1994-2019: Drafting the Past 26 Years of Indians Baseball
The Indians have had some incredible and memorable seasons since moving into Jacobs Fields for the 1994 season. We've seen underdogs claw their way to unexpected success, we've seen favorites fizzle and eventually fall. And we've certainly witnessed a fair share of campaigns that we'd ultimately prefer to forget.
Though none of Cleveland's incarnations over the past 26 seasons have been able to capture baseball's ultimate prize to snap the sport's longest title drought, there's been enough good, bad and ugly in between to make it nearly as difficult to rank each of those years as it was to win a World Series in any of them. Nearly.
But, Alex, since neither of us know if and when a 2020 version of the Indians will be added to this list, we've got plenty of time to pick and debate our favorites. So, as this draft of Tribe teams from 1994-2019 was my idea, I'll offer you the first pick (which will shield me from the scrutiny of taking the wrong one).
1: Alex Hooper - 1995
Ah, man. I almost was hoping I didn’t have the first pick so that I didn’t have to make this choice. It feels really obvious, either this or 2016, based on finishes.
It actually isn’t.
Regardless, this is the universally accepted option for best Tribe team of the last few generations, if not ever. This is the sentimental pick. They were the best hitting team, but not necessarily the best roster.
I should probably be selling my own pick, but I’m not. I don’t have to.
2: T.J. Zuppe - 1997
Yeah, I’m not really sure how anyone can argue with that top pick. In fact, I was hoping you’d try to get cute and go in a different direction. Now, I’m really stuck between the 1997 and 2016 squads here, but it was the ‘97 team that came closest to winning it all, after all, holding a ninth-inning lead in Game 7 against the Marlins.
This was an odd transition year, too, distancing themselves a bit -- not just socially -- from the past three years. The team itself didn’t catch fire until the postseason.
But there were so many unforgettable October games -- a walk off “steal” of home in the ALCS, a Sandy Alomar Jr. series-saving homer off of Mariano Rivera and a Tony Fernandez bomb to eventually send Cleveland back to the Series, oh my! So, despite the way it ended, I think I’ve got to go 1997.
3: Hooper - 2016
Just like that, I’m two games away from two World Series Championships. Feels good, right?
This is actually tough on me, too, because there are a few other teams I want on my… team. This season was just too fun. I was at Lollapalooza during the “Is He Coming to Cleveland, or Isn’t He?” trade deadline, so that sticks out as a particularly joyful time for me. The sentiment is there, but it’s not my sentimental top-pick.
I think there were better teams, but this team just had it. There was something magical about them, and as much as I want to point to wRC+ and WARs, there was obviously something intangible here. For once, I’m going with the eye test.
If nothing else, my team is going to be real fun.
4: Zuppe - 2017
If you’re going sentimental, then I suppose I can, too. It’s for completely different reasons than when I was a young fan, of course, as the way you watch a team and enjoy the sport changes when you begin to cover a club you cheered on as a youngster. But some of the most fun I’ve ever had covering any team was chronicling the 22-game win streak of 2017.
Never was I so sure that a team was destined to make noise in the postseason. And never was I more stunned when that same team fizzled in the first round.
But there’s something about being able to tell your kids and grandkids about your front row seat to this sort of history. And the 22nd win got such a signature moment, with Francisco Lindor tying it up late and Jay Bruce later walking it off.
For as much as we talk about some of the other teams of the 90s and early 2000s, this may have been one of the best combinations of pitching and offensive talent the franchise has had, perhaps ever.
I may regret taking this squad this early, but that win streak was bananas.
5: Hooper - 1999
I knew I wasn’t going to get 2017. That was my sentimental pick too, the year I joined you on the beat. It was formative for me, but like you said, it’s as complete a team as I can remember watching.
But enough about your guys.
If we’re rating by heartbreak, I’m dominating. The ‘99 team won the first two against Boston in the ALDS after a 97-win season, then proceeded to lose three straight, including a 23-7 smackdown in Boston. They got peak Pedro Martinez in Game 5, who came out of the bullpen in a 8-8 ballgame with 6 shutout innings.
(I hope all of those pitches weren't called strikes.)
Other than the ‘95 and ‘97 teams, the ‘99 team was the best group of hitters in this timeframe. With the addition of Roberto Alomar, as well as breakout seasons from Bartolo Colon, Dave Burba and Paul Shuey, this was a well-rounded group.
Aside from Alomar, Cleveland added Mark Whiten, Wil Cordero, and Bill Selby. They also signed amateur free agent Jhonny Peralta, as well as Hector Luna, who would be dealt back to them for Ronnie Belliard in 2006.
