In 1976 the Cleveland Indians signed some free agents, and traded away about half of the team for some brand new guys. The results were underwhelming.
The winter of 1976 was perhaps the most active offseason in Cleveland Indians history.
The Indians finished 1976 at 81-78, their best season in years. They had a good rotation, led by 16-game winner Pat Dobson, up and coming starter Dennis Eckersley, and the three pitchers received in a trade for Gaylord Perry – Rick Waits, Jackie Brown and Jim Bibby.
The rest of the hitters were below league average – 1B was an issue, Boog Powell was done. The keystone combination was slightly below average at 2B (Kuiper) and miserable at SS (Duffy). RF (Charlie Spikes) was still an issue.
A couple of trades, with the right strategy, would mean great improvement.
The Indians made the trades. The strategy, if there was one, was questionable at best.
The Expansion Draft
Things got started on November 5. The Blue Jays and Mariners picked players from the AL rosters. The Indians, wanting to protect their young talent, protected players like Alan Ashby, Rick Cerone and Alfredo Griffin (all of whom wound up being Toronto Blue Jays).
This meant someone had to be unprotected. That someone was 36-year-old DH Rico Carty – who just so happened to be the best hitter on the 1976 team. Carty was selected in the first round by the Blue Jays. The Jays figured they could find a sap to trade him to later. They did. The Jays also pulled this trick with Al Fitzmorris, a thoroughly average starting pitcher from Kansas City.
The Indians immediately traded Alan Ashby for Fitzmorris, giving the Tribe six starting pitchers.
In the second round, Stan Thomas went to the Mariners – giving the Tribe one less bullpen arm.
The really big deal:
On November 19 the Indians signed Wayne Garland to a 10-year, $2.3 million contract. This gave them a seven-man rotation – and still one less hitter than they had the year before.
A really small deal
On December 3 the Indians made a move to “address” their 1B gap – trading for Bill Melton. If Boog Powell was done, Melton, a former AL home run leader in (1971) was extra crispy. He had hit six home runs for the Angels in the prior year, which was six more than he hit for Cleveland in 1977.
Bringing back Rico – at a price
On December 6 the Indians traded Rick Cerone and John Lowenstein to Toronto to get Rico Carty back.
Let’s review: The Indians protected Cerone from the expansion draft. They left Carty unprotected, figuring the Blue Jays wouldn’t take them.
What they didn’t figure on was that the Blue Jays knew how stupid the Indians were. The Blue Jays took Carty, then got the Indians to trade them Cerone plus Lowenstein to get Carty back. Of course when you consider that Lowenstein had negative value offensively and defensively (at least until he got to Baltimore in the mid 80s), the trade makes a little more sense. Or maybe not.
The Indians now had broken even on their hitters, and had a seven-man rotation. This lasted for two days.
On December 8, faced with only having Ray Fosse behind the dish, and realizing that Fosse was not money in the bank health-wise, the Indians traded George Hendrick to SD for Johnny Grubb, Hector Torres and Fred Kendall.
There was also the issue that Hendrick was getting expensive, so they had to move him. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Johnny Grubb played awhile then got flipped to Texas for minor leaguers – and in fact minor leaguers who weren’t good enough to play in Cleveland in the late 70s.
Torres never played in Cleveland, instead getting traded to Toronto to bring back (drum roll) John Lowenstein.
Kendall caught for a little over a year – then got traded to Boston along with Dennis Eckersley, because let’s face it – it’s not enough to give away a Hall of Fame pitcher to the Red Sox – you need to throw in a starting catcher as well.
Hendrick went on to hit 174 home runs, finish in the top 15 in the NL MVP race four years in a row (1980-1983) and win two Silver Slugger awards. Of course he didn’t do that for San Diego – because they traded him to St. Louis for Eric Rasmussen, who was awful.
Then St. Louis, once they were done with Hendrick, traded him to Pittsburgh for John Tudor and Brian Harper, making for a fine chapter in Pittsburgh sports history. But Pittsburgh is home of the Steelers, so who cares? I’m glad they gave away Tudor just before he got good.
Back to the story
At this point, the Indians had seven starting pitchers, a drop in the OF (Grubb instead of Hendrick), and one less relief pitcher. They also still had a huge gap at 1B. (Gap in terms of performance. Size-wise, they were more than covered, given that Boog Powell was approaching 300 at this point.)
On December 10 the long-term 1B gap and starting pitcher glut was addressed in a great trade – Jackie Brown to Montreal for Andre Thornton. Thornton took over 1B and was immediately the best hitter on the team, a title he held for several years.
Satisfied that they had built a better mousetrap, the Indians took the rest of the year off. But not the rest of the offseason.
On February 10, 1977 the Indians signed a low-priced free agent – OF Paul Dade, formerly of California. Dade held down an outfield spot for a couple of years, and was then sent to San Diego for Dudley Michael Hargrove.
On March 30 the Indians chose between Melton and Powell – Powell was released. Powell caught on with the Dodgers, and hit as many home runs as Melton did (0).
Up to March 30 I was fairly (stupidly) optimistic. You had a team that had gone 81-78, and they had added Fitzmorris – who pitched for KC, so he must have been good… and they had Boog Powell, who I naively thought could bounce back to his 1975 form… and then if Bill Melton started hitting, well, we wouldn’t miss George Hendrick at all.
I didn’t know much about Andre Thornton, other than I had his Chicago Cubs rookie card, which called him Andy Thornton.
Rico Carty was back – and he would hit again.
Plus there was the up and coming second baseman (Kuiper) and center fielder (Manning). I thought 1977 might just be the year.
And best of all – we had a 20-game winner – Wayne Garland. I remember actually waking up from a bad dream in the winter of 1976-1977 – and telling my brother that I had the stupidest dream – that Wayne Garland actually had a bad year for the Indians. We laughed – that could never happen…
Garland (20 wins), Dobson (16), Eckersley (13 and good for more in the next year, I was sure), Bibby (13) and Fitzmorris (15) would be the core of a great rotation.
Yep, things were coming together for the Tribe…
Just before the season got started, things got interesting when Rico Carty started a feud with manager Frank Robinson. This, had I been paying attention, was another bad omen.
When the season opened things went badly:
Six starting pitchers weren’t nearly enough: Pat Dobson was done – he wound up 3-12, 6.14. Fitzmorris wasn’t much better, going 6-10, 5.41. Garland pitched his arm off, starting 38 games, going 13-19. The 283 innings he pitched took their toll over the next few years.
Once things went poorly – the Indians traded even more: Dave LaRoche, who had slumped (and was making $85,000) to California for Bruce Bochte (who immediately replaced Charlie Spikes), Sid Monge (who replaced LaRoche) and $250,000 (which eventually went to Wayne Garland).
Monge was part of a parade of interesting relievers in 1977. The parade of relievers included:
- Draft choice Larry Anderson – later traded for the infamous Larry Littleton… and then even later traded by the Houston Astros to Boston for Jeff Bagwell…
- Cardell Camper, who had been acquired in early 1976. Camper was famous for being traded to Philadelphia for Joe Charboneau.
The 1977 Indians finished 71-90. Robinson lost his job midway through the season, replaced by Jeff Torborg. The team immediately took off on a winning streak under Torborg, the streak reaching nine games, and carrying the team to two games over .500.
That was as good as it was going to get in 1977.