The aftermath of the 2017 Cleveland Indians 22nd victory saw an entire ballpark standing and screaming with no one in attendance wanting the electricity firing throughout their bodies to dissipate as Jay Bruce sliced a shot down the right field line that mercifully stayed on the fair side of the chalk allowing Jose Ramirez to score. Gatorade, talcum powder, and jerseys littered the air near second base where the entire 40-man roster had descended upon Bruce as if he were Princess Poppy and the crack of the bat had alerted them to hug time.1
The first 21 victories had been accomplished by brute force. Only three of those contests had been decided by a single run with none needing the dramatics of a walk-off win. Any parallels to harken back to the only other squad even comparable included a sidebar discussion on the mystical quantities of the 1995 comeback wins compared to the seemingly absence of a singular defining moment from the current edition. No more.
Just how did we get here?
Everyone on the roster has been utilized and needed during the best run of Indians baseball in the 117 year history of the team. Josh Tomlin might get squeezed off the postseason roster, but he put up his seventh straight start of giving up three runs or less on Thursday.
Tomlin was aided by some sterling defensive plays including double plays to help end threats in the second and third innings, none were bigger than the last two outs of his start. With Merrifield sitting on second base, Lorenzo Cain completed the equivalent of a swinging bunt. Rather than take the easy play at first, catcher Yan Gomes fired a bullet to Yandy Diaz at third base who refused to allow a swim move deter him from completing the tag. Melky Cabrera then hit a grounder to Santana at first who immediately spun to nail the speedy Cain at second base for his 84th infield assist from first base.
Down a run in the ninth, the youngest members of the Indians came to the rescue. Yandy Diaz, Tyler Naquin, Francisco Mejia, Erik Gonzalez, and Francisco Lindor would all make appearances. Naquin singled. Gonzalez ran. Lindor doubled. The end of the inning saw both the Tribe tie the score and grant invaluable experience to players expected to carry the team into the future.
Top to bottom of the roster, each player has the capability of providing something needed on a championship contender. Having such a wealth of talent on a small market ballclub is supposed to be impossible in the age of the big markets not only dwarfing the revenue of those teams but also incorporating the same analytic approach.
So, how did the Indians get here?
Free agents ain’t free
Outside the rare dip to sign Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher before the 2013 season,2 the Indians have largely avoided large dollar signings in the expensive setting of free agency. Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff saw an opportunity to take advantage of a tepid market on Edwin Encarnacion though, and they struck. The upgrade from the average power hitter of Mike Napoli to the explosive bat of Encarnacion has been a vital addition to the lineup.
Otherwise, the front office made their normal small moves on talented players whom had issues constraining their value in Austin Jackson, Boone Logan (DL), and Craig Breslow (minor league deal). Each has shown the Indians front office has the ability to recognize under-appreciated assets.
Buying talent trades
A big shift in the post-Shapiro world of the Indians has been the completion rather than mere speculation of buyer trades in contention seasons. Andrew Miller was the prize won at the trade deadline in 2016.3 Joe Smith the needed reliever in 2017. The Tribe also one-upped themselves on an August outfield addition from last year as Jay Bruce has proven himself the professional bat the team needed.4
Smaller deals as a buyer over the years have also allowed the Indians to add low risk players with either some upside or a specific skill the team needed. Dan Otero was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015 for cash. Nick Goody was obtained from the New York Yankees in 2016 for Yoiber Marquina who is injured and has yet to appear in a minor league game for them. Brandon Guyer was received from the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016 for minor league outfielder Nathan Lukes. Tyler Olson a claimed when the Kansas City Royals designated him for assignment in 2016.
Much talk has been made about the Chicago White Sox waving the white flag on the 2017 season to prioritize creating a dominant farm system to utilize in future contention years. Of course, the Indians have done similar deals in 2008 and 2009 when they famously traded Cy Young Award winners in back-to-back years alongside the leader of the clubhouse in Victor Martinez.
A great reminder from those trades is how long it can take to realize the rewards from them. The Martinez trade was lauded for the early return of Justin Masterson’s ability to ruin the infield grass. The Indians also received left-handed pitcher Nick Hagadone and right-handed Bryan Price to develop. Hagadone has since been lost after being designated for assignment after elbow surgery in 2015. Price retired rather than accept a demotion from Columbus to Akron in 2016. And Masterson has since been traded for outfielder James Ramsey who was then traded for cash. The current club has not benefited from that particular trade.
The CC Sabathia trade netted the team Michael Brantley even though Matt LaPorta was the key to that particular deal, who is now gone along with Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson. Current non-ability to run aside, Brantley has been a valuable player for the Indians over the past several seasons, including hitting .299/.358/.445 with a 110 wRC+ in 2017 before succumbing to his ankle ailment.
Cliff Lee was a similar trade in that the top prospect acquired, Jason Knapp, did not wind up being the most valuable piece. Neither Lou Marson nor Jason Donald did much in their limited time with the Indians, but Carlos Carrasco has been a mainstay in the Tribe rotation as he has secured his spot as the second-best starter.
Several other expiring contract trades have been made by the Indians over the years for players currently helping aid the Indians quest for the first Cleveland World Series trophy since 1948.
- Carlos Santana (Casy Blake trade in 2008)
- Corey Kluber (Jake Westbrook trade in 2010)
- Zach McAllister (Austin Kearns trade in 2010)
- Trevor Bauer (Shin-Soo Choo trade in 2012)
- Bryan Shaw (Shin-Soo Choo trade in 2012)
- Mike Clevinger (Vinnie Pestano trade in 2014)
- Abraham Almonte (Marc Rzepczynski trade in 2015)
Draft or Development?
Rule IV Amateur Draft
- Josh Tomlin: 19th round of the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft from Texas Tech University (Lubbock, TX).
- Lonnie Chisenhall: 1st round (29th) of the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft from Pitt Community College (Winterville, NC).
- Roberto Perez: 33rd round of the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft from Florida Gateway College (Lake City, FL).
- Jason Kipnis: 2nd round of the 2009 MLB June Amateur Draft from Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ).
- Francisco Lindor: 1st round (8th) of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft from Montverde HS (Montverde, FL).
- Ryan Merritt: 16th round of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft from McLennan Community College (Waco, TX).
- Shawn Armstrong: 18th round of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft from East Carolina University (Greenville, NC).
- Cody Allen: 23rd round of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft from High Point University (High Point, NC).
- Tyler Naquin: 1st round (15th) of the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft from Texas A&M University (College Station, TX).
- Kyle Crockett: 4th round of the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft from University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA).
- Bradley Zimmer: 1st round (21st) of the 2014 MLB June Amateur Draft from University of San Francisco (San Francisco, CA).
- Greg Allen: 6th round of the 2014 MLB June Amateur Draft from San Diego State University (San Diego, CA).
Whether the Indians lacked the ability to draft or the development needed in their farm system before 2007 when Brad Grant took over the lead role in scouting was a constant debate amongst fans of the Tribe. The item not up for debate was the wretchedness of the returns as WFNY’s Jacob Rosen highlighted when he did a deep dive on the farm system in 2013.
Unbeknownst to him and most everyone else was that the machinations for changing both the draft and development were already at work. The results of those changes is being seen on the current roster where both high-round selections (Chisenhall, Kipnis, Lindor, and Zimmer) alongside late-round finds (Tomlin, the Allens) have made up over 25% of 40-man set.
Also of note is how much the prospect valuation can change. Lindor and Bauer were rightfully at the top of Rosen’s deck, but Danny Salazar (No. 9), Jose Ramirez (No. 10), and Chisenhall (Others) have proven to be the other most valuable players from the list. In fact, Rosen should get credit for even having Ramirez listed at a time when many other publications did not consider him a Top 10 prospect.
Fangraphs recently highlighted how many of the top players in MLB were never considered top prospects as they rose through their team’s systems. Ramirez and Kluber made his Top 5 of under-appreciated non-prospects.
- Danny Salazar signed in 2006 from the Dominican Republic
- Erik Gonzalez signed in 2008 from the Dominican Republic
- Giovanny Urshela in signed 2008 from Columbia
- Jose Ramirez signed in 2009 from the Dominican Republic
- Francisco Mejia signed in 2012 from the Dominican Republic
- Yandy Diaz signed in 2013 from Cuba
The last key acquisition arena in baseball is the international market. The best prospects often have deals years in advance5 or are snatched up by the big market teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox who bend the rules and use their gigantic cash reserves. Teams such as the Indians must act as they do on the free agent market and find the under-valued prospects. Finding an AL MVP candidate despite the limitations the Indians face is ridiculous.
Nearly half of the Indians 40-man roster is homegrown through the Amateur Draft of from an international signing. Many of the others acquired in trades have been developed within the Indians system (Carrasco, Kluber, Santana, Clevinger, etc.). The Indians have also been intelligent about their dips into free agency and the trade market. The result has been a MLB team as deep as any and a farm system capable of fortifying the ballclub when injuries inevitably arise. As the rest of baseball has found out, it has made the 2017 team quite dangerous.
- Lonnie Chisenhall still utilizes Hair Up from the movie Trolls as his walk up song, so I’m still allowed to use parallels. These are the rules. [↩]
- Let’s remember that the actual payroll after these signings did not go up more than a few million dollars due to a bunch of contracts also coming off the books. [↩]
- Welcome back to Miller who pitched OK in his first appearance off the DL on Thursday. [↩]
- Indians are 31-5 since acquiring Bruce. [↩]
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr with the Toronto Blue Jays [↩]