There have been three distinct waves of interesting Indians baseball teams over the past 20 years. The first one was when the Indians were a perennial playoff team from 1995 through 2001. We'll call this the Bartolo Colon Era. Maybe it's better to call it the Chad Ogea era, as he embodies the Indians' ability to get functional pitching without a whole lot of dominant pitching while they had the best offense on the planet. The Indians built the teams from this era with drafting, international scouting, and development.
The second wave wasn't as successful, but it was good enough for a couple of 90-win seasons and a trip to the ALCS. This would be the Grady Sizemore Era, from 2005 through 2008, when the Indians had several of baseball's best young players. They built this team similarly to the first wave, but in addition to the player-development successes like CC Sabathia and Victor Martinez, the second wave included a new weapon: the lopsided trade. The Bartolo Colon Era brought Sizemore and Cliff Lee in one swell foop. Add the Ryan Drese-for-Travis Hafner swap, and the Indians had a nice mix of homegrown and pilfered players.
The third wave was built almost entirely from ridiculously lopsided trades. Those two players are the best specific examples. Cabrera came in a trade from the Mariners in exchange for Eduardo Perez. Choo came from the Mariners in a separate trade for Ben Broussard. It wasn't just the Mariners who helped out, though, as the Indians also got Carlos Santana from the Dodgers for Casey Blake.
Those three players were the most enjoyable parts of the Indians' 2012 team, and they were all stolen. Michael Brantley and Justin Masterson came in the bigger deals that didn't really pan out (Sabathia and Victor Martinez, respectively).
And this last wave came with almost no homegrown help. The Indians' best homegrown player in 2012 was Jason Kipnis, and the 25-year-old hit .257/.335/.379 in his first full season. The second-best was Lonnie Chisenhall, who got all of 142 at-bats. The third-best, as far as I can tell, is between Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez, which is like something out of Fear Factor.
To simplify the above, here are a few ways to build a team, in order of preference.
- Draft, develop, and acquire a group of future Hall of Famers and Hall of Nearly Greaters
- Develop some good players and complement them with other good players stolen in lopsided trades
- Steal a couple of players in lopsided trades
You probably knew that. It's not always practical to go out and get all the Hall of Famers and Hall of Nearly Greaters you can round up. That sort of thing takes a great farm system, but it also takes some good fortune. It kind of happens organically. You can't plan for it.
The second one is the template that almost every successful team uses. This is the standard.
The third one ain't nothing to count on.
This isn't a groundbreaking discovery, but rarely do you see it delineated so clearly as with the Indians and their three waves of interesting teams. And now the Indians are trying for those lopsided trades again, entertaining offers for two of their best players. They're hoping, like every team making a veteran-for-prospects deal, that they'll back into the next Sizemore/Lee/Brandon Phillips package.
In the meantime, they'll have to hope Kipnis gets even better, and Chisenhall becomes a good every-day player, and that Francisco Lindor develops as expected, so that they can use the pieces they get back for Cabrera and Choo to emulate the second wave more than the third. Player development is important? Well, yeah. That's not an original thought. But you don't have to look a lot further than the Indians to see just how important it really is. Teams cannot live on lopsided trades alone.