6: Zuppe - 1998
Pop quiz, hot shot. Who was the only team to beat the 114-win Yankees, the eventual World Champions, in the ‘98 postseason? The 1998 Indians, of course, who briefly held a 2-1 series advantage in the ALCS.
Nevermind that Dwight Gooden, Chad Ogea and Charles Nagy couldn’t keep the series going (or that a lack of quality pitching would be a running theme over the next several years). The offense was still potent and this incarnation is often overlooked when anyone thinks of the late 90s run of Tribe dominance.
Most importantly, who could forget the image of Enrique Wilson losing his balance and flailing his arms in the air while rounding third base like a child learning to swim, all while Chuck Knoblauch is busy arguing with the first-base umpire in the ALCS? That, in itself, is memorable enough to warrant the selection here.
7: Hooper - 2005
I honest-to-goodness didn’t even remember Enrique scoring there, because all I remembered was Knoblauch.
How about this? A non-playoff team with playoff teams on the board.
Not the only 93-win team to miss the playoffs over this 24-year period, but at least this one did not feel like a bummer the entire time. This was the year that Cleveland’s post-Robby Alomar core finally took shape, with 5-win seasons from Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and Coco Crisp, with Victor Martinez, Peralta and Belliard all not far behind.
It was also the year that the two-headed-monster of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee emerged, while Kevin Millwood won just 9 decisions despite a 2.86 ERA, a career-best. The offense supplied just 13 runs in Millwood’s 11 losses, and all 5 games they lost in his no-decisions were each 1-run contests. Had they won 7 of those 16 instead, the 99-win White Sox would have had to have won the World Series by route of the Wild Card instead.
8. Zuppe - 1994
Oh, man. That was a team I was hoping you’d forget about that I could grab later. It’s absolutely an underrated bunch and made us think some good years were ahead. What a weird stretch of baseball that later turned out to be.
But how about another non-playoff team? OK, that’s because there wasn’t a postseason in 1994 due to the strike, but if not for the end of the season disappearing like a magic act in Las Vegas, would this team have been considered for the first overall pick?
Go back and look at the season Albert Belle was having. You could argue he was having a better overall campaign than 1995. Oh, and did you know that Kenny Lofton was never better than during ‘94? He might have had the best case for an MVP. How would that have impacted his Hall-of-Fame candidacy years later?
Anyhow, we’ll never know what would’ve happened -- they were one game back of the White Sox and charging when things were suspended and ultimately cancelled. Maybe that 1995 squad wouldn’t be as distracted by the bright lights of the World Series if they’d tasted the playoffs a year prior.
Either way, it’s a shame that the first truly good Tribe squad of this particular era didn’t get their first shot at October glory.
9: Hooper - 1996
It was between those guys and my 2005 guys. Great call.
There’s still a 90s team out there, so I suppose I should grab them up. Not much different from the cores of ‘94 and ‘95. Julio Franco took over the lion’s share of time at first, improving marginally on Paul Sorrento, while Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga had off-years offensively.
On the positive side, Jim Thome and Albert Belle posted 1.000+ OPS seasons, while Manny Ramirez sat just below. Still crazy to think that Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Giles and Jeff Kent were all on that bench.
Charlie Nagy had the best year of his career, while the bullpen held strong from ‘95. Unfortunately those things didn’t hold true in the ALDS against Baltimore, as Nagy dropped Game 1, while Eric Plunk and Jose Mesa lost games 3 and 4, respectively.
10: Zuppe - 2013
There’s probably some bias at play given the club’s struggles from 2008-2012 (oh, boy, can’t wait to pick from that group), but it was incredibly fun to watch this team win its final 10 games, knowing, in retrospect, that they needed each and every single one of those to claim the top Wild Card slot that year.
Sure, their appearance in the [whispers so Kenny Lofton can’t hear] “postseason” was as brief as the time it took for hitters to decide if they wanted to offer at a Danny Salazar fastball -- remember when those entered the zone above 86 mph? -- but Progressive Field was extremely loud during that matchup against the Rays.
Also, Jason Giambi’s unlikely walk-off homer to beat the White Sox at the end of September is one of the most memorable blasts in the park’s history.
11: Hooper - 2018
The Giambi homer was another one where you just remember where you were.
If I can’t take 2017, I’ll take their weird, hobbled little brother. I think that 2017 team is as talented as any on this list, and by proxy, 2018 is right toward the top. In terms of fWAR, 2018 is 5th in our window, just a shade ahead of 2015.
