“Just my imagination, running away with me”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

It’s amazing, really, this run that has sealed the 2012 American League Central Division championship for the Cleveland Indians. But it’s the product of good decision-making and, yes, good luck every step of the way.

With 92 wins and an insurmountable edge on those disappointing Detroit Tigers, the Tribe has run away with the Central, is headed to the postseason for the first time since 2007 and is also on the verge of locking up the AL’s top seed.

What an exciting time it is here in Cleveland. Why, you can’t walk the streets downtown without bumping into somebody in a Mike Trout jersey.

The Indians are the talk of the town, especially with the Browns sitting at 0-3. (The only interest in the Browns these days revolves around the possibility of them adding a roof to their stadium… like that’s ever going to happen.)

Chris Antonetti is being hailed as MLB’s likely Executive of the Year. Some people even joke that team president Mark Shapiro ought to run for actual president. (Not that we’re in need of a change, what with the housing market booming, the budget balanced and unemployment at record lows.)

***

Ah, yes, it’s been a magical ride here in 2012. And if you think back, I’d say it really began with the CC Sabathia trade in 2008.

My, those were dark days in ‘08, weren’t they? The Indians were fresh off an ALCS collapse, and they stumbled out the gates in a season of high expectations. Sabathia himself struggled mightily in April, perhaps distracted by all the talk about his free-agent year (he has since, of course, acknowledged many times in many interviews that he had no intention of re-signing with the Indians and does not, for one second, blame them for dealing him at the Trade Deadline).

I still remember those final, anxious days before the trade was made in early July of that year. The Milwaukee Brewers were vying for their first playoff berth in forever, had a loaded Double-A team and were therefore viewed as the top suitors for Sabathia. The Indians did, indeed, almost pull the trigger on a trade centered on Matt LaPorta, though I think there were concerns about LaPorta’s ability to make the mental adjustments he’d need to be a viable power threat in the big leagues (LaPorta still hasn’t amounted to much).

So instead, the Indians went a different route and dealt CC to the very place he was expected to land in free agency, anyway — Los Angeles.

Well, suffice to say that trade worked wonderfully for the Dodgers, who won the 2008 World Series with CC fronting their rotation and signed him to a long-term deal. But in the back of their minds, the Dodgers still have to wonder what life might have been like with Clayton Kershaw in their rotation.

Kershaw was just eight starts into his big-league career and sporting a 4.42 ERA when the Indians landed him in the CC deal, but he was generally regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. He’s developed into a Cy Young winner, and he and Adam Miller have emerged as the most dominant one-two, left-right punch in the Majors. Throw in lefty Chris Sale, who has made a splendid conversion to starting duties just two years after the Indians took him with the No. 5 overall pick in the Draft, and this is the most dangerous rotation in the game.

No wonder the Indians are the heavy favorites to win their first World Series title since 1948.

***

Speaking of Miller, remember all that concern over his blister issues at the start of an otherwise blistering 2008 season at Triple-A? Well, thank God that wasn’t the result of some heretofore unheard-of finger ligament pulley issue that would have probably required… oh, I don’t know… four surgeries or so. Miller’s health has been vital to him living up to the promise and potential the Indians forecast for him when they drafted him in 2003.

Of course, on this club, picking out the best Draft pick of the last decade is easy. It’s not Miller, and it’s not Sale.

No, it’s quite clearly Trout, who was taken at No. 15 overall in 2009 and has blossomed into the obvious 2012 Rookie of the Year candidate and quite possibly the Indians’ first MVP since Al Rosen.

Yes, all those other teams that picked ahead of the Indians are kicking themselves now. The Indians recognized that the ’09 Draft was heavy on pitching from both the collegiate and high school ranks, but 10 of the first 14 picks were used on pitchers, and the herd was thinning quickly. Alex White was high on the Indians’ board, but they saw him as more of a reliever than a top-flight starting option, so, they figured, why use a top-15 pick on a reliever? Trout was the best bat available, and the Indians signed him well above slot, at $2.25 million.

Man, what a bargain. And with Trout on board, having made his first foray into the big leagues in the latter half of ’11, the Indians were able to make a clean break from Grady Sizemore last winter, after Sizemore endured another injury plagued year in the last guaranteed year of his contract.

I still can’t believe the Phillies paid Sizemore $5 million and haven’t had him on the field for a single inning this season. But oh well, that’s their problem.

***

With the money freed up from Sizemore’s departure, Antonetti had a brilliant offseason, didn’t he? He knew the Indians were close to being a championship-level ballclub after they finished right around .500 last year. He just had to find some affordable power in the corners.

There were concerns about giving left fielder Josh Willingham a guaranteed third year, as he was entering his age-33 season. But Willingham has alleviated all those concerns with a team-high 35 homers and an .892 OPS. At $7 million per season, he’s considered a steal.

Willingham has obviously helped the Indians remain productive against left-handed pitching, but he’s not the only reason for that success. Occasionally moving Santana to first base (keeping his body fresh) and having Allen Craig spell Shin-Soo Choo (who still struggles against lefties) in right field from time to time has worked wonders.

Yes, where would the Indians be without Craig? Remember how upset some of you fans were when the Indians dealt Asdrubal Cabrera to the Cardinals for Craig? “How can you trade an All-Star shortstop?” was the popular refrain, but the Indians… oh my, they were wily. They recognized that Cabrera wasn’t likely to repeat his home run production from 2011, and they knew he was prone to injury and second-half slides, so they traded him while his value was at its peak.

The Cards were desperate enough for shortstop help that they gave up Craig, who had some huge moments for them in the postseason last year. The Indians were criticized for dealing for a guy coming off knee surgery, but look how quickly Allen, affectionately known to the Cleveland faithful as “The Wrench,” healed and how well he slotted into the first-base spot? His 22 homers have been a big boost, and you can often spot the female fan group “Wrench’s Wenches” rooting him on from the stands.

Of course, dealing Cabrera meant Antonetti had to get creative to fill the shortstop hole. But he dealt from a position of strength in sending closer Chris Perez to the Red Sox.

“They traded another All-Star?” screamed the naysayers. “What are these guys thinking? Everybody knows All-Star selections are the best gauge of a player’s talent!”

Well, sure, it was difficult to part with Perez. He saved 36 games last year. But he was due a big raise in arbitration, and the Indians felt they could find a suitable closer through other means. Perez, who replaced Jonathan Papelbon, hasn’t had as many save opportunities on that brutal Boston team, but at least his colorful and controversial remarks (I still can’t believe he called the Fenway sellout streak “numbers-fudging fraud”) have fit right in with the drama always emanating out of that clubhouse.

Meanwhile, the Indians have received serviceable shortstop play and a few timely hits from Jed Lowrie, who has managed to stay healthy. And the real key to the deal will be the continued development of Felix Doubront, who has made a successful conversation to starting duties in the back end of the Tribe rotation. This rotation could be really good for a long, long time.

Perez has not been missed in the ninth inning, that’s for sure. Unwilling to simply hand over the closer duties to the young Vinnie Pestano (who has been brilliant in the setup role), the Indians instead instilled a more veteran presence in Fernando Rodney. For the bargain cost of $2 million (or $2.5 million less than what Perez commanded in arbitration), Rodney has had a season perhaps worthy of the Cy Young Award — a 0.64 ERA and 44 saves.

What a shrewd pickup.

***

I would be remiss to not point out the other trade with the Red Sox that worked out so wonderfully. The midseason trade for Kevin Youkilis was another important one, as Youkilis has joined team captain Victor Martinez as a respected leader in the Tribe clubhouse while hitting for power and drawing his share of walks.

If you think about it, the timing was amazing. Had young third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall broken his arm on, say, June 29, instead of June 24, the Indians probably wouldn’t have sent Corey Kluber and Aaron Cunningham to Boston for Youk on June 25. The division-rival White Sox might have landed him instead.

It sure has been fun watching Youkilis and all the other newcomers over the years interacting with Martinez, who creates a unique handshake for each member of the club. He has been the glue that has held this club together in recent years, the one guy who has truly seemed to love playing in Cleveland and defines what it means to be an Indian.

Not long ago, Martinez was the subject of rampant trade speculation. In fact, in 2009, sinking in the standings and looking to cut costs, the Indians considered a fire sale in which they would have traded both Martinez and reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, even though both players were more than a year away from free agency (can you imagine the fan uproar that would have caused?).

Well, rather than rush a trade that would have sent Lee packing for a group of prospects highlighted by, say, an 18-year-old on the disabled list in Class A ball, the Indians opted to hold on to Lee for another year, when similar trade packages were available. (That July 2010 deal with the Rangers for a group highlighted by Justin Smoak still hasn’t worked out, as hoped, but hey… no front office bats 1.000, and the Indians bought themselves benefit of the doubt with the wildly successful Bartolo Colon and CC swaps).

And rather than trade Victor, the Indians were able to work out an extension with him that runs through 2014. If you think about it, that extension probably wouldn’t have been possible had the Indians dedicated a large chunk of their player payroll to lock up former designated hitter Travis Hafner, as so many fans clamored for in 2007. When Hafner’s ’07 season got off to a slow start, the Indians wisely backed off the extension talks, recognizing it might be crazy for a small-market club to give upwards of $57 million to a guy who can’t even play a position.

Whatever happened to Hafner, anyway?

Naturally, there were concerns about Martinez’s long-term viability at his catching position. But the Indians had Carlos Santana, who viewed Martinez as his idol, on-hand via the Casey Blake trade from 2008, and Martinez, content to spend his entire career in Cleveland (unlike so many others), accepted a move to first base and, eventually, DH.

He, too, has stayed healthy. The Indians sure do seem to have a lot of luck in the health department.

***

Of course, much credit for this wild ride also goes to manager Bob Melvin. It was a little ironic when the Indians, in the middle of that 2010 season, dismissed one 2007 Manager of the Year in Eric Wedge and replaced him with another, but it’s worked out.

Like Wedge with the Indians, Melvin was the fall guy for a D-backs team that did not meet amplified expectations after that 2007 NL West title and subsequent NLCS appearance. But the Indians recognized that Melvin is great working with young players (in ’07, he became the first manager in postseason history to fill out a lineup card with four rookies on it), he’s calm and conscientious, he’s a good communicator and a hands-on instructor and demands (and gets) hustle from his guys.

Melvin had been a finalist for the Astros job after the ’09 season, but Houston went with former Nationals manager Manny Acta. Had the Indians gone to full fire-sale mode in ’09, they, too, might have been searching for a skipper at that time, but they decided to give Wedge one last shot in the final year of his contract. When the 2010 season got ugly, Lee was traded, Wedge was canned and Melvin was brought in to help salvage the wreck.

Two years later, Melvin is well on his way to another Manager of the Year award. But this is a total team effort, from top to bottom.

Where would the Indians be without those successful drafts? Those shrewd swaps? Those impactful acquisitions?

They certainly wouldn’t be in the midst of this glorious 2012 season — a season that has been like a dream for so many Tribe fans.

If this is a dream, forgive them if they never want to wake up.

~AC

17 Comments

That’s an awesome article.

so much truth it hurts the eyes.

Just imagine this could all be true if we had someone with a brain in the front office.

Excuse me while I sob for awhile and throw a few more darts at my Dolan-face dartboard.

This is an incredible article. You have one hell of an imagination.

What If?

Now I’m even more depressed about the last five seasons. Oh what could have been.

What if…. Nanny Acts Played Laporta more than once every two nights….. What if anyone above the aforementioned played better through a season…….. Oh wait Laporta has yet to play a full season…… what if Acts batted Laporta above 7th in the lineup so pitchers couldnt pitch around his power and had to pitch to him. Oh wait blame laportaa for swinging the bat ……. heree is the blame game in cleveland. I blqme management for not trading laporta, so please trade him so i can watch him clean your clock with another team………oh wait imagine that……..

LaPorta has more holes in his swing than your post has errors in grammar and syntax.

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I really enjoyed the theory of your article (as always), but I have to wonder if our coaching staff could get everything out of the players mentioned (Trout, Rodney and Kershaw most notably). It scares me to see our pitching staff struggle so badly, with the exception of the back end of the bullpen. We can’t seem to keep players healthy. Our hitters can’t seem to stay consistant. I know that some luck plays into this, but I wonder how much…

I had to stop reading halfway through b/c it made me too angry

hard to see my monitor through these tears

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Indians have changed their slogan from What if? to What now?

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