God Hates Cleveland.
I mean, that’s what they say, right? That’s why we haven’t won a major sports championship since the 60s, that’s why our teams consistently underachieve, and that’s why the best players leave for greener pastures (and sunny beaches): because God hates Cleveland.
I like to think that deep down, most Cleveland fans know that the reason for our decades-long stretch of ineptitude has nothing to do with curses or divine intervention. It’s never been easy to succeed in a small market with a major sports franchise, because in almost every aspect you are fighting an uphill battle against the Yankees and the Dodgers and the Miami Heats of the world… there’s always some team who has more money, bigger and brighter lights, a warm climate, or some other perk that Cleveland can’t offer. Under these conditions, winning in Cleveland was always going to come with a razor-thin margin for error and a high probability of failure, and we’ve seen that with the Browns (since 1998), the Cavs (since the Decision), and somewhat with the Indians (post-2001), but I wanted to just take a little time on a snowy Sunday afternoon in early February to appreciate what the Indians have accomplished over the last decade.
I write this piece knowing the Dolans aren’t the most beloved sports owners in this town. There’s been a lot of criticism about Tribe ownership over the last ten years, and a decent amount of that criticism is warranted, but l think the successes of the organization often get ignored. Too many fans, it seems, never quite got over how the 90s-era ended. To this day my grandmother (the biggest Jim Thome fan on the shores of Lake Erie) refuses to get invested in the team because she believes ownership won’t keep any good players. Obviously, this isn’t a fair assessment of the team (who have done their best to lock up core pieces like Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, and now Justin Masterson, to varied success), but it is a sentiment shared by many fans who left in the early aughts and haven’t returned.
The Indians have made the playoffs twice in the past ten years, which doesn’t sound like much, but the past few years have really seen the Indians organization make continually smart moves across the board, never over-extending themselves too far in any one direction or with any one player. Think about it:
-The team made the difficult decision to cut ties with Shin-Soo Choo knowing they wouldn’t be able to re-sign him in free agency. It wasn’t a popular move, but three of the four players the Indians acquired in that trade played big roles in the 2013 playoff run (Albers and Shaw as key cogs in the bullpen and Stubbs as the primary right-fielder). Given the injuries the team had in the bullpen last season, it seems unlikely the team wins 92 games again without the depth Albers and Shaw provided.
-After years of missing hard on the draft, the team’s recent emphasis on drafting intelligently looks like it will start bearing fruit soon. Think about this: from 2003-2007, the Indians spent first round picks on Michael Aubrey (135 career ABs), Jeremy Sowers (18-30 career record with a 5.18 ERA), Trevor Crowe (an abysmal defender, and possesses a career .615 OPS), and Beau Mills (never even got an AB in the majors), which put a small market team well behind the curve on player development. Since 2007, however, we’ve seen:
Lonnie Chisenhall (his .694 career OPS isn’t great, but it’s serviceable)
Alex White & Drew Pomeranz (possiprobable busts, but they turned into Ubaldo Jimenez, which was nice)
Francisco Lindor (one of the top prospects in baseball right now)
Tyler Naquin (maybe not a future star, but he hasn’t flopped yet)
Clint Frazier (who struck out a lot as a rookie but projects to have some fearsome speed and power)
-Building off the last point, the team has put a lot more resources into international player evaluation, and that’s led to signing Danny Salazar and trading for Yan Gomes, big parts of the 2013 team and bigger parts of the future.
-The team’s habit of signing reclamation projects to spring training invite contracts has paid big dividends in Scott Kazmir and Jason Giambi and will likely work again this year with some big and intriguing names headed to Goodyear.
-Despite having some pretty severe budget restraints due to market size, attendance, and some level of ownership frugality, the team showed it was willing to spend if the price is right in signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn last year. Love or hate these players, they are signed to relatively friendly deals and they did help the team qualify for the playoffs last year.
-New this offseason, the team is showing that it won’t be a pushover when it comes to arbitration cases with players. In the past, the team would do everything to avoid going to arbitration, often overpaying a slight amount to keep players happy. This offseason, however, the Indians have shown they will go to arbitration, as they just won a case against Vinnie Pestano. The team saved a few hundred thousand dollars by going to a hearing, but it also sends notice to players that they will not be pushovers. I’m not quite sure how this will play out with future free agents and trying to retain our own players, but I certainly don’t think it will cause any harm. Avoiding arbitration with Shin-Soo Choo, for instance, did nothing to prevent him from forcing his way out of town with exorbitant demands for salary.
Of course, teams have to get a bit lucky, too. If the Browns had gotten a bit luckier in 2007, their 10-6 record would have gotten them into the playoffs. If the Cavs had won the draft lottery in 2012 instead of 2013, a Kyrie Irving-Anthony Davis combination would likely have that team poised for a big decade. That’s not how it shook out, though. And it sucks.
The Indians got their luck, though. Terry Francona, one of the best managers in the game today sought out this city and this team and wanted to put down roots here. His leadership steadied the team at several points last season when the wheels threatened to come off, and as a result the team was in position to pull off a miracle and win the last 10 games of the season to qualify for a playoff game at home. Jason Giambi’s 3-run walk off tater happened. A lot of good things happened last year, and that has people in the media and around the water cooler convinced that it will not happen again.
Maybe it won’t. Maybe the Indians regress in a couple areas and stumble to .500. It happens. Lord knows the Indians aren’t perfect (the Cliff Lee trade will always be indefensible), but if you want to root for a team that emphasizes smart decisions, the Indians are your hometown team.
And I can’t wait for this season to get started.