Probably the best five-man pitching staff of all-time, that’s a great place to start. It’s a product of the era, sure, but four 200K pitchers is nothing to scoff at.
Injuries really took their toll on this squad, as Andrew Miller and Trevor Bauer each struggled to get back in time for the postseason. Not that it mattered, as the Houston Astros wound up being the superior team* in the ALDS.
12: Zuppe - 2007
You certainly want to throw that series against Houston straight into the trash can.
[Puts on sunglasses]
I’m a little surprised you went with 2018 over my next pick, 2007. All these years later, it’s still difficult to believe they blew a 3-1 lead (there it is, again) against Boston in the ALCS. Even more surprising is that Cliff Lee, the eventual 2008 Cy Young Award winner, didn’t even factor into their postseason plans this year.
But if nothing else, by picking 2007, I get the “bug game” against the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALDS. Midges are still unwelcome in New York City to this day.
This was also the season that made you believe “Fausto Carmona” was destined for big things. Unfortunately, the number of birthdays he gained in one offseason when he was later revealed to be Roberto Hernandez proved to be the biggest.
13: Hooper - 2001
Fausto was my guy. I still remember him out-dueling Johan Santana in a 2-0 CGSO. Magical.
I am going to reach here, I think, but I have a reason. The 2001 Indians were some sort of Frankenstein’s Monster of their mid-90s teams. Lofton, Vizquel, Nagy, Robbie Alomar, and what was left of Travis Fryman were still hanging around, but the reason I’m picking them was the outfield.
A wild Juan Gonzalez appeared, filling in for the departed Manny Ramirez, and finishing 5th in MVP voting. This bizarre outfield combo included former American League rookie of the year, Marty Cordova, the newly-signed Ellis Burks, and Karim Garcia (who?).
The Tribe pushed the 116-win Seattle Mariners to a Game 5 at Safeco Field that fall, but struggled to do much against Jamie Moyer, who was only 67-years-old at the time.
14: Zuppe - 2000
For a while, it felt like the Indians would win the division forever. And then 2000 came along to remind Cleveland of its baseball mortality.
This club won 90 games and finished outside the postseason by one game. It all came down to Game-162, which the Indians won (as Manny Ramirez homered in his final Indians at-bat), but they couldn’t get the help they needed to reach October for a sixth consecutive year.
Don’t forget that the 2000 Indians, by the way, scored 950 runs. Unfortunately, they gave up 816, good for a 4.84 team ERA, 13-worst in the Majors.
They were so desperate for pitching, in fact, they traded slugger Richie Sexson for a collection of … *ahem* interesting pitchers: Jason Bere, Steve Woodard and Bob Wickman. OK, one of those worked out pretty well. (Did you know they also gave up Marco Scutaro in that deal as a player to be named later?)
But they could still score, even as the franchise transition continued.
15: Hooper - 2004
Now we’re getting into the weird years. Not the worst referendum on the organization that it took us 14 years to get a squad under .500. Though there is still another team above .500 on the table.
The 2004 Indians went 80-82, and that is about how I remember them. Yet, this team ranks 8th in WAR, just ahead of the 2017 team I proclaimed to be one of the best I’ve seen. So who really knows.
Nothing about this team was very memorable. One of their top contributors that year was a reliever named Matt Miller, and I honestly have no recollection of such a human. Jake Westbrook was good. Travis Hafner began his ascent, while Ben Broussard and Casey Blake had career years. Ernie Young appeared in 3 games. Kaz Tadano registered a hit. Jason Davis hit a homer!
Mostly, I just want all the Ronnie Belliard years.
16: Zuppe - 2014
You monster. Give me 2014.
It was when Corey Kluber ascended to be among the best pitchers in the world, capturing his first Cy Young. That team also won 85 games, so despite failing to follow their Wild Card season of 2013 with another playoff appearance, it wasn’t a dreadful year. I also get Lonnie Chisenhall’s nine-RBI night against the Rangers!
17: Hooper - 2019
Did last season actually happen? 93 wins, and we’re drafting mediocre teams ahead of them?
We don’t need to spend too long here. This team might actually eek out a playoff appearance if Murphy’s Law does not punch it in the face repeatedly. That does not change what the season was, and what the roster was.
Even if they did make the postseason, they were ill-equipped to make anything of it, and it was out of necessity.
18: Zuppe - 2011
Here is where things really drop off for me.
I don’t feel particularly good about any of my options, so I’ll go with the team that started the year [checks notes] 30-15. Am I reading this correctly?! So, we can ignore the rest of that year, right? Just forget about the 50-67 finish.
