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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

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Written by apokorny

January 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm