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Fewer teams in baseball have been able to manufacture a stable of one-year wonders as much as the Cleveland Indians. Be it a starting pitcher rental or a low-cost option at one of the corners, reclamation projects and payroll-friendly veterans — many of whom have helped propel the team in their respective seasons — have been commonplace in Cleveland.
As the Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, and other teams seek veteran leadership for the short-term on a low price point, it can be assumed that the Party at Napoli’s is ending for the Cleveland Indians after just a single season. Napoli had a distinct effect on the clubhouse, rallied the fan base, and had a great positive effect on the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Foundation. With his mammoth home runs and jovial demeanor, he quickly became a fan favorite, but where does he rank on the top on-field contributors of the post-1994 Gateway Era?
First: A disclaimer. WFNY would be remiss if Julio Franco’s contributions were not noted. His amazing return in 1996 as a youthful 37-year-old boosted the Tribe offense with his .322/.407/.470 (123 OPS+) slash. His 3.0 bWAR would have granted him a high place on the list below. Disqualifying him from this discussion is the fact that Franco played another 78 games in 1997.1 He would go on to play in MLB through 2007 when he was 48 years old and was last seen as a player/manager for the KBO Lotte Giants in 2016. Yes, Franco is still playing baseball, and WFNY has reached out to the team to see if he is expected to return in 2017 (KBO has yet to respond at the time of this writing). The coolest part of that 1996 season though was that Franco’s return marked his first trip to the MLB postseason, and he was able make it with the team he played more seasons with than any other.
2003 Brian Anderson: Going 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA on an Indians team that would only win 68 games appears pretty decent. His 4.63 FIP with a 1.31 WHIP notwithstanding. Anderson would not even make an entire full season though as he was traded for Trey Dyson, Kieran Mattison and cash from the Kansas City Royals.
1997 Marquis Grissom: As part of the Kenny Lofton trade, Grissom was tasked with the impossible. Replacing The Legend in center field. While David Justice enjoyed an AL MVP candidate season, Grissom toiled in the shadows of one of the most beloved players in Indians history. While he would obtain a 1.9 WAR due to his outstanding defense, Lofton’s return would push him out the door.
1997 Tony Fernandez: Fernandez was a solid all-around player as his .286/.323/.423 (91 OPS+) slash and 2.2 bWAR would indicate. However, his Indians tenure is remembered for two specific plays. Fernandez hit one home run in his entire postseason career (43 games played). It happened to be in the 11th inning of 1-0 clinching Game 6 ALCS win against the Baltimore Orioles. Sort of important.
He also made another crucial play in the 11th inning of a deciding game of what ended up being his last career postseason appearance. An error from Fernandez allowed Craig Counsel to reach base, which wound up becoming the deciding run in Game 7.
2016 Mike Napoli: Once you remove recency bias and social media fanfare, everything about Napoli’s on-the-field game screamed average. A .239/.335/.465 (104 OPS+) slash paired with a 1.0 bWAR. His defense slipped a bit, but he was still mostly average there too. But, there is still something special about watching a player take target at John Adams and his drum with a chance to actually get a baseball there. Napoli, after all, literally hit a baseball out of the ballpark (even if it was foul). When that player is a renowned clubhouse leader and helps get six figures donated towards local children in need, all the average on the field seems magnified into something far greater.
Top 5 One-year wonders of Gateway era Indians
No. 5: 2001 Marty Cordova
Wait, what? Who now? Yes, long-forgotten Marty Cordova was over-shadowed by a bigger name — and bigger impact — single-year player in 2001, but he had himself a fantastic season. The .301 /.348/.506 (122 OPS+) slash accompanied a 2.6 bWAR and passable outfield defense. In fact, the 1995 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner would have his finest season in MLB, and he played his only postseason game as a member of the Tribe.
No. 4: 2013 Scott Kazmir
Kazmir had an incredible journey. After a dominant four years to start his career, he lost grip on his fastball and suffered through injuries. When he came to the Indians, he hadn’t pitched multiple innings since 2010 and hadn’t been a good pitcher since 2008. However, the Tribe took a chance on the man that had been working his tail off with the Texas Baseball Ranch, DST Performance, and others to forge his way back to MLB relevant. The Indians were greatly rewarded for their trust as Kazmir went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA (3.54 FIP) as he became a key factor in helping to secure the AL Wild Card.
No. 3: 2005 Kevin Millwood
Millwood had the toughest luck with the Tribe of anyone on this list. He had one of his finest years of his career as he spun an amazing AL-best 2.86 ERA (3.74 FIP) but his reward was a 9-11 record. The Indians were not a poor team either as their 93 wins would attest. People still cite this season when explaining why pitcher wins is a meaningless statistic.
No. 2: 2001 Juan Gonzalez
Juan-Gone used the Indians. He needed a team to showcase his skills for a year to snatch one last big contract in his career. The Tribe needed to save face with their fans after Manny Ramirez jumped ship to Boston. Few short-term pairings have worked out so well. If not for the ALDS exit against the 116-win Seattle Mariners, Gonzalez might have made an even bigger impression on the fanbase.
Gonzo raked for a .325/.370/.590 (148 OPS+) slash with 35 home runs, 34 doubles, and 140 RBIs. His 4.4 bWAR is the best of any one-year player in the Gateway era as is his Top-5 AL MVP finish. No one can fault anyone who would argue Gonzalez as the top player for this list. The only thing he was missing was his one shining moment upon which to instantly reflect back to when he played in a Tribe uniform.
No. 1: 1997 Matt Williams
The Wheel Play. If those three words don’t give you instant goosebumps and a flashback to one of the best defensive plays of the Gateway Era Indians, then you were either too young to remember or have no soul.2 Game 6 of the 1997 ALCS was mentioned above for the Fernandez clinching home run, but that extra inning shot would not have been possible if not for Williams heroics in the seventh. After the Orioles had runners on first and second with no outs, Williams charged hard on a Roberto Alomar bunt. He swung around and threw it to Omar Vizquel covering third base for the first out. He would then end the inning by turning a 5-4-3 double play (yes, that is Fernandez in the middle there).
Sure, his 32 home runs and .263/.307/.488 (101 OPS+) were nice. But, it was his Gold Glove winning defensive mastery next to Vizquel the entire season that upped his value both in WAR (4.2 bWAR) and visual utility. The entire Matt Williams experience can be summed up in those three words. The Wheel Play.