Tuesday May 24th, 2011

CLEVELAND -- There's a new type of diversity gaining steam on the banks of Lake Erie. Cleveland has long been known for its influx of Eastern European immigrants who came to work more than a century ago in the city's thriving industries, but now its baseball team is seeking all-comers from around America, hired hands who as often cut their teeth in cities like Huntsville, Ala., and Tacoma, Wash., as they did in Boston and St. Louis.

The past decade for the Indians has been a riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags-and-to-riches again story, as they've alternately shipped established stars and welcomed promising young men, many whose only job experience has been in the minor leagues of other organizations.

In Monday's come-from-behind 3-2 win over the Red Sox that pushed their major league-best record to 30-15, 14 of the Indians' 15 participating players arrived from elsewhere -- nine by trades and five via one-year free-agent contracts. Only reliever Rafael Perez was homegrown.

The winning pitcher, reliever Joe Smith, was acquired from the Mets; starting pitcher Justin Masterson came from the Red Sox; closer Chris Perez, who got the save, came from the Cardinals. The tying run was driven in by outfielder Michael Brantley, who along with first baseman Matt LaPorta arrived via the Brewers' Double-A team in Huntsville. The winning run and three hits were provided by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who was playing with rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo for Seattle's Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma before being traded to Cleveland.

"I think it's easier to pick out the guys that didn't come in a trade," Perez said.

The Indians, which won fewer than 70 games each of the past two seasons, are the majors' surprise story of the season. They own the American League's best mark by 5 ½ games; have opened a seven-game lead in the AL Central; have the majors' best run differential (+67); have already swept six three-game series; and have a major-league-best 19-4 home record.

Thanks to contributions from players who have returned from significant injuries, a rapid defensive improvement, strike-throwing pitchers and a roster disproportionately constructed by a barrage of trades, 2011 is shaping up to be an Indian Summer.

"We don't rely on one or two people just because we can't," outfielder Travis Buck said. "Do we have as much talent as a lot of the other teams? Probably not, but we know what we're capable of doing and we have to do that every single night in order to win."

The wheeling and dealing, started by former general manager Mark Shapiro (who's now team president) and continued by current GM Chris Antonetti, has catalyzed the rebuilding process during a pair of down cycles since the turn of the century. The club made the playoffs in six of seven years (and reached two World Series) from 1995 to 2001, but then downshifted when they knew that key pieces would no longer be affordable, and kickstarted the rebuilding in 2002 by trading ace Bartolo Colon and letting Jim Thome leave as a free-agent at season's end.

By 2005 the Indians were one game away from the playoffs and by 2007 they were one game away from the World Series. But they recognized their inability to retain stars like CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, et al., and so rather than wait entirely on drafted players to develop, they traded many of their most valuable chips and rebuilt for a couple years. Today they are already back in playoff contention behind many of the players acquired in those deals.

"We started by asking the question, What's our quickest way back to competitiveness?" Antonetti said. "We realized that we could have let a lot of those guys complete their contracts, become free agents and get draft picks back for them. We felt that it would be in our best interest to try and expedite that by getting guys who were further along in the development process."

Of the 30 Indians either on the 25-man roster or currently on the disabled list, 14 were acquired in trades (46.7 percent), which ranks second by number and percentage among all major league teams, trailing only the Athletics (15 and 48.4 percent). The average major-league team carries seven players (25.0 percent) who arrived via trades.

The Indians have baseball's No. 26-ranked payroll at $49 million, meaning that expensive free agents are out of the question and their roster construction strategy would need to rely on other means. While the club has started to see improvement in the spoils of its farm system -- 2009 first-round pick Alex White made a few successful starts before injury, Triple-A infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis could contribute soon and Baseball America rated its 2010 draft as the game's best -- it's been through trades that Cleveland has struck it rich.

Cabrera, the starting shortstop who has eight hits in his last nine at-bats and is hitting .312 with 10 home runs, is still just 25 and blossoming into a star. Choo, an outfielder considered one of the game's most complete players, is coming off consecutive 20-20 seasons for home runs and steals in which he also hit at least .300 with at least a .394 on-base percentage. Both were acquired in separate trades a month apart with the Mariners in 2006.

"Trades are kind of a crapshoot anyways, but yeah, I mean, we've obviously gotten great talent back from Seattle that they would probably want back right about now," Chris Perez said.

