Like all teams do, the Cleveland Indians have, from time to time, taken a chance by signing pitchers who were once dominant, but who seemed to have lost something in the past season or two. They do this, of course, because there is always the chance that the pitcher might turn things around and have a season like the ones he’d had in his prime, or close to it. We saw this recently with Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez.

Sometimes this works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s a look at five pitchers the Indians acquired in the last 20 or 30 years where the gamble failed, for the most part, to pay off. Please bear in mind that this list is by no means comprehensive.

Steve Carlton
Year with the Indians: 1986
Peak season: 1972, Philadelphia Phillies. 27-10, ERA: 1.97. NL Cy Young winner; led the league in ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched

Carlton joined the major leagues as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1965 at age 20. He was traded to the Phillies before the 1972 season, when he turned in the numbers shown above. The Phillies were a lousy team in 1972, going 59-97. Carlton was credited with the win in 46% of the games the Phillies won that year, a statistic which likely will never be matched. He had many great seasons for the Phillies, but by 1985, the 40-year-old Carlton looked ready for the rocking chair after going 1-8 while pitching only 92 innings.

Carlton began 1986 as a Philly but went on to pitch for the Giants and the White Sox that year. For reasons known only to themselves, the Indians front office signed free agent Carlton two days before the 1987 season began. At times he pitched like the Carlton of old—he had three complete games, getting victories in two of them—but for the most part he was terrible. At the end of July, with a record of 5-9 and an ERA of 5.37, Carlton was traded to the Minnesota Twins. He retired as a Twin the following April.

Jack Morris
Year with the Indians: 1994
Peak season: 1981, Detroit Tigers. 14-7, ERA: 3.05

Every year for the last five years or more, baseball columnists and bloggers have argued about whether Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame. Every year I read these arguments, and by now I think I could credibly advocate for either side of the debate. You probably can too. One of the things I read this year alluded to Morris having once been a member of the Indians, and my honest initial reaction to that was that the writer had been mistaken. I had completely forgotten that Morris did indeed pitch for the Indians during the strike-shortened 1994 season.

Morris put up some good numbers with the Tigers in the 1980s. He was arguably the best pitcher in the American League during that decade. After a decent 1991 season with the Twins, Morris was signed by the Blue Jays in 1992. Although he went 21-6 for the Jays that year, his ERA rose to 4.04. In 1993 he went 7-12 with a horrendous 6.19 ERA.

The Indians took a chance with Morris, signing him as a free agent before the 1994 season. Used as the team’s third starter behind Dennis Martinez and Charles Nagy, Morris had a respectable won-loss record of 10-6, but his ERA was 5.60. Of course, that was the year when the Indians offense really started to shine, with Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Carlos Baerga, and Manny Ramirez, among others, flexing their muscles and getting lots of extra-base hits. Eight of Morris’ ten wins that season were games in which the Indians scored six or more runs.

Perhaps Morris would have pitched better in the later months of the season, but the players strike ended the season after the Indians’ 113th game. Morris pitched his last game on July 7, giving up seven runs, six of them earned, over 3⅓ innings. But the potent Indians offense kept Morris from getting a loss, tying the game in the ninth and eleventh innings before scoring five runs in the twelfth to win by a score of 15-10.

Morris was released by the Tribe in the offseason and never pitched again in the major leagues.

Jeff Russell
Year with the Indians: 1994
Peak season: 1989, Texas Rangers. Led the AL with 38 saves

I remember being excited when the Indians acquired Russell by trade in what normally would have been the middle of the 1994 season. Of course, back then I placed a higher value on the save as a statistic than I do today, but I was impressed that Russell had notched 28 or more saves in five of the previous seven seasons, and I was convinced that Russell could wind up leading the Indians in saves. As it happened, even though he was only with the club for little over a month, thanks to the players strike, he did indeed wind up sharing the team lead for saves in 1994: he and Paul Shuey each had five saves. With an ERA of 4.97, though, Russell was nothing special as a reliever for the Indians, who granted him free agency that fall.

