Thursday, May 06, 2010

30 Years, 30 Indians players
This is something of a "best of" list. Players were chosen on a criteria:
A. Play, specifically with the Indians, sometime between the period of 1980 and the present.
B. Longevity in an Indians uniform
C. Personal favoritism. No one will believe this, but I actually considered putting Casey Blake on the list.

Thanks to -- A wonderful site.

1. Albert Belle (1989-1996): He wasn't the five-tool player that Robbie Alomar was, or even a very good outfielder. He tops my list because he had something no Indians hitter had before or after. You got the feeling other pitchers, and other teams, were actually afraid to face him. That gave the Indians an intimidation factor they lost when he signed with the White Sox. Over a three or four year period, I don't think there was a more feared hitter in baseball.

2. Roberto Alomar (1999-2001): Not here for very long, but Robbie could do anything on the baseball diamond. He was the most complete player I have ever seen in an Indians uniform, and he formed one of the most impressive double-play combinations in baseball history.

3. Cliff Lee: (2002-2009):It's tempting to say that Lee is on this list because of his jaw-dropping 2008 (22-3, 2.54 ERA, Cy Young Award), but that isn't it. Sure, Cliff was a completely different pitcher in 2008, after being booed off the field the season before. But even before his Cy Young year, Lee won 14 or more games three times. I'm of the opinion that trading him to Philadelphia will go down as one of the most short-sighted and lopsided trades in Indians history.

4. CC Sabathia (2001-2008):CC never won less than 11 games in a season, won the Cy Young Award, and had an incredibly consistent 2007, where he made the seventh inning in almost every start. Sadly, he had a miserable playoffs in 2007, and didn't really learn how to win in the playoffs until he got to New York. In fairness, his best playoff start for the Indians was his first, against the Mariners in 2001. That, of course, was with an Indians team put together with the remnants of the 1990s core.

5. Omar Vizquel (1993-2004):He won eight Gold Gloves with the Indians, made three All-Star games, and had a star personality that Cleveland rarely has in anyone not named LeBron. I think it's safe to say Omar was a once-in-a-generation kind of player.

6. Manny Ramirez (1993-2000): I suppose I should talk a little about steroids here, as I've been about them as outspoken as anyone. Few listen, but that doesn't mean I haven't said what's on my mind. Manny will always be tainted by steroids. But as I looked at the list of players in my lifetime, it became apparent that the steroid era was pretty well alligned with the Indians best years. Manny was caught last year. I suspect others on this list of using, but if I dropped everyone I suspected from the list, Herb Perry might have made it. I wouldn't vote for Manny in the Hall of Fame. But I can't ignore his impact in an Indians' uniform. Manny drove in 100 runs or more five times, and had the most beautiful swing I have ever seen. It's too bad he'll be remembered for something other than that. But that's his fault.

7. Jim Thome (1991-2002):It dawned on me recently that Jim Thome's first tour with the Indians was in 1991, meaning that this season is his 20th in the bigs. Thome has 569 homers in his career, and in normal times, he'd be a lock Hall of Famer. These aren't normal times, of course. But it's very possible Thome's outstanding numbers are due to little more than brute strength and will-power, both of which he has in abundance. Thome spent the first 12 years of his career with the Indians. Seven times he hit 30 homers or more. Once he topped 50. Thome was relatively skinny when he played third base for the Indians in the early and mid-90s. I'd say if anything, the Indians waited too long to move him to first. Sometimes I wonder how Thome would have done had Charlie Manuel not been his hitting coach, since I think Manuel is a guru hitting instructor and is a World Series title away from Hall of Fame consideration himself. Thome drove me crazy at times, because he seemed to think that hitting 500-foot homers counted for more than 340-foot shots to right. It was Manuel, by then the manager, who publicly called out Thome to shorten his swing, telling him the homers would come regardless. Everyone knew this, and it's not like Thome became a different hitter, but he remained a powerful force for years after he left the Tribe.

