The Cleveland Indians’ out-of-nowhere stars
On Monday, I read about the Devin Mesoraco extension and my brain immediately went to one name: Yan Gomes. Mesoraco’s new contract was a nice move by the Reds, but the Indians’ decision to give Gomes six years and $23 million prior to the 2014 campaign now looks like an even bigger steal and quite the stroke of genius.
There were some front-office executives who were a bit surprised that the Indians were so aggressive in their efforts with Gomes, extending him after he seemingly came out of nowhere and delivered a strong all-around performance in 2013 while splitting catching duties (before taking over the role full time in August) with Carlos Santana.
In 2014, Gomes rewarded the Indians for their faith in him and showed that he wasn’t just a small sample wonder, delivering a .283 TAv, compiling 3.7 WARP, and once again proving to be a strong defender (and framer) behind the plate. By the end of the season, not many were questioning the decision to extend Gomes — and maybe they shouldn’t have doubted the move from the very start. As an organization, Cleveland has done a good job unearthing and developing hidden gems like Gomes, so perhaps the Indians deserve the benefit of the doubt when they make a move that on the surface appears to not make complete sense.
In fact, it’s a group of out-of-nowhere stars who have the Indians projected to challenge the Tigers in the AL Central this season. Led by the trio of Gomes, Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley, Cleveland last year pulled off a pretty rare feat by having three of its most valuable players emerge from relative obscurity.
The three aforementioned players had never been ranked in the top 100 as prospects by any of the three publications (MLB.com, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus) that Baseball-Reference tracks; each managed a WARP of 3.5 or greater in 2014, and are all under 30. The only other time that a trio of sub-30 teammates who were never ranked by one of these services (Baseball America started in 1990, so that’s how far we’re going back with this) managed to post WARPs of at least 3.5 in the same season was when Brad Hawpe (4.7), Matt Holliday (5.1) and Garrett Atkins (4.8) did so for the 2006 Colorado Rockies.
Brantley and Kluber also joined an exclusive list of teammates who were never ranked in a top 100 and finished in the top three in MVP and Cy Young voting in the same season.
Tim Hudson, Jason Giambi
Curt Schilling, Luis Gonzalez
Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley
This is all nice when it comes to fun facts, but does it really mean anything? By itself, it really doesn’t — it’s just a quirky bit of information you could drop on your friends when having a few beers and talking baseball. But what is interesting is that acquiring lesser-known prospects and bringing out the best in them has become a bit of a trend for Cleveland.
The 1990s Cleveland teams were largely built on top-tier bats, many of whom made their way through the Indians system. Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Albert Belle were all drafted by the organization, while Sandy Alomar, Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga were acquired via trade with little to no major-league experience under their belt. The Indians haven’t been nearly as successful in the draft since the turn of the century, and after a run of five straight years in the playoffs in the mid-to-late-90s, they’ve only seen October three times in the past 15 years.
After making it to the playoffs in 2013 and falling just three games shy last season, the Indians appear to have once put together a roster than could string together a clump of postseason berths. This time, it’s their ability to hit on trades, both big and small, that has propelled them.
The new Dombrowski?
Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski is generally regarded in baseball circles as winning every trade he’s involved in. Doug Fister is putting that theory to test, but nobody is perfect. While Dombrowski and his pro scouting staff certainly deserve credit for their ability to get the better end of most trades, the same can be said of Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti and their crew.
The Indians will need contributions in 2015 from guys like Jason Kipnis and Lonnie as well as the likes of Danny Salazar and Jose Ramirez (both of whom they acquired via international free agency), but some of the players expected to carry the biggest load this season italicized, below) were acquired via trade.
* July 26, 2008: Carlos Santana traded by the Los Angeles Dodgers with Jon Meloan to the Cleveland Indians for Casey Blake and cash.
* October 3, 2008: The Milwaukee Brewers sent Michael Brantley to the Cleveland Indians to complete an earlier deal made on July 7, 2008. July 7, 2008: The Milwaukee Brewers sent a player to be named later, Rob Bryson (minors), Zach Jackson and Matt LaPorta to the Cleveland Indians for CC Sabathia.
* July 29, 2009: Carlos Carrasco traded by the Philadelphia Phillies with Jason Knapp (minors), Jason Donald and Lou Marson to the Cleveland Indians for Ben Francisco and Cliff Lee.
* July 31, 2010: Corey Kluber traded as part of a three-team trade by the San Diego Padres to the Cleveland Indians. The San Diego Padres sent Nick Greenwood to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cleveland Indians sent Jake Westbrook to the St. Louis Cardinals. The St. Louis Cardinals sent Ryan Ludwick to the San Diego Padres.
