Cleveland Indians Still Hurting From Bad Luck

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July 27, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA: Cleveland Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner (48) hits a single in the fifth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s where we start.  In order to be successful in the long-term, a small-market team must not only develop cost-controlled star-caliber players, but also turn them into more cost-controlled, star-caliber talent when they inevitably become too expensive for the team to keep.  Often times this means trading an established talent for high-ceiling prospects.  Whether it’s done when the player has two years left of team control or right before the trade deadline of his walk year, the team receives a package of players they hope will blossom into successful major-leaguers.  Even if the player never gets traded, a star-caliber player will at least net a compensatory draft pick when he walks in free agency.  When a player received in one of these two ways develops into a successful major-leaguer, the team has successfully extended the value of its star-caliber player through another generation.  It is, of course, much easier to extend value by trading for a prospect who is somewhat close to the majors than it is to do so by developing a player drafted with a compensatory pick.  Regardless, the main point here is that it’s vital for a team to get at least some potential for future value for a player who blossoms into a star.

Small-market teams have a much smaller margin for error when making trades than larger-market teams do, simply because they rely on those trades to build winning teams.  Like I’ve said, they can’t simply go out and fill the holes on their rosters with whatever superstar happens to be on the free agent market that year.  So on the rare occasion that the Indians do manage to develop or acquire a superstar, they are more dependent on extending his value to the next generation than, say, the Yankees or the Angels.  For the same reason, it is important that these players retain a high level of value until they can be traded, or until the team can earn a draft pick as that player leaves.   Which is why the dramatic and downfall of three star players was so devastating to the franchise.

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Travis Hafner came to Cleveland when the Indians sent Ryan Drese and Einar Diaz to the Rangers.  No player in the trade was particularly notable at the time, but Hafner quickly developed into one of the best hitters in baseball.  Between 2004 and 2006, Hafner clubbed over a hundred home runs and compiled 15.7 fWAR.  During that time, his wOBA was never below .418, and his wRC+ was at least 158.  Hafner was an absolute force at the plate and kept getting better every year.  Then the injuries set in.  While 2007 wasn’t his greatest year, the Indians had hopes that he would return to form and signed him to a contract extension through 2012.  If Hafner had maintained his early-career level of production, he’d have given the 2008-2012 Indians a fighting chance.  At that point, the Indians would have had a flurry of ways to gain value from him.  They could have traded him at some point before or during 2012 for prospects, they could have picked up his 2013 option and then traded him for a nice return, or they could have kept him for the 2013 season and seen him contribute to the playoff run at a better production clip than Jason Giambi, possibly giving him a qualifying offer at the season’s end.  Instead, he fizzled out, and rather than gaining something from a player who was once MVP-caliber, they were left with the bill for his $2 million buyout.

Grady Sizemore alone would have seemed like a good return for Bartolo Colon.  During his rookie year he gave the Indians a 20/20 season, and repeated that rare feat for three more consecutive seasons (including a 30/30 in 2008) while winning a two gold gloves and making three All-Star Game appearances.  Overall, he hit 107 homers between 2005 and 2008 while stealing a whopping 115 bases and producing 26.9 fWAR, all while playing well above-average defense at a premium position.  In 2009, however, an elbow issue plagued him throughout the season and hurt his performance.  He was even put on the DL with elbow inflammation for a stretch, beginning on May 31st.  The timing of the elbow injury was devastating, particularly because it hurt his value at a time when the Indians could have traded him.  At the deadline in 2009, the Indians got great returns for Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, and could have gotten an equally overwhelming package for a healthy and productive Grady Sizemore.  Unfortunately, contending teams weren’t interested in an injured Sizemore who wasn’t producing like his former self, and the Indians kept him in hopes that he would rebound.  He never did.  After essentially paying him $5 million to rehab in 2012, the Indians cut ties with him without reaping any future value from his faded superstar status.