The last ten years of Cleveland Indians baseball have seen a number of players pass through the Forest City, from the good (Victor Martinez, Kenny Lofton, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner (mostly), CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee), to the bad (David Dellucci, Casey Kotchman, Aaron Boone, Jason Johnson, just to name a few), and everything in between. While we as fans tend to focus on the players on the extremes of that spectrum (does anyone have any lasting memories of Ben Francisco?), we sometimes lose sight that championship dreams are made or smashed on the backs of role players. Teams absolutely need a competent stable of hard-working guys who may never be stars in the league, but who will be called on to contribute in big ways on the way to the playoffs.
A perfect example of the kind of guy I’m talking about is Coco Crisp, a fan favorite who emerged with the Indians in 2005, and who was promptly shipped to Boston for can’t-miss prospect Andy Marte. We know what happened next: Marte became Matt LaPorta before Matt LaPorta became Matt LaPorta, and Coco carved out a nice little career as a league-average player and fan favorite in Oakland.
At the time of the Crisp trade, I was an absolutely distraught 18-year old college freshman who didn’t know anything about how the world works. I thought it was a terrible deal at the time, for reasons beyond talent, and I stand by that assessment even today. Coco is a guy who absolutely thrives in low-pressure situations where he can just go out and have fun — in other words, he’s the exact kind of player that a small market team (like the Indians or the A’s) should love to have on their team: a relatively cheap grinder who plays his heart out and endears a fickle fan base.
But alas, the Cleveland’s loss is Oakland’s gain.
While we have the A’s in town, however, I thought it would be interesting to wonder how the Indians would have fared as a team and organization if they had coveted Coco as a “core” player. For the purposes of this little thought experiment, I will just translate his numbers from other teams — even though I thought he under-performed in Boston because of the spotlight on that team.
For reference, I will compare Coco to the Indians position he would have played. He’d be in LF with Grady Sizemore on the team, and CF otherwise.
So travel with me back in time as we head to the Spring of 2006 — the Indians are coming off of a crushing collapse at the end of the 2005 season, losing a million games to end the season and missing the playoffs by a single game. The team decided to stay the course and count on their young guys to develop and get over the hump, but they made a home-run swing on a deal for uber prospect Andy Marte.
2006 Coco Crisp: .264 AVG .317 OBP .385 SLG 8 HR 22 SB in 452 plate appearances ($2.7 million)
2006 Indians LF: .267 AVG .326 OBP .391 SLG 9 HR 9 SB (Jason Michaels) ($1.5 million)
Surprise! The Indians won the Coco trade in 2006, as they got slightly better production for less money. I don’t seem to remember arbitration being mentioned as a big factor in the trade when it was made, but we can see now that the team saved $1.2 million (and acquired a prospect, to boot) by cashing in on Coco’s amazing 2005 season (which you could still argue was his best season to date).
Coco struggled in his first year in Boston, and that continued into 2007, too. The Indians didn’t fare much better, however, with the ill-fated ‘Michae-llucci’ platoon in LF:
2007 Coco Crisp: .268 / .330 / .382 6 HR 28 SB ($3.8 million)
2007 Indians LF:
Jason Michaels: .270 / .324 /.397 7 HR 3 SB in 295 plate appearances ($2.05 million)
David Dellucci: .230 / .296 / .382 4 HR 2 SB in 199 plate appearances ($3.70 million)
Kenny Lofton: .283 / .344 / .370 0 HR 2 SB in 196 plate appearances ($6.00 million ~Indians paid approx $2.50 million)
This season requires a lot of breaking down:
One one hand, the return of Kenny Lofton is probably my 2nd favorite Indians memory of the past decade (last September being #1, thanks for asking), and without him it’s at least plausible we don’t get past the Yankees (he single-handedly beat them in Game 1 of the ALDS).
On the other hand, the Indians idea of saving money by trading arbitration-eligible Coco blew up in their face. There’s a good chance they could have paid Crisp less than he made in Boston, but the team still spent $8.20 million dollars to basically emulate Coco’s production. Meanwhile, Andy Marte hit .193 in limited action.
Sentiment tells me that the Coco Crisp trade made room for the return of Kenny Lofton and led to playoff success, but the analytical side of my brain disagrees and think that Coco would have been a better value and allowed the team to invest resources elsewhere at the trade deadline. This year is tough on me.
If you go to the dictionary and look up “biggest disappointment” you might see the 2008 Cleveland Indians pictured prominently on the same page. I don’t need to stir up bad memories so let’s just get to the actual production here:
2008 Coco Crisp: .283 / .344 /.407 7 HR 20 SB in 409 plate appearances ($5.00 million)
2008 Indians LF: .266 / .332 / .438 15 HR 4 SB in 499 PAs (Ben Francisco, $421,000)
I’ll be honest: I didn’t realize Ben Francisco had that good of a season in 2008. He eventually flamed out as a major league player, but the Indians had to start forgetting about Coco, who struggled to set the world on fire for the third straight year in Boston. The problem here is that David Dellucci was still around, sucking up money and generally being a redundant piece. He made $3.75 million in 2008, which meant the Indians saved under $1.00 million on their left field production in 2008.
Andy Marte posted a .583 OPS.
Coco moved on to Kansas City in 2009, and generally missed a lot of time to injury. He only managed 190 plate appearances, and they were pretty forgettable, considering he was being paid $6.00 million.
The Indians got another decent year out of Ben Francisco and Matt LaPorta (!!!) for cheap, though the former was traded to Philly and the latter broke his hip (or something — all I know is that he was never the same).
At this point, no one would blame the Indians for moving on from the Coco Crisp experiment — I can’t see the team paying anything for him in free agency, especially if he produced the same way he had in Boston and Kansas City. It’s entirely likely he would have ended up in Oakland anyway, and his career has taken off since. He stole 49 bases in 2011, and hit 22 HR last season, and he even garnered some MVP votes last season, as well.
I’ll always remember my time as an usher at Jacob’s Field in 2005, when I would watch a bright-eyed Coco Crisp signing more autographs than anyone else on the roster every single game. I’ll never forget how he would momentarily stop during the pregame video and steal a glance at his introduction, a little smile on the corner of his mouth, as if he couldn’t believe he had made it.
It was one of the more genuine moments I’ve ever seen out of a professional athlete, and it was totally candid. Those moments encapsulated everything I loved (and still do love) about Coco Crisp. I know there’s probably not any way he could have remained here in Cleveland, and he almost certainly would have blossomed somewhere else, but I can’t help but look at the Oakland fan favorite and wonder…