The Indians have found trading partners beyond the Pacific Northwest. In 2002, Cleveland traded Colon to the Expos for a package of players that included centerfielder Grady Sizemore, who has become a three-time All-Star; Sabathia to the Brewers in 2008 for, among others, Brantley and LaPorta; Lee to the Phillies in 2009 for three players who have been major league contributors, starter Carlos Carrasco, catcher Lou Marson and infielder Jason Donald; and Victor Martinez, also in 2009, to the Red Sox for Masterson and promising minor-leaguer Nick Hagadone. The Indians also pulled a coup in trading third baseman Casey Blake to the Dodgers in 2008 for catcher Carlos Santana.

Antonetti explained that each year's decisions are based, first and foremost, on "our competitiveness of the team, both now and the near term. There are no prizes for accumulating prospects or players." The default is certainly not to necessarily make a trade. In 2005, for instance, Cleveland decided not to trade starting pitcher Kevin Millwood because the team was gearing up for a run to the playoffs.

Baseball front offices are in the business of predicting future human performance, which on its best days is a perilous proposition. The Indians have made headway in trading, it seems, by making more accurate projections, even when considering minor leaguers who have less of a track record to guide the educated guesses.

Facilitating the analysis that goes into trade considerations is the Indians' proprietary computer system DiamondView, which incorporates statistical, biographical, scouting, financial, medical and player development data in one neatly streamlined program. It was the work of the team's in-house development staff and led by Matt Tagliaferri. Antonetti said the primary benefit was that the front office can now allocate more time on analysis than data collection.

"We sought to devise a system that would allow us to be far more efficient," he said. "There's no magic button to press that says, 'Hey, trade for Player X over Player Y.' That's not it, but it allows us to spend the time working through the decision rather than spending the time organizing all the information."

The Indians are guarded about the program, not divulging any specifics about it but it seems to be an important resource. That program, when used by a talented and mostly stable baseball operations staff, has led to the successful transactions.

"The guys in pro scouting have really shined in all these trades," Eduardo Perez said.

When a player leaves through free agency to the highest bidder, it would seem to be easier for fans in small and medium markets to reconcile their departure as the realities of the game's economics. But a trade requires willfully removing the player from the roster before it's necessary. While the return of talent in a trade is typically greater than the draft picks a team gains for losing a prized free agent and closer to being big-league ready, it's still far enough down the horizon to be challenging for fans to see.

That may explain why Progressive Field, which set a then-record of 455 consecutive sellouts that ended in 2001, had become so barren in recent years. Yet the Indians' success this season has begun luring some of those fans back. Until recently the Indians ranked last in the AL in attendance this season but have risen to 12th as the winning continues.

"Our front office kind of got lambasted the last couple of years by trading away all those guys and really not having anything right away to show the fan base," Chris Perez said, "but sometimes in baseball you have to take two steps back to take a couple steps forward."

Those steps have been evident in an offense that has increased its scoring from 4.0 runs per game in 2010 to 5.1 in 2011, while leading the AL in average (.265) and ranking second or third in runs (231), on-base percentage (.334), slugging (.425) and home runs (49).

The pitching and defense have also improved. The Indians have shaved a run per game off their opponents' scoring, allowing 4.6 per game last year to 3.6 this year. The pitching staff has given up the fewest runs in the league (164) and is third in ERA (3.38) despite ranking 12th in strikeouts, because they also have allowed the fewest walks in the league and because the defense, which ranked 21st last in defensive efficiency, now ranks fifth.

Manager Manny Acta has instilled the club, which had the youngest roster in the league by the end of last year, with confidence -- "Yeah, we're young, but we're not going to use that as an excuse," Acta told the team in its first meeting in spring training, according to Buck -- and fundamental baseball.

There are still question marks, of course, led by the health of key sluggers Sizemore and Travis Hafner and the sustainability of the pitching staff. Sizemore is already on his second DL stint of the season; Hafner has a strained oblique and while his isn't thought to be serious, those injuries can linger. Also, the team's top starters so far this year, Justin Masterson (5-2, 2.50 ERA, 117 WHIP) and Josh Tomlin (6-1, 2.41 ERA, 0.82 ERA), have their own concerns. Lefties are hitting .302 off Masterson (though righties only .144), and the defense behind Tomlin is allowing just a .175 average on balls in play, so far below the .300 standard that one suspects there'll have to be regression.

The front office understands that there are still four months left in the season, but it is pledging to ensure the Indians make the most of this run.

"We recognize the opportunity that we have," Antonetti said, "and we'll do what we can organizationally to continue and put ourselves in the best position to make the playoffs and then hopefully advance through the playoffs."

Playoffs for a team many thought would finish last? Talk about trading places.

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