensively, he was a gem. Meanwhile Crisp moved seamlessly over to left, a la Michael Brantley, and flourished hitting second behind Sizemore. As the time passes, people forget just how good Coco was that season. Think I’d take that production from Michael Bourn right now all day. Readers of mine know I was never a Casey Blake fan, but I have to give credit where credit is due. Never did I think he could move from third to right and make it look so easy. Casey was an underrated athlete and proved that in 2005.
And then there was Pronk. Travis Hafner built on his solid 2004 season with more of the same. The mountain of a man topped 30 homers for the first time in his career and gave the Indians the middle of the order power bat they so desperately needed. Hafner finished fifth in the AL MVP voting and was a huge part of a team that fell one game short of October, winning 93 games.
LF Marty Cordova .301/.348/.855/20 HR/69 RBI/61 Runs
CF Kenny Lofton .261/.322/.398/14 HR/66 RBI/91 Runs/16 SB
RF Juan Gonzalez .325/.370/.960/35 HR/140 RBI/97 R
DH Ellis Burks .280/.369/.911/28 HR/74 RBI/83 R
Now here is a group of guys together that nobody seems to remember existing in Tribe lore. It was an aging group to say the least. I mentioned Gonzalez above and the reason why the Indians took that ’05 chance on him was because of his spectacular one season in Wahoo Red, White, and Blue. Signed to a one-year, $10 million deal, Gonzalez put together an MVP type season, which ended up netting him another big money, long-term deal with Texas. Juan Gone was brought in to replace Manny Ramirez, who had taken his bat to Boston with a monster new contract. All Juan did was replicate Manny numbers, hitting .325 with 35 homers and 140 RBIs.
At 31, Gonzalez was actually the youngest. Cordova was another 31 year old looking for one last chance. The 1995 AL Rookie of the Year had flamed out in Minnesota and the Tribe took a one year flyer on him as well at $500,000. Luckily for the Indians, Cordova panned out just fine, hitting .301 with 20 homers in 122 games. Like Gonzalez, he was brought in to help try and replace another Tribe hero, David Justice. Lofton was the lone holdover, but was slowing down at age 34. Little did we know that he would come back to Cleveland still playing six years later. Kenny did what he did with the glove, still playing an amazing center field, but this was when he was in his “swing for the fences at everything”phase of his career. As you can see by his numbers, it was not a good idea. He didn’t get on base like he used to, and his steals were way down.
The guy who came on and really took a big leadership role on the club was Ellis Burks. At age 36 the Indians still gave him a three year deal and for those first two years, the DH delivered. He averaged 30 homers a season while hitting .290 while constantly being praised for his professionalism. Burks still calls Cleveland his home.
LF David Justice .287/.413/.889/21 HR/88 RBI/75 R
CF Kenny Lofton .301/.405/.838/7 HR/39 RBI/110 R/25 SB
RF Manny Ramirez .333/.442/1.105/44 HR/165 RBI/131 R
DH Richie Sexson .255/.305/.818/31 HR/116 RBI/72 R
The numbers speak for themselves with this group. Yes, I know this was the heart of the steroid era, but you compare apples to apples. Justice was in his third year in Cleveland and split time on left and at DH with the next in line of Tribe phenom hitters, Richie Sexson. DJ was DJ, but Sexson was a budding star. The tall and lanky right handed hitter drilled 31 bombs and drove in 116 RBIs. You’d wonder how he could deliver so much thunder when he looked like he weighed 130 lbs soaking wet.
Ramirez was in the heart of his prime at 27 and had the best season of his young career. Those who watched him knew they were seeing greatness. His eye was out of this world. Manny hit to all fields, gap to gap, and in ’99, his power was at its peak. His at-bats were in a word, graceful. Lofton returned to Cleveland in ’98 after his one year in Atlanta and had a typical Kenny year in ’99 as the offensive igniter. He made his sixth consecutive All-Star team but only played in 120 games due to nagging leg issues.
LF Albert Belle .317/.401/1.091/50 HR/126 RBI/121 R/52 Doubles
CF Kenny Lofton .310/.362/.810/7 HR/53 RBI/93 R/54 SB/13 Triples
RF Manny Ramirez .308/.402/.960/31 HR/107 RBI/85 R
DH Eddie Murray .323/.375/.891/21 HR/82 RBI/68 R
In our lifetimes, we will never see an offense like the ’95 Tribe. The outfield was the core of that club with three all stars and a Hall of Fame DH. We were beyond lucky with what we were able to witness.
Lets start with Albert. Was he a mean S.O.B.? Yep. But you know what, the man could rake. What he did in ’95 will never be seen again in this town or any other. 50 homers and 52 doubles? Every single time he came to the plate, everyone in the stadium thought he was going deep. Belle was easily the most feared hitter in the game in 1995.
Remember this? It was vintage Albert.
Do I really need to say anything more?
Meanwhile, Lofton was hitting .310 from the leadoff spot while leading the AL in steals and triples. Oh yeah, he also won his gold glove and made a highlight reel of wall-climbing homer run thefts. Ramirez was in his first full season as the undisputed everyday right fielder and won a Silver Slugger award for his breakout campaign. He was 23 years old and went .308/31/107 hitting SEVENTH.
The quiet veteran on the club was Murray. He could be surly at times, but at age 39, he could still deliver the goods with his bat. Eddie protected Albert in the lineup and hit .323, his highest average in five years.
What is most amazing about that ’95 group – they put up these massive numbers in a strike-shortened 144 game season.