Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 26

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Countdown to Opening Day – 26

Mike Napoli‘s yearlong party at Progressive Field came to an end over the offseason, as the free agent slugger was replaced in the Cleveland Indians lineup by a younger, more consistent power hitter in Edwin Encarnacion.

Napoli’s departure marks the end of one of the more impressive contributions by a player to spend just one season in northeast Ohio. While his bat cooled off in the final two months of the season and his impact in the postseason as a whole was minimal, the Indians would not have reached that pinnacle without his presence in the middle of their lineup. It was little surprise that with an additional threat in the Cleveland batting order that guys like Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez had career years hitting behind him. Napoli’s watchful eye at the plate and the fear instilled by him in opposing pitchers of giving up a majestic moonshot seemed to provide plenty of protection for those around him in the lineup.

There is also the immeasurable effect that Napoli had in the Indians clubhouse. A veteran with plenty of playoff experience under his belt, he provided in one year what the Tribe had hoped to find when they previously added big name veterans like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to the fold. Watching manager Terry Francona jump into Napoli’s arms for a massive bear hug following the team’s American League Central Division clinching win in late September in Detroit was proof positive of just how important Napoli was to the team, the coaching staff, and to the confidence of the Indians organization as a whole.

They will big shoes to fill, but if there was any player on the free agent market this offseason up to the task, it was Encarnacion.

Wickman - Getty Images
Wickman – Getty Images

Plenty of players have worn 26 for Cleveland, dating back to Oral Hildebrand in 1931, but few made the lasting mark that closer Bob Wickman did during his seven years with the Indians.

When Wicky came to Cleveland at the trade deadline in 2000, the Indians were in need of a reliable reliever to help out the bullpen. Steve Karsay had been working as the club’s closer, but at the time of the move, he was 2-5 with five blown saves out of his 24 total chances. Wickman had been named to his first All-Star team that season and had saved 16 games for the Brewers by the end of July.

The move was costly for the Tribe, as it required the team to move big first baseman and outfielder Richie Sexson, along with pitchers Kane Davis and Paul Rigdon and a player to be named later (Marco Scutaro, who would go on to a 13-year Major League career as a utility man and one-time NL All-Star). The Indians also got pitchers Steve Woodard and Jason Bere in the deal.

With Wickman in the closer’s role, Karsay moved back to a setup position. The team would continue to win games, finishing second in the Central with a 90-72 record but one game behind the Seattle Mariners for the AL Wild Card spot. Those Mariners would defeat the Central champs, the Chicago White Sox, in a three-game sweep before losing in the ALCS to the New York Yankees, a team with three fewer wins than Cleveland while owning the worst record of the four playoff contestants. It did not stop them from winning the Subway series in five games over the Mets.

Wickman saved 32 of 35 games in 2001 (91.4%) and added five more wins in 70 games in his first full season with Cleveland. He was 20 for 22 the next year, but that season came to an early close as he dealt with an elbow injury and later went under the knife for Tommy John surgery, costing him the final two months, all of 2003, and the first half of 2004. He saved 13 and earned holds in four more after returning that year and returned to form in 2005, appearing in 64 games and earning a league-high 45 saves in 50 chances while making his second and final All-Star team.

Despite just missing the playoffs due to their late season collapse in 2005, the Indians got off to a bad start in 2006, leading to a fire sale of sorts. Wickman was shipped to Atlanta in July for a minor league catching prospect while the club also sent both Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard to Seattle in separate trades and Ronnie Belliard to St. Louis.

Wickman spent a year and a half in the Braves bullpen and would appear briefly in his final eight games with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. He remains the all-time saves leader in Cleveland Indians history with 139.

Jacoby - 1987 Topps
Jacoby – 1987 Topps

The only player to have spent more years in the number 26 for the Indians was fan favorite corner infielder Brook Jacoby.

After appearing in just 15 games between the 1981 and 1983 seasons for the Braves, Jacoby was part of a trade that provided the Indians with a pair of young players to build around and some key names of the mid- and late-80’s for the club. Both he and outfielder Brett Butler were players to be named later from an earlier trade that sent pitcher Len Barker to the Braves and $150,000 back to the pockets of the Indians.

Cleveland wasted little time getting Jacoby locked in at the hot corner as he appeared in 126 games in his first year in town while hitting .264 with seven homers and 40 RBI. His talent blossomed the next season at the age of 25 as he appeared in 161 games for the Indians and hit .274 with 26 doubles, 20 homers, and 87 RBI. He was an All-Star in 1986 as he would hit .288 with 30 doubles, 17 homers, and 80 RBI.

His power surged the next season, as he maintained his doubles pace with 26, but nearly doubled his homers with 32, all while hitting .300 with 69 RBI in 1987. Just as impressively, he dropped his usually high strikeout numbers by nearly half. But all of those numbers crashed the next season as his batting average fell to .241 and he hit just nine home runs.

His numbers rebounded again slightly in 1989 and 1990, but not nearly to the pace of his standout 1987 season, one of the few positive notes from the disappointing 61-101 Sports Illustrated cover jinx year. He was named an All-Star again at the halfway point in 1990, but his numbers declined the following season and he was traded in July to the Oakland Athletics.

Things that season did not improve for Jacoby, despite joining a team in striking distance in the AL West. He became a free agent after the season and returned to Cleveland, playing his last Major League season in the city he called home for nine years. His post-playing days have brought him back to the diamond, working as a coach for the Cincinnati Reds for seven years before spending the last three with the Toronto Blue Jays as their hitting coach.

Other notable 26’s in Indians history: Hoyt Wilhelm (1957-58), Chico Salmon (1964), Ted Uhlaender (1970-71), Boog Powell (1975-76), Bake McBride (1982-83), Scott Kazmir (2013)

Photo: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

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