* November 3, 2012: Yan Gomes traded by the Toronto Blue Jays with Mike Aviles to the Cleveland Indians for Esmil Rogers.
* December 11, 2012: Trevor Bauer traded as part of a three-team trade by the Cleveland Indians with Lars Anderson to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Arizona Diamondbacks sent Matt Albers, Trevor Bauer and Bryan Shaw to the Cleveland Indians. The Cincinnati Reds sent Didi Gregorius to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Cincinnati Reds sent Drew Stubbs to the Cleveland Indians. The Cleveland Indians sent Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Donald and cash to the Cincinnati Reds.
This offseason the Indians moved Steve Lubratich from pro scouting director to a special assistant role, and with the results the team has seen with its trades, Lubratich certainly deserves a lot of credit for the work he’s done over the last decade-plus. (Before the acquisitions above were trades for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo.) Paul Gillispie, who spent the past six seasons as the assistant scouting director, will take over Lubratich’s previous position and clearly has big shoes to fill. As one scouting director told me, these types of deals are getting harder and harder to make as teams tend to overvalue their own prospects and seem very reluctant to part with any minor-league talent who has shown success at High-A or above.
Scouting or player development … or luck?
As mentioned previously, the Indians haven’t been as successful in the draft as they were in the ‘90s. Francisco Lindor and Clint Frazier look like solid picks for the future of the organization, but prior to that were some high-profile misses. Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Beau Mills, Trevor Crowe, Jeremy Sowers, and Michael Aubrey were all top-15 picks in the past dozen years who have failed to develop into consistent contributors at the big-league level.
But Cleveland has managed to build a strong club without really hitting on high draft picks. As the scouting versus development debate always rages on, one name that kept popping up when I asked around the league about the Indians was Ross Atkins. Atkins has spent the past eight years in charge of player development with Cleveland, and even after his recent promotion to vice president of player personnel he’ll still head up the player development department. It’s that continuity that many around the league point to when it comes to the success the Indians are seeing with some lesser-known prospects.
When it comes to big improvements, the Indians have done a great job in the past two seasons. In 2014 they had three players in the top 30 in greatest year-to-year WARP improvement (Kluber, Brantley, Carrasco); in 2013, when they made the playoffs, they had four (Gomes, Kipnis, Ryan Raburn, Drew Stubbs). The player development staff certainly deserves a lot of credit, but as one source told me, it also takes quite a bit of luck to have this many players not only reach their ceilings but, in some cases, exceed what many thought was possible.
Patience is a virtue (that not all can afford to have)
The earlier mentioned deals aren’t all clear Indian wins, and there is plenty of debate to be had on whether they netted enough in both the Sabathia and Lee deals. But just a year ago it appeared Cleveland had received little to no value for a pair of Cy Young-caliber arms; since then the Indians have even managed to salvage those moves.
But to have players like Carrasco and Brantley scuffle for a few years and be able to stick with them because the staff sees talent? That’s not something every organization can get away with. As much as general managers would love to be able to work without outside pressures, it’s just not a reality in certain markets. The Indians benefit from not being under a constant media microscope, allowing them to be patient with a pitcher like Kluber — who struggled as a 26-year-old when given a dozen starts down the stretch in 2012 — and giving him the opportunity to deliver on the talent that those in the organization believed was there. Indeed, as a smaller-market team that won’t be fishing in the top tier of free agency and can’t afford to trade away top prospects for established veteran talent, the Indians almost have no choice but to be patient with these types of talents. The Rays seem to have done this well, with Ben Zobrist and James Shields being prime examples; neither was a top prospect and each took a few years before really hitting his stride in the bigs.
It’s primarily for that reason that it’s unlikely we see what the Indians are doing right now copied league-wide. Front offices are always looking for the next market inefficiency, but being extremely patient at the big-league level with the talent you believe in sometimes just isn’t a realistic option for certain franchises. There are plenty of negatives when it comes to trying to win in Oakland, Tampa Bay or Cleveland, but not constantly being under the national microscope appears to be one of the few benefits.
The Indians can’t afford to see Kluber or Brantley fall too far from their 2015 performances. But even if a slight dip is expected, a bounce back from Kipnis and a few breaks here and there could make up the difference, and the Indians could turn out to be the class of the American League. Sometimes all it takes is a little patience and good fortune.
(Thanks to Andrew Hopen for assistance with research on this piece.)
Sahadev Sharma is an author of Baseball Prospectus.