Instead, focus on the Thomecoming! Yeah, I was never a fan of that pun, either.
19: Hooper - 2015
The good news: the 2015 team was about equal with 2018 and 2019 in terms of their pitching. The bad news is that they were very below-average from a hitting standpoint. Their 141 homers were third-worst in this stretch, despite three .300 hitters playing 99+ games.
An 81-80 record seems lucky, even though their Pythagorean win-loss% is even higher at .520.
20: Zuppe - 2008
Yay, mediocrity! An 81-81 record isn’t necessarily bad. It is bad, however, when that’s what follows a promising, yet disappointing end to their 2007 run.
I guess one positive here is I gain Cliff Lee’s Cy Young season. The downside is I lose another Cy Young, that with the C.C. Sabathia trade to Milwaukee.
Cleveland picked up Matt LaPorta in that deal. Any word on what happened with the player to be named later?
21: Hooper - 2002
How about some players to be named now? Bartolo Colon was really, really good this year. He only made 16 starts for the Tribe until all of a sudden - poof! He joins your friend and mine, Youppi!, up in Montreal.
Cleveland’s pitching posted a 111 ERA-minus in 2002, as to say, they were bad. But they did post a 96 FIP-minus, so they were actually pretty solidly mediocre. With the 21st pick, we’ll call that a win!
Offensively… oof. Jim Thome posted his run-of-the-mill 52 homers, Burks knocked 34 to the tune of a 139 OPS+, and Omar Vizquel turned in an above league-average year at the plate. Other than that, no one turned in a league-average year.
We did get 34 games of 38-year-old Brady Anderson, 13 of which were in center! He was released before the end of May, and manager Charlie Manuel only made it until July 12.
22: Zuppe - 2006
When it comes to 2002, don't forget these key words: Bill Selby. Mariano Rivera. Grand bleepin' slam.
Anyways, add the 2006 team to the list of Tribe clubs that got sequenced to death.
They finished with a positive run differential, scoring 88 more runs than they allowed despite winning just 78 games. Beyond that, Travis Hafner had one of the best, truly great offensive seasons in franchise history, posting an OPS that was 81 percent better than league average and slugging 42 bombs.
Also, let’s never forget Fausto Carmona’s failed week at closer, where he was as successful as Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Road Runner. Carmona blew three consecutive saves at the end of July and early August.
23: Hooper - 2003
You took my last gasp of Belliard, but at least I don’t have to claim the return of Hector Luna.
So, I’m taking the worst offensive team of the Jacobs/Progressive Field era, but they’re not among the worst three pitching teams. Those are what we choose from to round things out.
It’s the Milton Bradley year! Or less depressingly, the Jody Gerut year! Oh, that’s not much better? Shane Spencer!
Hey, the Cavs won the LeBron draft lottery! Moving on.
24: Zuppe - 2012
On July 26, 2012, the Indians finished taking two of three from the Tigers, pulling within 3.5 games of first place. After the game, Travis Hafner was asked about a potential letdown as the team was set to depart on a nine-game road trip.
Hafner said that there would be no such letdown. Cleveland went on to lose their next 11 games and Manny Acta was later fired after a 5-24 month of August.
On a positive note, things had to get this bad to put the wheels in motion for Terry Francona’s arrival the next season. So, silver lining?
25: Hooper - 2009
In 2009, Cliff Lee went 7-9 despite a 3.14 ERA and 3.25 FIP. Even that wasn’t good enough to keep this Indians staff from being the worst of the bunch. That is, in part, due to Lee being dealt Philly mid-season, like Colon was in 2002. Each was on route to an 8-win season. Talk about selling high.
Shin-Soo Choo posted a classic .300/.400 season with 20 dingers, and Asdrubal Cabrera was as dependable as ever, but Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez missed considerable time with injury. Either way, they almost lost 100 games.
26: Zuppe - 2010
Ending with a 69-win team? Nice.
This season was memorable because it was Chris Perez's best with the Indians, posting a 1.71 ERA in 63 appearances. What's that? That's not memorable at all? Oh, then perhaps Trevor Crowe's .634 OPS in 122 games rings a bell? No? Well how about the eight homers that Austin Kearns blasted before getting traded for Zach McAllister? The trade of Jhonny Peralta for Giovanni Soto?
Surely you remember Mike Redmond getting thrown out at first base on what should have been a single to right field?
OK, I suppose there's a reason this was the last pick.
Just know that you missed a chance to pick Andy Marte's scoreless inning of relief.