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Another Old-Timer in the Clubhouse

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giambi

On February 9 the Cleveland Indians signed 42-year-old free agent slugger Jason Giambi to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Since the last few years have been seen as the twilight of his career, especially since he was nearly named the new manager of the Colorado Rockies, not many people in Cleveland expected Giambi to make the Opening Day roster.

However, Tribe manager Terry Francona is on record saying he likes Giambi’s leadership ability. As a result, the former American League Most Valuable Player is on the team to at least start the season. The question is, other than leadership, how much more production can we expect out of him?

The Cleveland Indians have a trend in my lifetime of signing or trading for stars of the past whose best days were behind them, dating back to when I was a child.

The first instance I clearly remember occurring was in 1990 when they signed 36-year-old Keith Hernandez from the New York Mets. Hernandez was a former MVP, five-time all-star, and 10-time gold glover in his career. Little did I know as a naïve seven-year old that he also suffered debilitating injuries in the years prior to when the Tribe signed him and he was a shell of his former self.

Hernandez was the primary first baseman on that team until rookie Carlos Baerga was ready to be promoted to take over third base and slide Brook Jacoby over to the other corner. Hernandez played in only 43 games for the Indians that season, hitting only .200 with one home run and eight RBIs. He retired after the season. The Indians finished 77-85.

For the next few seasons the Indians emphasized a youth movement, straying away from players past their primes like Hernandez. The next time they did this was 1994 when they signed Eddie Murray.

Like Hernandez, Murray was a star in the late 1970s and all throughout the 80s. Unlike Hernandez, however, the former Rookie of the Year and eight-time all-star was called upon to be a veteran piece to their young lineup. Instead of playing the field, Murray was the primary designated hitter. He proved he still had some gas left in his 37-year-old tank.

Murray played two and a half seasons with the Tribe, hitting .281 with 50 home runs and 203 runs batted in over 309 games as a middle of the order hitter on the Indians’ first American League champion team since 1954.

Since the lightning in a bottle captured with Murray, the Indians went on to sign other past stars that were, like Hernandez, were very forgettable.

Dave Winfield, like Murray was a former multi-time all-star and MVP candidate in the late 70s and during the 80s. In 1993 he was still a productive hitter. When the Indians picked him up two years at later age 43 his tank had run out. Winfield played only 43 games for the Indians in 1995, hitting only .191 with two homers and four RBIs. He did pick himself up one last American League championship ring as part of that World Series team before retiring at the end of the season.

The Indians went back to the senior citizens center in 1997 when they called upon 35-year-old Kevin Mitchell for an aging veteran presence on their last World Series team. On a team full of hitters in their prime, Mitchell was not needed in the lineup, as he played in only 20 games. Like Winfield, he did collect one last league championship ring before his retirement.

The next season was Cecil Fielder’s turn. Though he was only 34 at the time, he was still overweight and lost in another crowded lineup of hitters. He was clearly past his prime and stepped up to the plate in only 14 games in 1998.

The following season, in the midst of their fifth straight playoff run, the Indians traded for Harold Baines. At 40-years-old, Baines was showing he could still hit at a Major League level. With the Indians he hit .271 with 22 RBIs in 28 games and even hit .357 in four playoff games that season. However, he was granted free agency by that offseason, he went back to Baltimore, was traded to the White Sox where he began his career, and retired two years later.

In 2001 the Indians found another version of Eddie Murray in Ellis Burks. At 36-years-old, Burks could still hit a ton and as the primary designated hitter, did not need to do much else. In a little over two years with the Tribe, Burks hit for a .287 average with 66 homeruns and 193 runs batted in. However, his first year with the club was the last that they saw any success. A 3-2 loss in the division series to the Seattle Mariners that October saw the end of the dominant Cleveland Indians dynasty over the American League Central that spanned seven years. They dipped below .500 the next season for the first time since 1993 and have yet to recapture any sustained success.

Since Burks, the Cleveland Indians have not gone to the well with many trades or signings of aging, past their prime hitting stars, save for bringing back Kenny Lofton for their playoff run in 2007 and Jim Thome in 2011. In 2005 Juan Gonzalez saw one at-bat in which he strained his hamstring running out a ground ball and called it quits later in the season. But that was all.

Looking at this history, it is quite clear Jason Giambi was not called upon to provide like Eddie Murray and Ellis Burks did. Rather, he is a veteran presence in the clubhouse much like Dave Winfield, Kevin Mitchell, and Cecil Fielder. There is a potential he could produce in a part-time role like Harold Baines did at his age, but that remains to be seen. The difference is the others played for teams with proven playoff caliber lineups. While the 2013 Indians have definite potential, it is a team with much turnover. For however long Giambi is on this team, he will be a valuable mentor and player-coach type to back up Terry Francona as he leads this young team into the 2013 season.

Credit for photo: www.espn.com

Tribe Fest Review

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Tribe Fest

A winter event the Cleveland Indians have held in the past which I enjoyed was Tribe On Tour. Several players, the manager, broadcasters, mascots, and the Fun Bunch made their way to a few different malls across northeast Ohio to sign autographs, allow for photographs, and answer questions from interested fans.

This year the organization announced it would not be holding the mall tour. Instead, the Indians introduced Tribe Fest, a more elaborate version of Tribe On Tour held in the basement area of Progressive (Jacobs) Field.

Though I enjoyed the mall tour, mainly because it was free as opposed to a $10 charge, Tribe Fest sounded much better in theory for a few reasons. First, Tribe On Tour was only held at each venue for only a few hours while Tribe Fest was slated to run for an entire afternoon into the early evening.

Secondly, the main attraction for Tribe On Tour was the autograph session with the players. As a result, in addition to the short amount of time, fans had to arrive two hours before the event began to ensure a good spot in line and a timely exit.

Finally, there was only so much a mall event had to offer. Holding the event at Progressive Field appeared to solve all of the problems I just mentioned. Tribe Fest boasted autograph sessions which ran for the entire duration of the event, photograph opportunities, baseball skills clinics for children to attend, and full access for self-guided tours of the Indians clubhouse. Tom Hamilton and Jim Rosenhaus conducted interviews with players, alumni Mudcat Grant and Tito Francona, and Chris Antonetti. The team barber even gave interested fans their own personalized haircuts.

I purchased tickets for myself and one of my friends to attend the Sunday session of Tribe Fest. Despite hearing and reading reports over social media that the Saturday event was overly crowded and horrendously unorganized, I kept the faith that Tribe Fest would still be worth my time and money.

After seeing pictures on twitter of a lengthy line outside Gate A before they were opened, my friend and I made sure to arrive more than a half hour early. Unfortunately with Sunday came an extreme drop in temperature, making for a very frigid wait. Luckily those in charge of the event made the decision to have mercy on those of us who arrived early and allowed us to enter a warmer tunnel until the noon start time.

As Tribe Fest began it was clear the problems from the day before were addressed. Tickets were handed out for each autograph session as opposed to fans in attendance flocking to the area. Upon arriving to the autograph area, staff members stood by, directing attendees to a designated line. Also, to avoid terribly long lines, players listed in back to back sessions on the program were included in two sessions in an effort to prevent fans from missing their favorite players.

At first glance everything seemed well organized. My friend and I quickly made our way through the first autograph session with Nick Hagadone, Corey Kluber, and Lonnie Chisenhall, who was a last second replacement for Carlos Santana, who chose to move to another session.

Next we moved on to the clubhouse tour, which was an impressive sight. I came to find out why Jason Kipnis and Vinnie Pestano get along so well.

Jason Kipnis and Vinnie Pestano are locker neighbors.

Jason Kipnis and Vinnie Pestano are locker neighbors.