8. Kenny Lofton (1992-1996; 1996-2001; 2007):When you look at the career of Kenny Lofton, it's an interesting case of a guy who was always good enough to be wanted by a better team. Had he simply retired after 2001, he'd be remembered as one of the best leadoff hitters and center fielders of his era. But Lofton kept going. That wasn't what hurt him. What hurt him was that he kept changing teams. He went from team-to-team, to the point that they made a humerous commercial over his travels. Lofton was a pretty good player at that point. For nine years in an Indians uniform, he was one of the best. For five years with the Indians, he hit better than .300. Four times he stole at least 60 bases. He also rivaled Kenny Griffey Jr. for some of the most stunning catches of the era. He goes into the Indians Hall of Fame this summer.

9. Joe Carter (1984-1989): Because he usually played on bad teams in Cleveland, I'm not sure people really ever appreciated how special Carter was. In four straight seasons, he drove in at least 98 runs. It's important to remember that this was pre-steroid era, and that Carter had little protection in the Tribe lineup much of the time. Carter's biggest contribution to the Indians may be what Cleveland got back in his trade, which began the rebuilding process that turned the team into a winner.

10. Grady Sizemore (2003-present): In truth, I'm surprised I've placed him this high. He's not the best hitter of the 2002-on era (that's Victor Martinez). He doesn't have the most power (Travis Hafner) and he's not a torrid basestealer (38's a career-best). But when he's healthy, he does everything well. Only Robbie Alomar is a more complete player, though he didn't have quite the power. I really feel like former manager Eric Wedge hurt him in recent years by having him lead off. He hit 33 homers in 2008 and didn't drive in 100 runs, because many of those homers were solo shots. New manager Manny Acta has him batting second now, but I want to see him third.

11. Doug Jones (1986-1991, 1998): Leave it to the Indians to find a closer who hadn't even pitched in the bigs in four seasons. Jones wasn't overpowering and he wasn't a gimmick or a character like some closers. He just got people out. Over a three year period, Jones collected 112 saves and made the All-Star team three times. He made a return to the Indians during the glory years, but was at the end of his career. Of course, that's what teams thought in 1986.

12. Julio Franco (1983-1988, 1996-1997): The first Indians game I was at, I remember asking my mother about Julio Franco, since I noticed his stance was different than anyone else's. He also held his bat way over his head. The phrase "professional hitter" was invented for Franco. Despite the struggles of the 1980s, the Indians had some really talented players. Most were hitters. Franco was traded to Texas for Pete O'Brien, Jerry Browne and Oddibe McDowell before the 1989 season. Why? I don't know. Hank Peters was a wonderful baseball man. It's not so much that he traded Franco, who hit over .300 in three consecutive seasons. Jerry Browne was decent for a couple of seasons, but O'Brien's career was ending and McDowell only lasted a few months before going to Atlanta for the infamous Dion James. Franco went on to hit, and hit, and hit. I was only five when I went to my first game. Franco was a veteran THEN, having been in the league four seasons. He was still in the league when I was 27. Franco did return to the Indians during the glory years. He was released in 1997 because the Indians may have thought he was finished. Ha.

13. Sandy Alomar (1990-2000): If it were my favorite people with the Indians, Alomar would be at the top. Injuries hurt his career, but he still was a damn good catcher. He made six All-Star teams (though two were because he had a great rookie year and fans remembered him until Pudge Rodriguez came along). His 1997 season was nearly magical. He hit a game-winning homer in that year's All-Star Game at Jacobs Field, one of the most thrilling games I've ever seen. It's great to have him back with the team, though given the Indians' catching situation, I wish Alomar was playing.

14. Victor Martinez (2002-2009): We started hearing about Martinez in the late 1990s. We heard he was hitting the cover off the ball. We heard he was learning to be a catcher. When he came up, the Indians were in pure re-building mode. When he got to Cleveland, he hit and drove in runs. He never was the greatest defensive catcher, but he became a leader and an outstanding money player. He drove in 108 runs in 2004 and 114 runs in 2007. His trade signaled the end of the Eric Wedge era, two months before he was fired. Despite all the great hitters of the 1990s, I think only Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez were better pure hitters. I miss Martinez, and wish he didn't play for my second-least favorite team now.

