Tribe Success Comes From Farm System, Not Free Agency
By Vince Guerrieri
Chris Perez said last week that the Indians organization wasn’t committed to spending the big bucks to lure top free agents. And the team’s willingness to stand pat in the offseason and letting a team take the field with glaring flaws in its lineup proves the Tribe closer’s point.
But in baseball, it’s not enough to spend money. It has to be spent wisely – and that doesn’t always mean on free agency. The best times in Indians history occurred when the team was able to cultivate its own talent and secure their services for significant periods of time.
In the 1940s, the Indians were one of the first teams in the majors – and the first in the American League – to actively seek out African-American and Latino baseball players. As a result, by the mid-1950s, the Indians had one of the best farm systems in the major leagues, and after setting the American League record for wins with 111 in 1954, it appeared they were poised to contend for years to come.
But one man wrecked that – Frank “Trader” Lane.
Lane had an almost pathological need to be a wheeler-dealer. The Indians had hired a man who while in St. Louis, tried to trade Stan Musial – a move quickly halted by Cardinals owner Gussie Busch. While in Cleveland, Lane pulled off the only trade for managers, sending Joe Gordon to the Tigers in exchange for Jimmie Dykes. He dealt away talent like Norm Cash (who won the 1961 batting title), Roger Maris (who won the 1961 home run title – with a record 61 dingers) and of course, dealt Rocky Colavito, the reigning home run champion, to the Tigers for reigning batting champion Harvey Kuenn. Lane said it was trading hamburger for steak.
There were short-term gains. The Indians finished a close second to the “Go-Go” White Sox in 1959 – a team managed by Al Lopez, the manager of the 1954 Indians. One of the main reasons for the White Sox’ success that year was the Cy Young Award-winning season of Early Wynn, who led the league with 22 wins (against 10 losses) and 255 innings pitched. Wynn was sent to the White Sox from Cleveland in Lane’s first deal as Indians general manager.
But the damage done to the farm system took a generation to repair. Hank Peters became general manager in 1988. He made a couple good deals, dealing Joe Carter to the Padres for Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga, and when Alomar made catcher Eddie Taubensee expendable, he was dealt to Houston for a fleet-footed outfielder named Kenny Lofton. But Peters also helped rebuild the farm system, with homegrown picks like Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Jim Thome.
In fact, the farm system was doing so well in the 1990s that the Indians could afford to deal productive major leaguers like Sean Casey and Brian Giles without missing a beat. But in the early 2000s, that ground to a halt, as the Indians were able to spot talent without signing them (they drafted future Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum out of high school) or misfire completely on top draft picks (Michael Aubrey? Jeremy Sowers? Anyone? Bueller?).
They’ve been able to pick up some of the slack with some good trades, like absolutely stealing Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo from the Mariners (they must not have Caller ID in Seattle. Between them and Omar Vizquel, I wouldn’t even pick up the phone if the Tribe was calling if I were them), getting Carlos Santana for Casey Blake from the Dodgers, and Perez from St. Louis for Mark DeRosa. But without the home-grown products, there are still missing pieces.
Perez isn’t wrong. But that’s not the same as being right.