Cleveland Indians New Era Can Break Championship Curse

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You can make the case that Cleveland is the most depressing sports town in the entire United States of America.  Sports Illustrated recently did a “Cleveland Issue,” in which they created a single-elimination tournament between all of the biggest disappointments in Cleveland sports history.  It included The Decision, The Shot, The Fumble, and plenty of other moments that make any Cleveland fan shudder.  The most painful moment I can remember is Edgar Renteria’s walk-off hit off Charles Nagy in the 11th inning of Game Seven in the 1997 World Series, but hey, take your pick.  There certainly are plenty. (If you really want to torture yourself, you can watch that entire awful game again here.)

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What magnifies each one of these increasingly agonizing moments is the simple concept that they hurt (or outright ruin) a shot at an elusive championship.  We fans keep waiting and hoping for that championship to bring a reign of sports glory which will finally end the seemingly perpetual drought that has been starving the city of Cleveland for as long as most of us can remember.  In case you weren’t already aware, this past Saturday (Dec. 27, 2014) marks the 50th anniversary of the Browns winning the 1964 NFL Championship.  Since that day 50 years ago, we have concurrently endured 44 basketball seasons, 46 football seasons, and 50 baseball seasons that ultimately ended in failure.  140 heartbreaks that have made many Clevelanders jaded or skeptical.  I guess I can’t blame those people.  Why should we believe our teams will ever be winners if half a century of history has taught us otherwise?

Nov 19, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers mascot Moondog introduces 2014 American League Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians during a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Because this time it’s different.  I realize that seems like just some phrase we have to tell ourselves every year in order to stomach another season of anguish, but I have a major reasons to think that LeBron isn’t Cleveland’s only hope to break the Cleveland curse.

The Indians are in very good shape right now.  The 25-man roster on opening day projects to be as follows:

Rotation:  RHP Corey Kluber, RHP Carlos Carrasco, RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Gavin Floyd, RHP Danny Salazar

Bullpen:  CL Cody Allen, RP Bryan Shaw, RP Scott Atchison, RP Marc Rzepczynski, RP Zach McAllister, RP Nick Hagadone, RP Kyle Crockett

Lineup:  C Yan Gomes, 1B Carlos Santana, 2B Jason Kipnis, SS Jose Ramirez, 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, LF Michael Brantley, CF Michael Bourn, RF Brandon Moss, DH Nick Swisher

Bench:  C Roberto Perez, UT Mike Aviles, UT Ryan Raburn, OF David Murphy

Assuming the Indians trade Ryan Raburn or David Murphy before opening day (hopefully both), there will be an extra spot on the roster for youngster Zach Walters or an extra arm in the bullpen like C.C. Lee (again, hopefully both).  Regardless, the roster looks very strong this year.  There are no glaring weaknesses.  Certainly some spots can be improved.  Chisenhall projects to be a below-average third baseman, the bullpen is solid but not quite elite, and to expect any good production from Nick Swisher would be relying on a rebound.  But the overall feel of the roster is that this is a team that could contend for a championship.  The pitching staff is spectacular, the lineup is well above-average, and the bullpen is certainly sound enough to trust a lead with against even the most powerful lineups.

Sep 22, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Scott Atchison (48) and Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes (10) celebrate the Indians 4-3 win over the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The lineup certainly something to be confident in.  The Cleveland Indians organization has been capable of building strong lineups in the past, however, and the championship still hasn’t come.  This time around, it’s not the lineup; it’s the way it was built.  Take a look at the way the players listed above were acquired.

Trade (12):  Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, Michael Brantley, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Hagadone, Carlos Santana, Brandon Moss

Draft/International Signing (7):  Danny Salazar, Cody Allen, Kyle Crockett, Roberto Perez, Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jose Ramirez

Free Agent Signing (6):  Gavin Floyd, Scott Atchison, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, David Murphy, Ryan Raburn

That the Indians acquired very few of their players (and arguably none of the most exciting ones) via free agent signings is none too surprising.  The team’s budget has been one of the lowest in baseball since the Dolans family took over ownership of the franchise, and since then the Indians have just been shopping the bargains for the most part.  That’s unlikely to change until the team has a few more winning seasons behind them and fans presumably turn up at the gates in response.

