A former Cy Young Award winner for the Tribe is among the first-year candidates on the 2020 Hall of Fame ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is probably the closest thing there is to a lock for induction among first-year candidates, but after that, the field gets far murkier. Other first-year candidates on the ballot are Bobby Abreu, Josh Beckett, Heath Bell, Eric Chavez, Adam Dunn, Chone Figgins, Rafael Furcal, Jason Giambi, Raul Ibanez, Paul Konerko, Cliff Lee, Carlos Pena, Brad Penny, J.J. Putz, Brian Roberts, Alfonso Soriano and Jose Valverde. Former Indians Jake Westbrook, Travis Hafner and Derek Lowe dropped off the ballot after making their first appearances last year.
The only two first-year candidates to spend any real time in a Tribe uniform were Lee and Giambi. Lee, of course, came to Cleveland from the late, lamented Expos along with Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips in the trade that sent Bartolo Colon to Montreal. (Colon, it’s worth noting was the last Montreal Expo active in the major leagues, and his career lasted longer than anyone he was traded for in that deal. His first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame comes in 2024.)
Lee’s time in an Indians uniform was brief but relatively spectacular. In four full years he never won fewer than 14 games, and he went 18-5 in 2005, leading the American League in winning percentage as the Indians mounted a second-half rally that just fell short of a playoff spot. Three years later, he went 22-3, leading the majors in wins and winning percentage and leading the American League with a 2.54 ERA, as he became the first 20-game winner for the Indians since Gaylord Perry a quarter-century earlier, and the second consecutive Indians player to win the Cy Young Award.
Unfortunately, his performance came a year too late to help the Indians with any postseason glory. In 2007, the Indians came within a win of the World Series before succumbing to the Red Sox after blowing a 3-1 series lead. Their rotation included CC Sabathia, who would win the Cy Young Award that year, and what we thought was a young phenom, Fausto Carmona. The Lee we saw in 2008 would have been a great asset for the Indians a year earlier – and could potentially have put them over the top – but he couldn’t put it together. His ERA ballooned over 6, and he was pulled from the rotation and even sent to the minors – and got shelled there, too.
After his Cy Young season in 2008, the Indians sold high. For the second year in a row – the Tribe dealt Sabathia to Milwaukee the summer before – they traded the defending Cy Young Award. Lee was traded to the Phillies, where he made the World Series and matched up against Sabathia in the first game of the World Series that fall.
From 2008 to 2013, Lee led the major leagues in WAR, FIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio and shutouts, and was second in ERA+ and complete games. His period of dominance was too short to merit any serious Hall consideration, but for a brief period, he called to mind Reggie Jackson’s assessment of Tom Seaver: “Blind people come to the ballpark just to hear him pitch.”
Cleveland was the last stop in a lengthy and illustrious career for Jason Giambi. He spent two years with the Tribe, 2013 and 2014, as a valuable clubhouse presence and occasional designated hitter and pinch hitter. His time with the Indians was notable for him setting the record as the oldest player to hit a walk-off home run, and then breaking it two months later.
Giambi’s case is an interesting one beyond its merits (he has a lengthy, above-average career, but I don’t think it really rises to the level of Hall of Fame inclusion). He occupies a rare place in the steroid era. He never faced any punishment for a positive drug test, but his name came up in the investigation into BALCO, and he has publicly admitted using performance-enhancing drugs and apologizing for it.
On a related note, Manny Ramirez is on the ballot for the fourth year. On sheer numbers, he’s probably the strongest returning candidate on the ballot, but his career is tainted by positive drug tests.
The fact is that beyond Jeter, there are no real clear-cut shoo-ins for induction this year. The candidates are players with decent if not spectacular numbers or players with spectacular numbers who won’t get voted in (cough Barry Bonds cough Roger Clemens).
The biggest beneficiary from this might be Omar Vizquel, now in his third year of eligibility. The shortstop’s candidacy has been incredibly polarizing. He has longevity and his flashy defense bolster his hall campaign, even if advanced metrics and his offense don’t. But the biggest thing in his favor might be his vote totals. He got 37 percent of the vote his first year, and the number went up over 42 percent last year. Cooperstown will probably call for him yet – and with an uneven and unspectacular class of nominees, it may be this year.
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