Cleveland Guardians history: How they turned Jerry Dybzinski into Emmanuel Clase
The butterfly effect is a crazy thing, especially in baseball. There are so many stories of one random trade, signing or draft pick down the line leading to a completely different player and - hopefully - difference-maker.
The Cleveland Guardians have one of the most interesting butterfly effects in the league right now. How many people know the name Jerry Dybzinski? The Cleveland, Ohio native played in Major League Baseball for six seasons, totaling three with the Indians from 1980-83.
The 15th-round pick of the Indians in 1977 slashed a career-best .298/.355/.298 across 48 games during his second season in the league. He bought a home in Chicago shortly after his retirement and became a financial analyst, most recently working as a business intelligence manager for Vario Inc., according to a 2013 article from Cleveland.com. Seems like a nice guy, quaint life, and forgettable MLB career.
What if I told you that a simple trade between the Indians and Chicago White Sox, sending Dybzinski to Chicago in exchange for first baseman, outfielder and designated hitter Pat Tabler would eventually turn into Emmanuel Clase, the flame-throwing All-Star closer the Guardians just locked up last year to a long-term deal? A simple trade that got the White Sox a backup fielder and gave the Indians their starting first baseman for five seasons eventually turned into multiple All-Stars, a near-Hall of Famer and a Cy Young winner.
Tabler ended up being a steal for the Guardians, who puttered along during the mid-1980s, amassing just one winning season during Tabler’s time. He became an All-Star in 1987 when he hit .307 with 11 home runs and 86 RBIs. Tabler even earned the name “Mr. Clutch” for his success in key situations, especially with the bases loaded. Dybzinski played two seasons for the White Sox and never batted better than .235, though he came off the bench for the team’s 1985 World Series win.
Then on June 4, 1988, Cleveland traded the 30-year-old Tabler to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for reliever Bud Black. In an Observer-Reporter article from the day, Royals’ general manager John Schuerholz called Tabler “one of the most effective RBI men and clutch hitters in the American League.” Black ended up playing in Cleveland for two-and-a-half years, ultimately converting into a starting pitcher. He was named the Opening Day starter for 1990, but in September of that season was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher Mauro Gozzo and two players to be named later that ended up being Steve Cummings and Alex Sanchez.
This is where the production began to fall off. Gozzo played just four games at the major-league level for Cleveland across two years before electing free agency. Cummings never saw the majors in Cleveland and was flipped the following May to Detroit for a player to be named later (ultimately the Tigers sent minor-leaguer Eric Stone). Sanchez, however, despite being with the Indians’ organization for just a month and 12 days, bridges the link to the next Cleveland All-Star. In November of 1990, he was traded back to Toronto for Willie Blair, a reliever that spent one season with Cleveland, compiling a 2-3 record and a 4.50 ERA.
Black was 32, and Cleveland couldn’t squeeze much out of the trade. The team was 75-85 in 1990 and lost 105 games the following year, so it didn’t really matter. But Blair, along with Ed Taubensee - a serviceable major-league catcher - were traded in what is widely seen as one of the most lopsided deals in MLB history. The Houston Astros were basically handing away Kenny Lofton and Dave Rohde, at the time fringe major-leaguers, hoping Blair might work out and Taubensee could provide some pop in the lineup. Blair played just one season in Houston and elected free agency, while Taubensee didn’t rejuvenate his career until he was traded to Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, Lofton became, well, Kenny Lofton. "I know they gave up on me and now I'm glad they did. One man's trash is another man's treasure,” Lofton said of the Astros trading the then-26-year-old outfielder. He was a three-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner, five-time stolen base leader and is a member of the Guardians Hall of Fame. If Black simply turned into Lofton in a matter of two years, Cleveland would have been immensely satisfied.
But alas, after the glory days of the 1990s, Cleveland’s front office had to start dealing off key pieces in order to save money for what would have become a massive payroll. Lofton was one of the cuts that had to be made, and the Indians traded him and lefty Alan Embree for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. John Hart described the two players Cleveland received - and Lofton - as “franchise-type players.” Lofton helped the Atlanta Braves to an NLCS berth in 1997, and the Indians went on to lose to the Miami Marlins in the infamous Game 7 of the World Series. Lofton, luckily, signed back with Cleveland that offseason.
Justice played for parts of three seasons with Cleveland and was a cornerstone of the team that kept trying to recapture the success of the mid-90s. He was an All-Star and Silver Slugger for Cleveland in 1997 and continued to rake in home runs at Jacobs Field until the summer of 2000. Once again, though, Hart had to decide between future prospects or losing Justice to free agency, as he was bound to be lured away by a much more lucrative contract. So, the next Indian to be sent off instead of signing to a large contract was Justice, and the New York Yankees parted ways with prospects Jake Westbrook, Zach Day and Ricky Ledée.
Recognize that first name? Westbrook was just breaking into the big leagues, and his 2000 season was cut short due to a cracked rib. But after finally breaking through into the starting rotation in 2002, helping a pitching staff in transition amidst a subpar season, Westbrook became a staple of the mid-2000s Cleveland teams. He logged over 1,200 innings, went a clean 73-73 with a combined ERA of 4.24 and became an All-Star in 2004. Until 2010, Westbrook was a mainstay in Cleveland’s rotation. Then, at the 2010 trade deadline, Cleveland had to part ways with a once-fringe major-league-pitcher-turned staple.
They were rebuilding, three years away from an ALCS berth in 2007, and had no use for an aging, more-expensive Westbrook. The Indians executed a three-team trade with the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres. He, Single-A pitcher Nick Greenwood and cash went to the Cardinals. Cleveland got a little-known pitcher from the Padres' system named Corey Kluber. Is it all coming together yet?
He wasn’t even ranked in the Padres’ top 30 prospects list at the time, but the next September, Kluber made his major league debut for Cleveland. The rest, as they say, is history. Kluber became a two-time Cy Young winner, three-time All-Star, two-time AL ERA wins leader and one-time AL ERA leader. He was dominant for the Indians in 2016 in their quest to Game 7 of the World Series. Though he became injury-prone in his final years with the team, a combination of age and tremendous use throughout Cleveland’s playoff runs, Kluber became one of the best pitchers in the league and could possibly see his name in the Guardians’ Hall of Fame.
That brings us to December 15, 2019, completing this long string of deals and players. Eclipsing a total of 36 years, the Indians dealt Kluber and cash to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Delino DeShields Jr. and Emmanuel Clase. Kluber pitched just one inning with the Rangers before a season-ending shoulder injury. Clase, meanwhile, just signed a five-year $20 million extension and could be the closer for the Guardians for the foreseeable future.
Never underestimate the power of a meaningless trade four decades ago.