Dwight Gooden
Years with the Indians: 1998-1999
Peak season: 1985, New York Mets. 24-4, ERA: 1.53. NL Cy Young winner; led the league in ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched

With the possible exception of Herb Score, probably no pitcher during my lifetime had as much ability and potential as the young Doc Gooden. As a 19-year-old rookie, he went 17-9 with an ERA of 2.60 and led the National League with 276 strikeouts. He followed that season with an even better one, as the numbers above indicate. He recorded 41 wins before his 21st birthday. But Gooden fell prey to arm injuries and drug abuse. He was suspended for part of the 1994 season and all of 1995 for testing positive, twice, for cocaine. The Mets released him and he went on to pitch for the Yankees in 1996 and 1997.

The Indians signed Gooden as a free agent before the 1998 season. He began the season at AAA Buffalo before being called up to the majors in late May. Gooden served as the fifth starter for the Indians, going 8-6 with an ERA of 3.76. He faltered in 1999, going 3-4 with an ERA of 6.26. The Indians released him at the end of the season. He went on to pitch for three different teams in 2000 before retiring.

John Rocker
Year with the Indians: 2001
Peak season: 1999, Atlanta Braves. Had 38 saves with an ERA of 2.49

Rocker had great seasons with the Braves in 1998 and 1999.  But in December of 1999, in an interview with Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated, he made some ill-advised statements about minorities and gays, and became a controversial figure in Atlanta. His 2000 season wasn’t bad, but by June of 2001, Rocker had worn out his welcome with the Braves, who traded him to the Indians. I remember sitting in the bleachers during a game that season and hearing a mixture of cheers and boos when he sprinted from the bullpen to the mound. He didn’t pitch well for the Tribe, going 3-7 with an ERA of 5.45. Rocker was the winning pitcher in one of the most memorable Indians games ever, that of August 5, 2001, when the Indians overcame a 12-0 deficit after three innings to beat the Seattle Mariners, 15-14, in eleven innings at Jacobs Field. Rocker pitched a scoreless inning in the top of the eleventh and got the victory when the Indians won the game with a one-out RBI single off the bat of Jolbert Cabrera.

The Indians traded Rocker to the Texas Rangers in December of 2001. He was not missed.


  • Ryan McCrystal says:

    Always fun to look back at lists like this. Although I’m not sure a 26-year-old John Rocker fits.

    John Smiley, Jack McDowell, Mark Langston would be a few other relatively recent examples.

  • Wyatt says:

    Wow- some names there I’d completely forgotten (& some with good reason!).

  • The Doctor says:

    this dredges up awful memories of the chuck finley signing.

  • medfest says:

    Phil Niekro!

  • Gvl Steve says:

    If any pitcher could be considered to have burned out by age 26, it was Rocker. But McDowell certainly deserves honorable mention, especially considering that the team was really counting on him to contribute when he was brought in.

    I guess the list of successes would be shorter and easier to come up with. If you’re looking for starters over age 35 who contributed for at least three years, I would say Hershiser, El Presidente, and Paul Byrd.

  • MrJaded says:

    In 1994, for the last 3 weeks before the Indians released Jack Morris, he spent most of his time on his wheat farm in Montana, only flying in to join the team when it was his turn to pitch. His ERA was over 8 during these last 5 starts.

  • Sanford Stein says:

    That is correct about Morris hanging out on his farm. My recollection is that the team had a rainout and a doubleheader was scheduled the following day. They asked Morris to pitch the second game but he refused, wanting to pitch the earlier game so he could get away to the ranch as planned. That was the last straw and he was released.

  • CassvilleJacket says:

    Here’s a few more worthy candidates for the discussion:

    John Smiley
    Kent Hill
    Chuck Finley

    All were former aces for their previous teams, but failed to approach those same levels of success with the Tribe.

    • Ryan McCrystal says:

      Ken Hill? Definitely does not belong on the list. He was an asset during the regular season and postseason in ’95. Not to mention they picked him up for basically nothing at the deadline.