Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 35
Bob Toth | On 20, Feb 2020
Baseball takes little time off in between seasons, so neither can we. Follow along at Did the Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to March 26, when the Cleveland Indians host the Detroit Tigers for game one of the 2020 season. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 35 days
The Cleveland Indians added a new face to the outfield picture midway through the second month of the season last year when the team recalled Oscar Mercado from Triple-A Columbus to make his Major League debut.
The 24-year-old outfielder, a second round pick in the 2013 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals out of his Tampa, Florida, high school, was beginning his second year in the Indians organization after being picked up in a quiet deadline deal in 2018 from the Cardinals in exchange for minor league outfielder Conner Capel and pitcher Jhon Torres.
Mercado had worked in 100 games for the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate that year, hitting .285 with a .351 on-base percentage and a .408 slugging mark with 21 doubles, eight homers, and 42 RBI with 31 stolen bases. His numbers dipped in his first work in the International League, as he posted a .252/.342/.320 slash in his final 32 games with five doubles, five RBI, and six stolen bases in ten chances.
He started the 2019 season back with Columbus and opened the year with a two-hit game and had another in his third game of the season. He notched a three-hit game against Durham on April 11 and went on a multi-hit tear the next week, notching 15 hits in a seven-game stretch (including four against Norfolk and his first homer of the year on April 23) to push his season batting average to .362 in his first 17 games.
After struggling through his first rough patch of the season (1-for-25) from April 26 to May 3, the bat jumped back alive as he ripped off multi-hit games in three of his next five contests from May 4 to 10. On May 14, the Indians came calling and gave him his first promotion to the Majors when right fielder Tyler Naquin landed on the 10-day injured list with a left calf strain.
His debut was rocky in Chicago against the White Sox. Starting in left field, he struck out three times and was hit by a pitch, later coming around to score. He scored runs in each of his first four games with the Indians, using a double in his third game to record his first big league hit. He had a single and a double the next day for his first multi-hit game. He hit in four straight and immediately added a five-game hitting streak in a strong effort against Tampa Bay and Boston, including his first big league homer against the Rays and a 6-for-15 series against the Red Sox.
June treated him kindly in his first whole month in the Majors. He hit in six straight early in the month, then after ending the streak he hit in seven straight. That run of success at the plate included his game-winning walk-off single in extra innings against the Cincinnati Reds on June 11. An 0-for-5 against Detroit ended that run, but he immediately added another six-game hit streak. He ended the month with hits in 21 of his 26 games played with a .313 average, a .495 slugging mark, eight doubles, three homers, and 13 runs batted in.
Mercado cooled some in July, but did have some highlight reel performances. He hit a pair of solo homers in a three-hit game against Detroit on July 15 and homered again the next day. He was a perfect 5-for-5 with four singles and a double against Kansas City on July 19. He added four more hits against Kansas City on July 27.
August proved to be his first tough month in the Majors. He appeared in 27 games, but hit just .219 with a .250 OBP and .323 slugging percentage with four doubles, two homers, and just four RBI. But down the stretch, Mercado picked back up his contributions to the Tribe lineup. He hit in a career-high eight straight games from September 8 to September 17. After a hitless game, he hit in five more before closing out the final five games of the season hitless.
Combined between Triple-A and the Majors, Mercado appeared in 145 games and posted a .275/.336/.454 slash with 35 doubles, four triples, 19 homers, and 69 RBI while stealing 29 bases in 36 attempts. That included a .269/.318/.443 line with Cleveland in 115 games with 25 doubles, three triples, 15 homers, 54 RBI, 15 stolen bases in 19 attempts, and an overall 2.2 bWAR.
Now with a year under his belt and 25 years old following his mid-December birthday, Mercado is expected to see some of the most consistent time in the Indians’ muddied outfield picture this coming season. Capable of playing all three spots (although struggling some in left field last season), Mercado gives manager Terry Francona some versatility in addressing playing time for the numerous options the club could consider for the year ahead. He will be looked to provide a similar spark to the top of the Tribe’s lineup in 2020 in a year that will hopefully be devoid of any sophomoric slumps.
Before reliever Ben Taylor wore the number briefly for the club in 2018, a pair of players traded for one another donned the digits for the Tribe.
Abraham 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.
Almonte failed to take advantage of repeated opportunities to claim a spot in an Indians outfield that was thinned by injury. His third season with the club in 2017 was largely lost 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 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. He was claimed off of waivers by the Kansas City Royals the next spring.
Rzepczynski took over the 35 in Cleveland when he joined the Tribe 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 bounced around since landing in San Diego, joining the Oakland A’s in a trade in December of 2015, when he was dealt with future Cleveland 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 2017 in Seattle with the Mariners. He opened 2018 in the Pacific Northwest, but was released midseason and returned to Cleveland for five games in the number 33. He was later released and rejoined the Mariners for the remainder of the season and spent 2019 in the minors for the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.
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.
Wayne 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 Enrique 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 memorably wore it while serving as the club’s third base coach.
Other notable 35s in Tribe history (49 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: Ron Schwane/Getty Images
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