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Did The Tribe Win Last Night? | April 18, 2014

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The End to a Lost Era

| On 03, Feb 2013

The signing of Travis Hafner by the New York Yankees on Friday effectively signified an end to what should have been a period of glory and high accolades in the history of the Cleveland Indians.

Hafner was part of a collection of players who will forever be remembered in Cleveland for falling short of the lofty expectations placed upon them. After the team’s impressive run at the end of the 1990’s, Hafner and his teammates of the mid- to late-2000’s were thought to have the potential to be perennial playoff contenders, maybe even being able to reach the great heights of the World Series and bringing home the coveted World Series Championship that has eluded the city since 1948.

Instead, Hafner and his peers left the organization and its fans wondering, “what if”?

Hafner, one of the most noticeable faces of the franchise for the past decade, will now don pinstripes. His chance to return to Cleveland as an Indians player ended when the team bought out his 2013 option year for $2.75 million.

Just this offseason alone, the Indians have cleaned house of nearly every remaining member of the last playoff team in 2007.

Shin-Soo Choo was traded to Cincinnati. The one-year, $5 million contract of Grady Sizemore ended without a single at bat, making Juan Gonzalez’s one at bat during the 2005 season look like money ($600,000) much better spent. The $6 million option of Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona) was declined.

Asdrubal Cabrera and newly re-acquired Ben Francisco are the lone players left from that playoff run. Cabrera was a 21-year-old rookie second baseman for the 2007 playoff squad and now becomes the senior Indians player on the roster. Francisco was a 25-year-old rookie for the same playoff team who would later be shipped out of town in 2009 as part of the great purging of the pricey talent base the Indians had developed, but failed to succeed with.

Amidst all of the losing and all of the rebuilding, it is easy to forget just how good this gathering of players was. It borders on painful to look back upon that era and realize that such talent made just one playoff appearance.

It will truly go down as a lost era in the history of Cleveland Indians baseball.

Despite it all, the team was close to success on several occasions. The span from 2005 to 2008 would be recalled much more positively had the Indians made just a handful of decisions differently.

Look back to 2005.

What if the Indians won on September 25th?

The Indians were in Kansas City for their last road game of the year playing against the American League’s worst team. Cleveland tied the game in the top of the ninth off of the Royals’ closer. Bob Howry relieved Jake Westbrook after eight innings. The Royals got a single and moved the runner to second on a sacrifice. The Royals catcher lifted a fly ball in the direction of Sizemore in center field but he lost it in the sun, allowing the winning run to score easily.

What if Sizemore catches that fly ball?

A defeated Indians team came back home and lost two of three to Tampa and were swept by the eventual World Series-winning White Sox. They ended the season 93-69 and six games in back of Chicago for the division and two games in back of Boston in the AL Wild Card. Of their final six losses, five came by one run.

Prior to that ill-fated loss in Kansas City, the Indians had won 17 of 19 games and appeared unstoppable. When a series in Detroit began on September 5th, they were 9.5 games out of first place. On September 25th, they were within 1.5 games of first place, the closest they had been to the top spot since April 10th.

Despite an impressive run through most of September and ultimately losing out to the would-be champions, the Indians did little in the offseason that followed to improve upon their roster.

What if Mark Shapiro’s front office opted to make upgrades to a 2005 Indians team that finished with 93 wins?

The Indians lost Kevin Millwood, Scott Elarton, and Howry in free agency after the season. They brought back Bob Wickman in addition to signing starter Paul Byrd, infielders Eduardo Perez and Lou Merloni, and relievers Danny Graves and Steve Karsay. The offseason trade of Josh Bard, David Riske, and Coco Crisp brought Andy Marte, Guillermo Mota, and Kelly Shoppach back in return.  Reliever Arthur Rhodes was flipped for outfielder Jason Michaels.

By April, the team began purging talent – future All-Star Brandon Phillips was traded to Cincinnati. In May, the team sold reliever Karsay to Oakland. Starting pitcher Jason Johnson was sold to Boston in June. Perez was traded to Seattle for Cabrera. In July, Wickman was sent to Atlanta for Max Ramirez, Ben Broussard was traded to Seattle for Choo, and Ronnie Belliard was dealt to St. Louis for Hector Luna. In August, the team sold Todd Hollandsworth and Einar Diaz.