That half of those players were acquired in trades is also unsurprising.  For a long time, the Indians have been great at getting star players in trades.  Even though they were criticized for a long time for the trades of C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, those trades eventually yielded Brantley and Carrasco, respectively.  Other trades have turned out to be more lopsided.  The Indians got Gomes and Aviles for Esmil Rogers, and they received Bauer and Shaw for one year of Shin-Soo Choo (not to mention reasonably productive seasons from the now-departed Drew Stubbs and Matt Albers).  The Indians also got Hagadone as part of a package for Victor Martinez (which also netted the Indians some solid seasons from Justin Masterson; Masterson was traded last season for outfielder James Ramsey, who figures to start the season at AAA but could factor into the big-league club’s 2015 plans), McAllister came from a trade of Austin Kearns of all people, and the Indians received Kluber in a three-team trade for Jake Westbrook.  Moss and Rzepczynski were each acquired by trading one minor-league player.

The really great takeaway is that there are more originally drafted players on the roster going into 2015 than any year in recent memory.  The seven drafted and developed players projected to be on the roster is three more than last year.  This comforting evidence that the Cleveland Indians organization is getting better at drafting and developing quality major-leaguers.  In looking at the minor-league rosters, the Indians have a very strong farm system as well, including Tyler Holt, Francisco Lindor and Ramsey, all of whom will start the year in AAA.  At AA they have Giovanni Urshela, Tony Wolters, Joseph Colon, Anthony Gallas, Tyler Naquin, Cody Anderson and Erik Gonzalez, to name a few.  And the lower levels of the system are stocked with an absurd amount of high-ceiling talent, including Clint Frazier, Francisco Mejia, Dylan Baker and a 2014 draft class that was ranked either first or second in all of baseball by four different credible sources.  That class includes Bradley Zimmer, Justus Sheffield, Mike Papi, Grant Hockin and Bobby Bradley.  You can click on the names you don’t recognize for more information, or research them by checking out MLB Pipeline’s website, which includes a page for the top 20 Indians prospects.

Dec 8, 2014; San Deigo, CA, USA; Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona addresses the media at MLB Winter Meetings at Manchester Grand Hyatt. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Like I said, we’ve known for a while that the current Indians organization is very good at getting value out of trades.  Their proprietary player analysis program, DiamondView, helps the team evaluate minor-league players and project their career path.  Because of this program, the team got Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips for a year of Bartolo Colon.  They got Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera for practically nothing.  Now that same organization has suddenly become good at drafting and developing players, too.  That’s really exciting news.  But that’s not even the extent of it.

We’ve looked at reasons for optimism in the lineup and the front office, but there’s one more area that the Indians have a distinct advantage over other clubs.  The coaching staff is phenomenal right now.  Terry Francona, as we all know, is a two-time World Series Champion manager who has a lot of respect around the baseball world and is known for getting the most out of his players. The Indians lost bullpen coach Kevin Cash (who left to become Joe Maddon’s replacement for the Tampa Bay Rays), which is likely a larger blow to Cleveland than is acknowledged, mostly because the team’s pitching coach, Mickey Callaway, has quickly proven himself to be practically a miracle worker after his work with Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer.  Sandy Alomar Jr. has helped to turn Gomes into one of the best catchers in the game. And these coaches aren’t going anywhere for the 2015 season, at least.

The Indians now have a savvy front office, a lineup with enormous potential, and a coaching staff that knows how to bring that potential to fruition.  And almost every single one of those people is under contract through at least 2017.  That kind of synergy over that period of time is downright scary.  Then again, maybe it’s not so scary for a team that has been waiting for its championship for 50 years.

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