15. Andre Thornton (1977-1987): So we arrive at the first Indian on this list to arrive in Cleveland before I was born. Thornton's best year (in my lifetime, anyway) was in 1982, when he hit 32 homers and drove in 116 runs. He hit 33 homers in 1984. I started following the Indians in 1986, when Thornton was at the end of his career. But for much of the 1980s, he was the man in Cleveland.

16. Carlos Baerga (1990-1996, 1999): Carlos Baerga is an interesting case where a player may have been hurt more by his era than anything else. Four straight seasons where he hit over .300 and hit at least 15 homers. He would have had three consecutive seasons of more than 20 shots if not for the 1994 baseball strike. It's interesting to note that Baerga's best seasons came while the Indians rebuilt. In 1992, when the Tribe was still slugging it out at Cleveland Stadium with 86 losses, Baerga had more than 200 hits, hit .312, smacked 20 homers and drove in 104 runs. The next season, Baerga was an absolute machine: a career-best .321 batting average, 21 homers, and 114 RBIs. The Indians were again mediocre. Baerga's production at that point was staggering, but he was overshadowed because the 1990s were a great time for second basemen. Namely, Robbie Alomar and Craig Biggio. And despite his hitting prowess, Baerga was never a complete player. He was average at best at second and was not fast. As the Indians emerged as a power in 1995, Baerga's star was already falling, and by 1996 he was pretty much done as an everyday player. In a shocking move at the time, the Indians unloaded the still super-popular Baerga to the Mets for Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent, then traded those two to get Matt Williams, then traded him for Travis Fryman. What happened to Baerga? Who knows. He was only 27 when the Indians ditched him, but he never regained his form. But for a five-year period, he was a rock in the Indians lineup, and that's why he is where he is.

17. Charles Nagy (1990-2002): Eight times Nagy had 10 wins or more in a season. He won 129 games for the Indians, made three All-Star teams (starting the 1996 game)mostly while pitching through pain. His best game, in my mind, was Game 6 of the 1997 ALCS, when he threw seven shutout innings against a tough Orioles lineup. A week or so later, he drove me crazy by nibbling just a little too much against the Marlins. I never thought he was ever as good at any one time as some of the names that will come later, but his constistancy and his longevity make him a must-have on a list like this.

18. David Justice (1997-2000): Justice will not be remembered by most as an Indian. But he had an impact on the organization that continues to this day. Before ever arriving in Cleveland, he hit a two-run homer off Jim Poole in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series that sent the Braves to the title. Eighteen months later he was traded to Cleveland, along with Marquis Grissom, for Kenny Lofton. Then, after three productive seasons here, he was traded to New York for, among others, Jake Westbrook. In 1997 Justice hit 33 homers, drove in 101 runs and hit .329. The following seasons his production dropped a bit, but he still was a crucial part of a team that won three consecutive AL Central titles.

19. Travis Fryman (1998-2002): Looking at his numbers, I'm tempted bet that Fryman never took any steroids in his career. He was overshadowed by the gigantic production of his contemperaries, and there's no question his best years were in Detroit. But he had a few really good seasons with the Indians after arriving in a deal with Arizona for Matt Williams. Fryman hit 28 homers in 1998, and hit better than .320 and drove in 106 runs in 2000. He played excellent defense throughout his tenure, and continues to work in the Indians organization, as a minor league manager.

20. Travis Hafner (2002-present): One of the great questions of the last three seasons has been, "what happened to Travis Hafner?" On April 21, after Hafner homered in Minnesota, Twins announcer (and former star pitcher and Indians farmer) Jack Morris said this: "I'm not accusing him of anything, but he got a lot smaller last year and had a bad year." Actually, Hafner's decline started two years before that, when he went from one of the most feared hitters in the American League to one of the most puzzling questions. So why is Hafner here? Because for four straight seasons, he drove in at least 100 runs. For three of those years, he got MVP votes. And he hit and hit and hit. The Indians rewarded the DH-only with a huge contract, not seeming to take into account that Hafner was approaching 30 and since he only wore a glove in front of an oven, he was virtually untradeable. So now the Indians are stuck with a slow, injury-prone, overpaid DH. If the Indians can take comfort in anything, it's that Boston is going through the same thing right now with David Ortiz.