While two of the in-season trades brought forth valuable pieces for the future (Cabrera, Choo), the off-season trades did little to bolster the roster that season. Three different bullpen arms (Matt Miller, Fernando Cabrera, and Rafael Betancourt) were lost in April. CC Sabathia missed the first month of the season on the disabled list. Casey Blake made two different trips to the disabled list. Carmona was a starter, then a setup man, then an awful closer replacing Wickman (losing four straight, including three straight blown saves), then a starter again. He finished the season with a 1-10 record.

The team itself could not seem to crawl above the .500 mark throughout the season. By the end of May, they were 26-26 and 8.5 games out of first. A 9-17 month of June followed by a 10-16 month of July dropped the Indians 24.5 games out of the divisional race. They would end the season 18 games in back of the Minnesota Twins, who finished as one of three teams in the division with 90 or more wins. The Indians finished 78-84 and in fourth place.

The Indians’ lone successful run in 2007 is well noted. They claimed the AL Central outright, leading the second-place Tigers by eight games on their way to a 96-66 finish. Cleveland emerged victorious over the New York Yankees in the ALDS, taking the series three games to one. After losing Game 1 of the ALCS in Boston, they won game Game 2 before heading back home to Cleveland.

The Indians won each of the first two games at Jacobs Field, giving the team what appeared to be a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. The Red Sox, not to be outdone, would claim the fifth and sixth games to force a Game 7 at Fenway Park. A close game would ultimately turn into a blowout and heartbreak again struck for the Indians, as they sent Terry Francona’s Red Sox to a World Series sweep over the Colorado Rockies.

What if Joel Skinner sent Kenny Lofton?

Boston, Massachusetts. Game 7 of the ALCS. Top of the seventh inning.

The Indians, trailing 3-2, get a base runner in scoring position with one out as Lofton reaches on an error to left. Franklin Gutierrez sends a ground ball single to left field. Lofton, with the ball behind him, is forced to rely on his third base coach, Skinner, to let him know whether to slam on the brakes or to go full steam ahead to the plate.

Skinner said stop.

One pitch later, Blake grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning and the season for the Tribe. With Cleveland’s hopes deflated, the Sox plated two more runs off of Betancourt in the bottom of the seventh to take a 5-2 lead. Six more runs in the eighth erased all doubt.

What if the Indians made a move of significance before 2008 season to improve upon the foundation established instead of hoping the players could repeat the performance a second straight year?

The Indians were one win from a World Series appearance against a Rockies team that did little to fend off the Red Sox. But instead of finding ways to improve the roster, the Indians stood pat, allowing Lofton to leave via free agency and adding infielder Jamey Carroll and reliever Craig Breslow.

Just like the 2006 team, the 2008 rendition of the Tribe struggled to find the .500 mark and was bitten even harder by the injury bug. By the end of June, the team was 37-46 and ten games out of first place. Choo was lost for the first two months of the season rehabbing from left elbow surgery. Westbrook missed a month with a left intercostal strain and then was shelved for the year with right elbow inflammation that led to Tommy John surgery. Hafner missed a majority of the season dealing with a right shoulder strain. Victor Martinez and Carmona also missed time with injuries.

Had the Indians done more to establish a higher quality of depth on the roster and at Triple-A, maybe they could have endured the onslaught of injuries a little bit better. Instead, the injuries were insurmountable and the team green-lighted shipping future free agent Sabathia out of town.

At most, a more successful and injury-free first half of the 2008 season would have allowed Sabathia to finish out his contract in an Indians uniform before opting to bail town for the bright lights and big dollars of the Big Apple. The Indians would then avoid the burden and failed prospects of Matt LaPorta.

What if the Indians had not signed long-term deals that failed to pay dividends?

The short version is that the last four years would not have been lost to rebuilding the team once again. That process may have already been gradually completed with money better spent.

