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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

Written by apokorny

January 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Indians Wheel and Deal Again

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After the latest trades, the Cleveland Indians are now the youngest team in baseball.

The Cleveland Indians organization has been hit by a whirlwind of events again this season. Just like last year, the events reached their peak at the trade deadline. Over the course of the last week, emotions have been running high.

The beginning of the week was not even like any other. Reason being that the New York Yankees came into town for their only trip to Cleveland this season. In addition, Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez was on the brink of a career milestone, sitting on 599 career home runs going into the four-game set. The Tribe marketing department went all-out to capitalize on any possible fan interest. For weeks prior to the series the organization promoted a special offer by Chuck Galeti, host of the Indians’ post-game call-in show, in which bleacher seats at Progressive Field were only $10 for the first game. The promotion appeared to be a success as the entire section of the stadium was sold out. A few hours before game time, the Tribe Twitter contingent announced another special deal. Lower reserved seats were advertised to those who follow @tribetalk on Twitter, also for only $10 and were only available at a certain ticket window at the stadium. As a result, over 27,000 fans were in attendance to witness a pitcher’s duel. The Indians led 2-1 for much of the game until Jake Westbrook gave up an eighth inning two-run homer to give a Yankees a 3-2 win in the opener. A-Rod, under the immense pressure of hitting his 600th career homer, was 0-for-4 on the game.

The next night, hoping to capitalize on the interest from the first game, the Indians Twitter deal was in effect again. The big team had also just called up Josh Tomlin to make his Major League debut. Another crowd of over 27,000 turned out to watch another duel as Tomlin went toe-to-toe with C.C. Sabathia, holding Alex Rodriguez to another 0-for-4 game as the Tribe evened the series with a 4-1 victory.

The Indians were riding high after the superb debut they got from Tomlin and stellar work from the bullpen. But Wednesday night the storm clouds rolled in, literally. As they had the previous two games, the Tribe marketing department put up the $10 Twitter deal, but this time the weather was working against it. Shortly before game time, a rainstorm hit, delaying the game for an hour. Once it began, Fausto Carmona took the mound and was bombed right out of the gate. He obviously was not in the form he has shown all season long. He looked more like the Fausto Carmona of the last two seasons. He struggled to find the plate early and when he did, the Yankees pounded him. If Manny Acta had not pulled him early, he could very well have given up A-Rod’s 600th bomb. Again the Tribe bullpen pitched well enough to shut the Yankees, including Rodriguez, down. But the Indians lineup could not figure out A.J. Burnett and were the victims of an 8-0 shutout. Unlike the previous two games, A-Rod appeared to take some of the pressure off himself and just try to hit the ball, instead of hitting it out of the park. As a result, he went 2-for-5 with a double and a run batted in. The only entertainment for Indians fans was a near riot in the bleachers when a fan was spotted wearing a Lebron James Miami Heat jersey. Luckily the fan was ejected from the ballpark before anything disastrous could occur.

The series finale was the game I was eyeing. In addition to Alex Rodriguez still searching for that 600th home run, it was also dollar dog night at Progressive Field. Once @tribetalk announced the lower reserve seats were again on sale to Twitter users for one more game, I was sold. I headed off to the ballpark in hopes of seeing the Indians finally win a game with me in attendance. The game started off well and good as the Tribe took a 1-0 lead in the first inning. However, the possibility for disaster struck when Mitch Talbot had to leave the game in the third inning with an injury. While the Tribe bullpen had been very solid in recent weeks, it was also overworked. The Indians held the Yankees down for five innings, but by the sixth inning, the pitching staff was worn down. The Yanks posted seven runs in the seventh inning and two more in the eighth to take a commanding lead. Meanwhile the Tribe again could not figure out the Yankees’ pitching. This time they were facing youngster Dustin Moseley, who was filling in for the injured Andy Pettitte. The game was so out of hand that Manny Acta was forced to put third baseman Andy Marte on the hill to pitch the ninth. Marte rewarded Acta with a 1-2-3 inning, the Indians’ only one of the game, including a strikeout of slugger Nick Swisher, and received a massive applause from the Tribe fans left in attendance. The pop was probably the biggest the Indians received the entire game and most definitely the loudest of Marte’s career. The Indians showed a bit of life in the ninth, scoring three runs, but the game was too far out of hand to make the comeback and lost the game 11-4. Once again Alex Rodriguez failed to hit his 600th career home run. While it would have been interesting to be in attendance for something so historic, I was glad he did not do it in Cleveland. The loss left me now 0-5 in attending Tribe games. Although the team cannot seem to play well when I am at the games, I always seem to enjoy the action. However, because of such a poor record, perhaps I should consider banning myself from Tribe games for the rest of the season.

In the midst of the Yankee hoopla was the buzz over the latest Tribe trade talks. Wednesday the Indians pulled another trigger, trading struggling third baseman Jhonny Peralta to the Detroit Tigers for a single-A pitcher. This comes as no surprise as Peralta was not in the Indians’ future plans and the Tigers were desperately in need of a corner man when Brandon Inge went down with an injury. While the moves continued after the Yankees left town, the Bronx Bombers were still heavily involved with Indian affairs. Although Austin Kearns did not play well during the series, he obviously has been good enough to convince the Yankees he can contribute to their playoff run. Kearns was shipped to New York for cash or a player to be named later. The trading with the Yankees did not stop there either, as they were willing to take on the contract of Kerry Wood in another deal for cash or a player to be named. Each of these deals made sense as the Tribe is in the middle of a massive youth movement. Wood was definitely not working out for the team to warrant his ten-million dollar contract. Trading Kearns, while he was showing some good production as a middle of the order hitter, allows the organization to see if Michael Brantley has finally figured himself out after one last tour through Triple-A Columbus. Finally, the Indians were involved in another three team deadline deal which sent Jake Westbrook to the St. Louis Cardinals. In return the Tribe got a minor league pitcher from the San Diego Padres, who was described as having a “projectable arm.”

While the reasons for these deals make sense, the execution and return show one of two things: the true value of the players being traded as seen by the receiving teams, or a lack of effort to get quality in return by Tribe management. Receiving players to be named later are rarely ever a good thing. Mitch Talbot was the player to be named in the Kelly Shoppach trade. While he has been pitching well, whether he is a quality starter or a fluke remains to be seen. Fans can only hope Mark Shapiro or Chris Antonetti can pull rabbits out of their hats with the players to be named that they get from the Yankees for Kearns and Wood. As for the Indians now, they are the youngest team in the league and many fans see them as a glorified Triple-A team playing in the Majors. As I have stated before, I enjoy watching the youngsters play. Many times they will be overmatched against seasoned veterans but it will give them a valuable learning experience. Many top organizations build the core of their Major League teams from within the organization. The Minnesota Twins did it with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Francisco Liriano. The Boston Red Sox did it with Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Kevin Youkilis. The Colorado Rockies did it with practically their entire roster. The Indians did it themselves once upon a time. They are capable of doing it again, even with cash strapped ownership such as the Dolans.

Credit for image: http://img.slate.com/media/72/020717_MarkShapiro.jpg