21. Eddie Murray (1994-1996): It was reported that Murray challenged Albert Belle to a fight during the 1995 playoffs when Belle decided to sit out a game. All I know for sure is that Murray took Belle's spot in the order and hit a two-run homer in the first inning. The Indians beat the Mariners in that game and in the series. That always struck me as leadership at its best. Murray was a favorite of mine, because he came through so many times in the early days of Jacobs Field. At the tail-end of his career, Murray became the powerful bat to protect Albert Belle and turn him into a superstar for a superstar-laden team. Eddie hit .321 with 21 homers in 1995, and spent considerable time on the DL that year. But in 1995 he also did something very memorable -- he reached 3,000 hits. To this day, I wonder what would have happened if the Indians hadn't dealt Murray to Baltimore in 1996 for Kent Merker. GM John Hart sure was trigger-happy in 1996, and I think the constant changes threw everything into disarray. Or maybe they didn't have enough pitching.

22. Bartolo Colon (1997-2002): Bartolo Colon was always almost an ace, almost what the Indians needed to win the World Series. He won 10 games or more five consecutive years, including a terrific 1999, with 18 wins and a 3.95 earned run average. Still, I'd argue that consistent greatness always stayed out of reach until 2002. Then, in a hilarious bit of timing, Colon became one of baseball's top starters, and the Indians stopped winning. He was 10-4 with a 2.55 earned run average when GM Mark Shapiro traded him to Montreal. At the time, I was furious. Colon still had a year left on his deal. That the package included three future all stars, and a future Cy Young winner, has been reason for some to hail Shapiro's brilliance. Except that Montreal was going out of business and had nothing to lose, found themselves contending, and sold the farm to the Indians. Besides, Brandon Phillips was given away to Cincinnati. Colon did win the Cy Young -- with the Angels in 2005. He makes this list because even though he wasn't always great, he was pretty good for a long time.

23. Dennis Martinez (1994-1996): As the years have passed, I feel like Martinez never quite got his due for what he did in Cleveland. He was the first big-name free agent John Hart signed, and, even at 39, helped transform the Indians pitching staff from a joke to a powerful force. For two seasons, Martinez was the ace of the staff. In 1994 he went 11-6 with a 3.52 ERA, likely losing some wins because of a retched bullpen. The next year, at 40, he made the all-star team, anchoring an improved staff. He was overshadowed in the 1995 playoffs by Orel Hersheiser, but it was Martinez who out-pitched Randy Johnson in the Kingdome in Game 6 of the ALCS, throwing seven shutout innings. It was the most important start for the Tribe in 40 years, and Martinez delivered. Big time.

24. Orel Hersheiser (1995-1997): His numbers weren't fantastic, but Bulldog is here because he was a big-game pitcher who pitched like an ace in the 1995 playoffs. He went 4-1 in the 1995 postseason, losing only to Greg Maddux in Game 1 of the World Series. And Hersheiser avenged that loss in Game 5. He was very good in that regular season, going 16-6 with a 3.87 ERA. He was never quite as good after that, though he won 29 games over the next two seasons. But he's largely here because of his run in October of 1995.

25. Brooke Jacoby (1984-1991, 1992): A good player on some bad teams, Jacoby manned the hot corner admirably, making a pair of all star teams and being something almost no Indian ever was at the time -- consistent. Never a great run-producer, Jacoby seemed to always hit for average. He had seasons of power, clobbering 32 homers on a 100-loss Indians team in 1987. He actually wasn't totally unlike Casey Blake, in that he was always had some power, but was never feared like many of his contemporaries like Wade Boggs or George Brett. The amazing thing about his 1987 season was that he hit 32 homers, but drove in only 69 runs. But he was good (a .270 lifetime average) for a long time. The Indians actually dealt him to Oakland in 1991 for Apolinar Garcia and Lee Tinsley. Tinsley actually did have a halfway decent career, but not with Cleveland. Jacoby signed back with the Indians in 1992, but was primarily a reserve player at that time, giving way to a raw rookie who showed potential but struggled in the field -- Jim Thome.