Sizemore was the first of the long-term contracts agreed upon and it appeared to be quite friendly to the organization at the time. In the spring following his first full season in the big leagues in 2005, he and the ballclub reached a six-year, $23.45 million contract extension. The contract seemed to be worth every penny for the first several seasons, as Sizemore made three All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves, and one Silver Slugger award. He played in every game in each of the 2006 and 2007 seasons. But in 2009, he was limited to 106 games and his batting average dropped to a career-worst .248. His 18 home runs and 13 stolen bases were the lowest totals since his 43 game rookie season in 2004. The 2010 season proved even worse, as injuries deprived him of the bulk of the season. In 33 games, he batted .211 and did not hit a home run. He was striking out nearly four times as often as he drew walks. While playing in more than twice as many games in 2011, his batting average remained low, his strikeout percentage high, and his stolen base threat was non-existant.

Westbrook was the first of the 2008 free agent class to sign an extension with the club. He had given his team three straight years with 14 or more victories and had exceeded 210 innings pitched in each season. His three-year, $33 million deal in April of 2007 seemed like a value at the time. But just over a year later, Tommy John surgery ended his 2008 season prematurely and shelved him through 2009. He was traded off mid-season 2010 in the final year of his contract.

Despite missing the final month of the 2006 season with a broken hand, courtesy of Texas Rangers’ pitcher C.J. Wilson, Hafner batted .308 with 42 home runs and 117 runs batted in. The 2007 season had not been quite as friendly, as heading into the All-Star break he was batting .262 with 14 homers and 57 driven in. That did not stop the Indians and Hafner from coming to an agreement on a four-year, $57 million extension during the All-Star break. With the contract out of the way, he batted .270 in the second half with another ten home runs and 43 RBI.

Carmona, just two years removed from his rocky big league debut season, signed a four-year, $15 million contract in April of 2008. It was a pleasant reward for his 19-8 season in 2007. With bonuses and fully exercised club options, the deal could have potentially climbed to $48 million. He would never find the same level of success again though for Cleveland, posting just one winning record over his final five seasons with the Indians. Three of the seasons included double-digit losses and four featured ERA’s exceeding 5.25.

Sabathia was not signed long-term, but the team was willing to play out the 2008 season with him on the roster, had the team been competitive. As they were not, he was dealt in a deal that has, in essence, provided the Indians with several years of an unimpressive LaPorta and a surprise find in Michael Brantley.

What if the Indians had gotten better hauls for the departed stars of the mid-2000’s?

The haul for the AL Cy Young Award winner from 2007 has been just Brantley. Rob Bryson is still working his way through the minor league system, Zach Jackson is long gone from the Indians organization, and LaPorta struggles to find a way to consistently produce as a major league ball player.

Cliff Lee, dealt in the middle of a contract extension he had signed with the ballclub, was the AL Cy Young just one year after Sabathia. His trade, along with that of Sabathia, was designed to help rebuild the Indians on the fly. Lou Marson and Carlos Carrasco are the only half of the trade remaining with the club, as infielder Jason Donald was shipped out in the Choo trade and the centerpiece of the trade, Jason Knapp, is out of baseball after his career was consumed by injuries.

The Martinez trade has at least provided the Indians with their number one starter, Justin Masterson, and a potential arm in the bullpen in Nick Hagadone. Another piece, Bryan Price, remains in the organization working his way through the minor leagues. The thought, though, of Martinez mentoring a young Carlos Santana for a year or two, is a hard one not to like.

If we were to look back upon the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century and Cleveland had playoff appearances in more than just one season, that era of Indians’ baseball may be viewed as far more successful than it truly was. But the lack of effort placed on strengthening the rosters moving into the 2006 and 2008 seasons provided the city with two underachieving squads that were decimated by injuries. One disappointing game ended the 2005 season prematurely, and the inability to win just one more game in 2007 will forever be a championship opportunity that got away.

Banking so much cash and hope on the bat of Hafner, arms of Westbrook and Carmona, and overall athletic ability of Sizemore proved costly. Tens of millions of dollars were tied up each season on oft-injured players, blocking the team from effectively pursuing free agents that might have stayed healthy enough to play and produce consistently.

The era of Hafner, Sizemore, Carmona (Hernandez), Lee, and Sabathia is finally over. It will forever be a lost era of failed opportunities in the history of the Cleveland Indians. An underachieving team, made possible by untimely injuries, a lack of timely moves, and albatrosses for contracts, crippled a financially strapped mid-market team during that time and in the four years that followed.

Now, the Indians start anew, with a fresh faced team, a new leader, and a clean slate.

Photo: Leon Halip / Getty Images