Thanks to my friend who holds a Key Bank card, we were allowed access to the KeyBank Lounge (the visitor’s clubhouse), which provided food and other autograph sessions, first with rookie pitcher Cody Allen and next with Jason Kipnis. I was relieved to find out Kipnis would be signing in the Key Lounge because his group session was scheduled for the same time as the Tribe Fest Tweetup, held in the Terrace Club, which I was set to attend. Kipnis is one of my favorite players and, after missing out on his autograph at Tribe On Tour last year, I was determined to get the chance to finally meet him at Tribe Fest.

Kipnis

The Tweetup, attended by those who RSVP’d by email earlier in the week, was host to a Town Hall gathering atmosphere. Mark Shapiro and Terry Francona addressed the crowd while fielding questions from the fans. Excellent insight was provided. In addition I saw many familiar faces from the social media spectrum and matched some new people to the twitter names as well. Overall the two men in charge of the team appeared to leave those who attended the Tweetup with a positive outlook.

ShapiroFrancona

From this writer’s perspective, Tribe Fest was a complete success. There was something for every one of the fans to enjoy at their own pace. I did not get to experience everything the event had to offer. However, that was of little concern to me.

Because I did not attend Saturday’s event, I am not personally aware of the problems that were reported by those who did. But from what I gathered from those I met who were there on Saturday, it was a distinct improvement. There were attendees who still felt the event on Sunday was too crowded. However, large crowds have never been a problem to me.

I am thankful to the Cleveland Indians organization for holding Tribe Fest instead of the mall tour that I attended the last two years. It was well worth the $10 price of admission and I hope it lasts for many years to come.

A Championship Caliber Lineup

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The last time the Cleveland Indians were anywhere near the level of the New York Yankees was in 2007. That year was the Tribe’s last winning season, let alone postseason berth. They had just defeated the Yankees 3-1 in the American League Divisional Series.

Since then the Indians have gone down the complete opposite path as their counterpart. They began a rebuilding project while the Yankees spent millions of dollars on Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett en route to their first World Series victory since 2000.

So why am I talking about the Indians and the Yankees in the same writing? Because with the Indians’ rebuilding project and latest array of moves to build a new lineup for the upcoming season, I am reminded of the last time the New York Yankees had something that resembled a true dynasty.

As I mentioned, 2009 was the first time the Yankees won a World Series in nine years. What I did not mention was 2000 was the last of three straight World championships and fourth in five years for the Bronx Bombers. The ironic part is those three championship teams were hardly bombers.

Many teams aspire to have at least two “bash brothers,” the term the late 80s Oakland A’s coined for Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. These are players with extreme power, capable of hitting 30 or more homers each season. Some teams even try to litter their lineups with them. But as the Texas Rangers have proven in the last three seasons, lineups filled with power hitters do not necessarily win championships.

The New York Yankees, on the other hand, won their four World Series titles in the 90s and 2000 with a different strategy.

None of those four teams had a hitter in its lineup eclipse 30 home runs. Bernie Williams had the highest home run total in that span with exactly 30 in 2000.

Furthermore, none of those four championship teams had a player steal more than 31 bases, accomplished by Chuck Knoblauch in 1998.

So how did the Yankees win four World Series titles in a five year span without a monster basher or someone with blinding speed? A healthy balance would be the answer.

For starters, at least half of the players in every lineup hit for high average. In 1996, all but one player in the Yankees’ lineup hit .292 or higher.

Secondly, while those lineups were not littered with power hitters, almost every single player hit at least ten homers. In 1998 and ‘99 seven every day hitters totaled more than 17 round trippers. In 2000, six players hit 15 or more.

Finally, each of those teams had at least two players steal 14 or more bases. The ’98 championship team had five players do so. However, the highest total on the ’96 team was 17 by Bernie Williams.

What do the Cleveland Indians have to do with this New York Yankees World Series dynasty? In 2007, the last time the team was a contender, the lineup resembled those Yankees.

First of all, six of the nine regular batters hit for a respectable .270 average or higher. Victor Martinez was the leading hitter on the team with a .301 average.

Secondly, six of the regulars hit at least 18 home runs. Five hit 21 or more. However, again Victor Martinez was the leader with 25.