26. Bob Wickman (2000-2006): Bob Wickman was not a dominating closer. He didn't have an overpowering fastball or ridiculous command. He was not dominant, and usually left fans reaching for Rolaids. But he had 45 saves in 2005, and had 20 saves or more three times with the Indians. Drove me crazy, but I can't argue with the results.

27. Len Barker (1979-1983): I'm not even going to pretend he's on here for any other event than one I wasn't old enough to remember. It was May 15, 1981, and I barely was a year old. Barker set 27 batters down in a row, for a perfect game. It's one of the 800 reasons why baseball is the greatest game, because amazing can happen, even between two horrible teams on a rainy night in front of 1,800 people. Barker wasn't just one great game. He won 19 games in 1980, made the All-Star team in 1981, and twice led the American League in strikeouts. Plus, the trade of him to Atlanta brought the Indians Brooke Jacoby and Brett Butler.

28. Mike Hargrove (1979-1985): Yes, he managed the Indians to five division titles and two World Series appearances. Yes, he's always struck me as a great guy. And yes, I wish he'd left Mike Jackson in for the ninth inning against Florida in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. But before he became the most decorated Indians manager of the last 50 years, he was a pretty good player. Hargrove never would make it as a first baseman today -- he hit 80 homers over 12 seasons in the bigs -- but he certainly was consistent, racking up a league best .424 on base percentage in the strike-shortened 1981. Five times he hit .285 or better for the Tribe, which in the pre-steroid era, was quite the mark.

29. Pat Tabler (1983-1988): My first favorite player, Tabler hit better than .290 four times with the Indians,and made the All-Star team in 1987. Not a homer or RBI guy, which was interesting because he usually played first base. In 1987, he drove in 86 runs. Of course, this was a very offensive year, and Tabler never came close to that production before or after. In 1988, when he was traded, I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. Of course, the deal was a very good one, as the Indians received Bud Black, who had three good seasons before being traded to the Blue Jays. Tabler ended up there at the end of his career -- and won a world title in 1992, along with past Indians Joe Carter and Candy Maldonado, and future Indians Pat Borders, Robbie Alomar, Jack Morris and ... Candy Maldonado.

30. Jose Mesa (1992-1998): He will be remembered for giving up the lead in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. I'd imagine Mesa would be much higher on this list, and beloved in Cleveland today, if he'd gotten those last two outs. He didn't and so he's at the bottom of this list rather than the top. Mesa came to the Indians as a starter, and actually won 10 games in that role in 1993. He was moved to the bullpen, and with a vicious fastball, had a decent season as a setup guy in 1994. But the Tribe needed someone to set up for, and it was a bit of a surprise when Mike Hargrove inserted Mesa in the spot. Most figured he'd go with Paul Shuey (who had great stuff but not the mental makeup), or wait for the right trade. Instead, Mesa delivered one of the best seasons for a reliever in baseball history. He had 48 save opportunities, converting 46. A 1.13 earned run average. He had 58 strikeouts in 64 innings. He was almost unhittable. He also never was the same again, though he did record 38 saves in 1996 and had some pretty impressive save totals with Philadelphia. Sadly for him (and Tribe fans), his career will be best remembered for about 10 minutes in 1997.

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At 5:04 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Not enough grinders on this list.

At 9:54 AM , Blogger Mike said...

Really enjoyable read.

At 10:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

not a bad list for this "market"

nixon was robbed in 1960

At 12:02 PM , Anonymous Erik said...

Re: Cliff Lee trade

Lopsided? Yes. It was a salary dump. I believe Shapiro made that trade under immense pressure from ownership, which might have been actually seeking to "punish" Shapiro for not putting a more competitive team on the field.

Short-sighted? I don't think necessarily so. Lee wasn't going to re-sign here after this year. He didn't like management, he surely didn't like toiling away on a non-contender, and the Indians weren't going to pay him regardless. If he hadn't been dealt last summer, he almost certainly would have been dealt this past winter.

It was garbage trade, but it only hastened the inevitable.

The Cavs won, Zach. Thoughts?


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