Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 35
Bob Toth | On 22, Feb 2018
While the offseason has been historically slow and the winter has crawled along at an even slower pace, we at Did The Tribe Win Last Night look ahead to the warmer days of the 2018 season by remembering Tribe players past and present.
Countdown to Opening Day – 35 days
It would appear as though Abraham Almonte will get an opportunity to return to the Indians outfield in 2018 wearing his familiar number 35, something that he has done in more years than just a handful of players in club history. Heading into this season, only Wayne Kirby, Enrique Wilson, and Tom Buskey had spent more than three years in the 35.
Almonte wrapped up his third year in Cleveland in 2017 in what was a season lost largely to injuries. He slashed .233/.314/.366 in 69 games, but showed less speed and less pop than in previous seasons. The 28-year-old switch-hitting outfielder missed time with a pair of injuries – a right biceps strain early in the season and a left hamstring strain late – that cut into his playing time and his effectiveness when in the lineup. While he did not miss an extended amount of time with the injuries, he spent a significant amount of time in the minors rehabbing with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, appearing in 23 games for the club over the course of the year.
Almonte was acquired from the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline in 2015, when his predecessor in the number 35, reliever Marc Rzepczynski, was dealt west. Almonte had been pushed out of a crowded outfield picture with the Friars, leading to a needed change of venue. He started his Indians career strong with a promising showing, putting on an extra base display with nine doubles, five triples, and five homers in 51 games, but a performance enhancing drug suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season dramatically altered his future and cost him the ability to play in the postseason. He would match his .264 batting average from the previous season while once against flashing some big extra base hit numbers (almost exclusively his 20 doubles), but he could not replicate his numbers, which were drastically reduced in his third season with the club in 2017.
He is part of a crowded, but not necessarily overwhelming, outfield mix again in Cleveland. If healthy come the end of spring, Michael Brantley, Bradley Zimmer, and Lonnie Chisenhall would appear to be the primary outfielders for the club. Brandon Guyer has already been slowed by a reoccurring wrist injury. Other internal candidates, including Greg Allen and Tyler Naquin, and veteran additions like Rajai Davis and Melvin Upton Jr., will also vie for a spot.
Rzepczynski took over the 35 in Cleveland when he joined the club at the trade deadline in 2013, the second of three different times that he was part of a July trade deal in the span of five years. He proved to be well worth the cost of A-baller Juan Herrera at the time, as “Scrabble” posted a 0.89 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP in 27 appearances for the Indians’ Wild Card team in 2013. He made 73 more appearances the next season, earning his first big league save in his sixth season, but he was traded for Almonte with the Indians out of contention in 2015.
He has bounced around since landing in San Diego, joining the Oakland A’s in a trade in December of 2015, when he was dealt with new Indian first baseman Yonder Alonso for former Indian Drew Pomeranz, fellow pitcher Jose Torres, and outfielder Jabari Blash. He was moved to Washington before the waiver deadline in 2016 and spent last season in Seattle with the Mariners.
While Rzepczynski and Almonte have been around during the Indians’ most recent run of success in the standings, three recognizable names handled the task during the Tribe’s sustained stretch of winning in the 1990s.
Kirby, a 13th round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1983, reached the Majors for the first time with the Indians as a September call-up in 1991 while wearing the number 73. He moved into 35 for the next year and would put up the best numbers of his eight-year big league career during his five and a half seasons in Cleveland. He finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in his third season in 1993 when he drove in 60 runs, stole 17 bases, and played in 131 in what would be the most action that he would see in his career.
The outfield picture would get a little crowded in the years that followed as he hit .293 in 78 games before the strike in 1994 but saw his average plummet to .207 in 101 games in 1995. With playing time dwindling and his production suffering, he was claimed by the Dodgers off of waivers during the 1996 season. He spent time with the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres, and Baltimore Orioles organizations from 1998 to 2000 and wrapped up his playing days in independent ball in 2001 at the age of 37.
The number quickly found a new home after Kirby left Cleveland, as rookie right-handed reliever Danny Graves wore it when he made his Major League debut in July of 1996. He would make just 20 appearances for the Indians in 1996 and 1997 before he was dealt at the ’97 trade deadline to the Cincinnati Reds in a six-player swap that brought infielder Jeff Branson and starting pitcher John Smiley to Cleveland in a move that did not work out for the Tribe as Smiley’s season and career came to a halt just six starts into his Indians tenure.
Graves would go on to become one of the better closers in the game while with the Reds, making the National League All-Star teams in 2000 and 2004. He won a career-high ten games in relief in 2000 and saved as many as 41 games in his last full season in the Queen City in 2004 (in his first season back in the bullpen after an ill-fated trip to the starting rotation the year before when he went 4-15 with a 5.33 ERA). After his release by the Reds during the 2005 season, he was signed by the New York Mets and returned to Cleveland the next season, pitching in what would be the final 13 games of his big league career before time with the independent Long Island Ducks in 2007 and in the Minnesota Twins farm system in 2008. He was a spring roster cut the following year by the Houston Astros, bringing his career to a close.
The number collected just a little bit of dust before Wilson put it on less than two months after Graves was dealt away. He spent parts of four seasons in Cleveland, appearing in as many as 113 games in 1999 while working as a utility man for the club. The next season, he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates with Alex Ramirez for Wil Cordero.
A year later, he would land in New York with the Yankees and served as a bench piece for the club over four years. His first three years in the Big Apple resulted in trips to the playoffs and two trips to the World Series, but he and the Yankees came away on the losing end in both series. He spent the 2005 season in Chicago with the Cubs for 15 games and another 20 games in the minors for the Baltimore Orioles. He concluded his playing days with 62 games at Triple-A for the Red Sox in 2006.
After Wilson left town, the number was absent from the back of a player for nearly ten years, but it did get some time in the dugout and in foul territory in coaching boxes around baseball when Joel Skinner wore it while serving as the club’s third base coach.
Other notable 35s in Tribe history (47 in total): Bruce Campbell (1935-36); Ken Keltner (1937); Jackie Price (1946); Don Black (1946); Wally Judnich (1948); Harry Simpson (1951-53); Pedro Ramos (1963-64); Stan Williams (1967-69); Gaylord Perry (1972); Cecil Upshaw (1974); Phil Niekro (1986-87); Casey Kotchman (2012).
Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images