Many might consider the Cleveland Indians to be a lost cause in 2010. The team ended this season with 12 rookies on the roster. Not to mention a slew of players (Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera, Chris Perez, Jake Westbrook, Adam Miller) needing surgery and/or physical rehabilitation. Not to mention a couple more players (Fausto Carmona, Jhonny Peralta) possibly needing a reorganization of their cerebral cortexes.
But truth be told, next year's Indians could very well bear a startling resemblance to the 1993 Cleveland Indians. Remember them? A team with a record of 76-86 that was nonetheless poised on the precipice of carving out a memorable piece of baseball history.
Hitters Let's compare 1993 with what we know about 2010, starting with the everyday lineup.
In 1993, young speedster Kenny Lofton began patrolling the outfield, hitting .325 with 70 stolen bases. In 2010, young outfielder Michael Brantley will play his first full year in the majors after hitting .313 in limited action this season and showing his speed in the field and on the basepaths.
In 1993, outfielder Manny Ramirez had yet to come into his own but was destined to become one of the most prolific hitters in team history. In 2010, Sizemore stands to regain his All-Star form after some off-season repairs to his body. A healthy Sizemore, we all know, is capable of hitting .280-.290 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs, especially if he is hitting in the three-hole.
In 1993, outfielder Albert Belle Jr. had a break-out year, batting .290 with 38 homers and 129 RBIs. In 2009, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo had a break-out year, batting .300 with 20 homers and 86 runs batted in. Could he improve upon those figures-say .300, 30 and 100-in 2010?
In 1993, second-baseman Carlos Baerga hit .321 with 21 homers and 114 RBIs. In 2010, Luis Valbuena will be playing his first full year in a Tribe uniform after hitting .250 with 10 homers and 31 RBI in just 368 at-bats this season.
In 1993, first-baseman Paul Sorrento hit .257 with 18 homers. In 2010, highly-touted Matt LaPorta will be playing his first full season in the majors after hitting .254 with 7 homers in just 52 games this season.
In 1993, catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. was poised on the brink of stardom. In 2010-fingers crossed-catcher Carlos Santana will see his first major-league action; and, according to most knowledgeable baseball people, his ceiling is way higher than Alomar's.
In 1993, the Tribe's shortstop was Felix Fermin. (Omar Vizquel didn't arrive to plug the two-hole until 1994.) In 2009, Cabrera moved from second base and came into his own, hitting .308 and plugging the long-vacant two-hole in the lineup.
See the similarities yet?
This is not to say that Choo can ever equal Belle's amazing 50-50 (2B-HR) production of 1995, or that Sizemore will record 165 RBIs like Ramirez once did, or that Valbuena will ever hit .321 like Baerga. But the fact that we can favorably compare the current players with some truly great Tribesmen of the past certainly gives us something to look forward to.
Pitchers The 1993 pitching staff had a team ERA of 4.58 (not quite as putrid as the 2009 ERA of 5.06) for fourth-worst in the American League. But through new signings, maturation and evolution, by 1995 it had become the best in the American League with a team ERA of 3.83. Today, the 2009 staff, believe it or not, looks strikingly similar to the 1993 staff.
The 1993 team leader in victories with 10 was Jose Mesa, a starter who later became the most effective closer in team history. This year's team leader in victories was David Huff, who won 11 in his first major league season at the comparatively tender age of 25.
The only other pitcher to have a decent season in 1993 was Eric Plunk (4-5, 2.79 ERA), who later in the '90s became a stabilizing force in an extremely effective bullpen. The other leaders in innings pitched in 1993 are now long-forgotten: Tom Kramer, Mark Clark, Jeff Mutis and Jeremy Hernandez.
In 2009, starters Aaron Laffey (7-9, 4.44) and Justin Masterson (4-10, 4.52) actually had better seasons than 1993's Charles Nagy (2-6, 6.29)-who, incidentally, was destined to become the Tribe's most consistent starter throughout the rest of the '90s.
The 2009 team even has a leg up on that 1993 staff: a bona fide closer in Kerry Wood.
‘The Diff' However (and this is a big "however"), it is folly to try and compare the owner and management of 1993 with the current group. Sad to say, it's more of a contrast than a comparison.
In 1993, owner Dick Jacobs was not afraid to spend money. In 2009, owner and CEO Larry Dolan and president Paul Dolan were forced to become just a wee bit miserly because their right-hand man-erstwhile general manager Mark Shapiro-proved himself no John Hart by anchoring the payroll with injury-prone, unproductive players (who shall remain nameless).
In the mid-'90s, through a combination of astute talent evaluation and good old-fashioned luck, Hart managed to sculpt an American League powerhouse with the addition (through trades and free agency) of veterans like third-baseman Travis Fryman, designated-hitter Eddie Murray, and pitchers Dennis Martinez and Orel Herschiser. No small feat, that-one that we are admittedly hard-pressed to expect of Shapiro, whose evaluation of free agents and draftees has so far proven pretty abysmal.
Much Ado About Nothing Today, we find ourselves making much ado about (1) the perceived ineptitude of ousted manager Eric Wedge and (2) the man Shapiro might choose as Wedge's successor. In the overall scheme of things, though, it probably doesn't matter a hill of beans who becomes the team's new manager.
As much as we love Mike Hargrove to this day, in 1993 he just happened upon a team that was becoming rock solid from top to bottom, thanks to Jacobs and Hart. He finagled here and there every once in a while, but how could anybody with any major league managerial experience lose-with Lofton, Jim Thome, Baerga, Bell and Manny in the lineup and Dennis Martinez, Hershiser, Mesa and Nagy at the top of their games? (Really!)
At the other end of the spectrum, Wedge was never really provided top talent during his seven-year turn at the helm. And what few stars he did tutor were eventually traded away. (Have we mentioned the names CC Sabathia, Clifton Phifer Lee and Victor Martinez yet?)
It's been said that a manager will win or lose no more than half-a-dozen games during the course of a season. Hell, not even Casey Stengel could squeeze water out of the rock that was the expansion New York Mets in 1962 (a dismal 40-120 record). And he had Marvelous Marv Throneberry at first base!
Anyway, back to the subject at hand.
No matter who Shapiro (and, we suppose, the Dolans) choose as the Tribe's new manager, he will be charged with accomplishing just two things: (1) nurturing the young players to their maximum potential and (2) providing some stability to the everyday lineup, which the fidgety Wedge never accomplished.
To that end, the new manager should install next year's starting lineup on the very first day of training camp and leave it be!
1. Michael Brantley, LF 2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS 3. Grady Sizemore, CF 4. Shin-Soo Choo, RF 5. Travis Hafner, DH 6. Matt LaPorta, 1B 7. Luis Valbuena, 2B 8. Carlos Santana (that's right!), C 9. Jhonny Peralta (or Who Knows?), 3B
As for pitching, wouldn't a free agent or two like Erik Bedard, Jarrod Washburn, Joel Piniero or even John Lackey look good in an Indians uniform, to go along with Huff, Laffey and Westbrook?
So, you see, if the Dolans and Shapiro can somehow come up with a few extra bucks to sign a couple serviceable starting pitchers and then find the moxie to go with the youngsters, 2010 could be the start of something beyond big. Maybe something like 1994 ... and 1995 ... and 1997. So while we're spending the winter bitching about the Browns and applauding the Cavs, let's just dream (rather than nightmare) about the Indians, shall we?