Countdown To Pitchers And Catchers: #9 Carlos Baerga
Today continues our countdown to the start of Indians pitchers and catchers reporting to Goodyear, Arizona on February 20. We’ll count down the days, profiling a former Indian who wore the corresponding number. Some players will be memorable, others just our favorites and some, the only one we could find who wore that number. Today, we chronicle the career of Carlos Baerga.
By Craig Gifford
Carlos Baerga is likely the only player in Cleveland sports history to be a part of two infamous deals that started out as head scratchers, but worked out beautifully for the home team.
In December 1989, the Tribe sent its best player, Joe Carter, to the San Diego Padres for a pair of relatively unknown rookies – second baseman Baerga and catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. Alomar, and Baerga went on to become multiple time all stars and help lead the Indians from despair into great heights the team soared to through much of the 1990s.
Baerga, for his part, received MVP consideration in 1992 and 1993, when he had two of the better back-to-back offensive seasons ever put together by a second baseman. Both years, he collected more than 200 hits, batted over .300, drove in more than 100 runs, blasted more than 20 home runs and averaged 98.5 runs scored.
In 1994, the strike-shortened season that saw the Tribe contend in the newly-formed AL Central Division, Baerga was doing his part until labor strife hit in mid-August. When the season was wiped out, the 25-year-old was well on his way to another stellar campaign. He had 19 home runs (likely would’ve gone on to a career best that year), 80 RBI (again, may have been on his way to a career high) and .314 batting average.
After playing for a bad team in the early 90s and one that had ist dream season shattered by labor discord the year before, Baerga and a host of Tribe youngsters put it all together in 1995 for a wild run to the World Series. Baerga was again in the middle of everything with 15 homers, 90 RBI and .314 average. He went to his third all-star game.
Then in 1996, seemingly as quickly as Baerga had burst onto the scene six years earlier, the second baseman fell flat. By the end of July, Baerga was on his way to his worst season since his rookie year in 1990. He’d batted only .267 in 100 games, to go with 10 long balls and 55 RBI. Rather than assume the 27-year-old was just having a down year, General Manager John Hart went with his thought that weight issues and lack of speed had caught Baerga and the three-time all star would never be the same again.
Hart traded Baerga, in a somewhat unpopular move, to the New York Mets for Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino on July 29. The two Mets helped the Indians win a second straight division crown and get to the postseason. Hart’s instincts on Baerga turned out to be correct. In seven more seasons, Baerga never came close to the numbers he produced in his first six with the Tribe. In stops with six different teams, including a brief one back in Cleveland in 1999, he never hit more than his nine home runs in 1997 or collected more than the 53 RBI he had in 1998.
The 1998 season turned out to be Baerga’s last as a regular player. He failed to make a team out of spring training in 1999, playing 22 games with the Tribe and 33 with San Diego – two former teams who decided to take fliers on him.
The former wunderkind fell off the face of the earth for a few years before resurfacing in Boston in 2002. He spent four years as part time player for the Red Sox, Diamondback and Nationals before retiring after the 2005 season.
It’s amazing to think how quickly it went south for the Carlos. From 1990, until the trade in 1996 Baerga’s numbers with the Indians were impressive: 1,084 hits (by 27, he seemed almost a lock to get to the coveted 3,000 mark), 103 home runs and .300 batting average. He fell so far after the trade from Cleveland, his numbers fell far short of anything resembling a great player for his career: 1,583 hits, 134 home runs and .291 batting average.
Despite the precipitous decline, Cleveland fans still look fondly on Baerga as one of the young players of the 1990s who kick-started Cleveland’s years of contention.