Finally, only one person in the lineup stole more than 14 bases. Grady Sizemore topped out at 33.

That Indians team was one win away from the World Series, in which it would have been a heavy favorite to win it all. While heavy blame is placed on Fausto Carmona and C.C. Sabathia for laying eggs in their final playoff outings, equal blame could be placed on the lineup for not doing its part. I know the phrase “pitching wins championships” very well. In fact I am a firm believer in it. But it also helps to have a strong, balanced lineup to counteract opposing pitching.

While that lineup resembled the Yankees’ four championship teams, it was not nearly the caliber of it. What was missing from the Indians? A strong, experienced core. The four Yankee teams all had the same core in Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, and Paul O’Neill. They were also managed by Joe Torre.

The core of the 2007 Indians team, comprised of Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and Jhonny Peralta had not played together as long as the Yankee counterparts. Furthermore, manager Eric Wedge was also very inexperienced.

Which brings me to the present. The Cleveland Indians have the youngest team in the Major Leagues. But with its youth it also appears to be building a strong core. Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, and until Francisco Lindor arrives, Asdrubal Cabrera make up that core. This postseason the front office has added veterans Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, Drew Stubbs, and Mike Aviles to the team along with new, experienced manager Terry Francona to help the core.

In this new and improved Indians lineup I see the potential to resemble the New York Yankee lineups that won four World Series titles in five years. There is no visible extreme power to date. Mark Reynolds is capable of hitting more than 40 homers, but has not done so in four years. Nick Swisher’s career high is 35 seven years ago. Since then he has not hit 30, even playing with a short porch at Yankee Stadium. However, each of the regulars in the lineup, mainly the core I mentioned, are capable of hitting at least 10 homers.

The Indians teams of late have also not been known for their blinding speed. The fastest player on this new team is clearly recently added Drew Stubbs, who has stolen at least 30 bases in the last three seasons. It is well known in those seasons he has had issues reaching base. But perhaps a change of scenery will do him good and he will improve his play at the plate. Jason Kipnis stole 31 bases to lead the team this past season. Though his career high is only 12, I firmly believe Michael Brantley, with his ability to get on base, has the potential to swipe at least 30 bases himself each season. Mike Aviles has also stolen at least 10 bases in a season four times in his career.

The problem with the lineup that I will now mention is the ability to hit for a consistently high average. In recent years Asdrubal Cabrera has been an all-star caliber hitting shortstop to start the season, then tailed in the second half due to poor conditioning.

Carlos Santana, in his first two full seasons, struggled at the beginning but caught fire late. This past season his struggle could be attributed to a concussion he suffered early in the year.

Jason Kipnis, like Cabrera, was an all-star caliber hitter for much of the first half but also slumped badly for most of the second half. He has all the tools to make an excellent three hitter, though much of his success was found in the two hole.

The Indians appear to be full speed ahead with Lonnie Chisenhall as the full-time third baseman. He has not set the world on fire in his short stints in the Major League. But the talent and potential is there. Now it seems we will finally get to see what he is capable of with consistent plate appearances.

Michael Brantley, other than Shin-Soo Choo, who was dealt to Cincinnati, was the team’s most consistent hitter. Despite his struggles in this spot, I truly feel like Brantley has finally gained the confidence to be the team’s leadoff hitter.

What I am saying is when I look at the young core plus the newly added pieces, I see enormous potential. Like the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s, it does not appear to boast explosive power or mind blowing speed. It does suggest that it has the capability of producing high batting averages, on-base percentages, and runs; all statistics it has sorely lacked the last few years.

With Terry Francona, a manager with two World Series rings, at the helm, he can mold this young squad together with the veterans that were added into something special.

I am not saying it will happen this coming season. In fact, I would be pleasantly surprised if it did. I am saying with experience and an opportunity to gel under a new, highly esteemed manager, a bright future lies ahead for the Cleveland Indians team.

How does this new lineup look for Opening Day?

2013 Indians lineup

Written by apokorny

January 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm