By Jason Kaminski
The Cleveland Indians have a storied franchise that began back in 1901 when they were established in the American League. Over the years players have come and gone through the organization that have made a lasting impact. Some of these players have been talked up and others have not been talked about enough. I have decided to put a stamp on who I believe the best Tribe players were at their respective positions. Over the next several weeks I will be posting my Top Five Tribe Players at each position. Through research, analysis and opinion I will rank the players I see to be the best. I have a specific criteria I am looking for. For starters, I will only include players that played from 1901 and on. Second, the pitchers eligible needed to have played at least five seasons and the hitters at least three seasons in a Cleveland uniform. Last, I took into account comparisons of what might have been. Sometimes players play so long that their legend becomes inflated or they play on terrible teams that do not get their accomplishments recognized like they should be. With that said I hope you enjoy these lists and I encourage you to give your own opinions as well. So without further adieu, I give you the top five Indians players of all-time at each position.
DESIGNATED HITTERS (*an exception to the five-year rule was made due to the lack of eligibles)
5. Rico Carty (1974-1977)
1973 was the first season that the designated hitter rule was used in the American League. John Ellis was the first Indians’ player to be inserted into the lineup as a designated hitter. The following year Rico Carty came to Cleveland and was used quite a bit at the DH spot. Carty wasn’t a star but he was very consistent with the bat. In his time with Cleveland he posted a .303 batting average and averaged close to 14 home runs a year.
4. Eddie Murray (1994-1996)
“Steady” Eddie was added to the Cleveland roster in 1994 as they entered into a brand new ballpark, Jacobs Field. Murray was at the tail-end of a Hall of Fame career so there was uncertainty as to what he would be able to contribute to an already stacked offense. Murray showed that he was not finished, compiling 339 hits, 50 homers and 203 RBI in three seasons. Murray also achieved a big milestone while with the Tribe gathering his 3,000th hit in a game against Minnesota. Murray added veteran leadership to a young, up-and-coming Indians team and fit nicely into the batting order behind slugger Albert Belle and the young power-hitting third baseman Jim Thome.
3. Andre Thornton (1977-1987)
Andre Thornton is only one of two Indians’ players that consistently held down the designated hitter position for a long time. While he did not play on very many good Tribe teams, he did provide star power for the team in his prime. He spent 10 seasons in Cleveland and hit for 20+ homers in six of them. His best seasons were in 1978, 1982 and 1984 where he hit 30+ homers and drove in 99+ RBI in all three seasons. Thornton would retire from Major League Baseball in 1987 as a member of the Cleveland Indians.
2. Travis Hafner (2003-present)
The other Tribe player to hold down the DH position for a long period of time is Travis Hafner. “Pronk” is still on the team now but he seems to be a shadow of the player he once was. Even still, Hafner has put up some big numbers while wearing the Chief Wahoo on his helmet. In nine seasons with the club he has hit 189 home runs (10th on the franchise’s all-time list) and driven in 660 runs. Looking at his numbers it is clear that his prime was from 2004-2007 when he hit at least 24 homers and drove in no less than 100 runs in all of those seasons. He also hit over .300 in each of those seasons except ’07. Hafner’s best season was easily the 2006 campaign when he hit .308 with 42 homers and 117 RBI. That season he led the league in slugging percentage and OPS as well. Though it seems his best days are now behind him, he still holds down the number two spot for me. In terms of designated hitter “Pronk” in his prime defined that role.
1. David Justice (1997-2000)
I long debated this one in my mind. I felt like Hafner should be given the benefit of the doubt considering he has spent a much longer time here than Justice. However, when I crunched the numbers and considered Justice’s role on the teams he was a part of I couldn’t place him lower than #1. Justice was brought into Cleveland just before the 1997 season in the Kenny Lofton trade with Atlanta. Cleveland fans were devastated to see their beloved center fielder leave town but Justice would quickly provide evidence to why the brass wanted him here in the first place. His best season was his first season, 1997. He would split his time between left field and designated hitter all while posting a .329 batting average, 33 dingers and 101 runs batted in. Justice was selected to his third all-star game that summer, finished fifth in the MVP voting and led the Tribe to their second American League Championship in three years. His postseason that year was not as great as his regular season but it wasn’t terrible. In the division series vs. New York he hit .263 with a homer and two RBI then hit .333 vs. Baltimore in the ALCS. In the World Series against Florida his average dipped to .185 but he was still able to drive in four runs, which is what he was on the team to do as a middle of the order guy. Justice was extremely steady while with Cleveland, he would spend two and a half more years here and hit 21 homers for the Tribe in all of them. Even having back to back 88 RBI years in ’98 and ’99. In 2000 he was traded to the Yankees for two “top prospects” pitcher Zach Day and outfielder Ricky Ledee, along with a throw-in pitcher Jake Westbrook. Though Justice only spent three years and change here his impact was certainly felt, especially in the magical season of 1997.
So there is the list….who do you think should be number 1?