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2002 Retrospective: Beginning of the End

This was the lineup on Opening Day against the Anaheim Angels:

RF Matt Lawton
SS Omar Vizquel
DH Ellis Burks
1B Jim Thome
3B Travis Fryman
2B Ricky Gutierrez
CF Milton Bradley
LF Russ Branyan
C  Einar Diaz

SP Bartolo Colon

(Source: Retrosheet)

The rotation looked like this:

RHP Bartolo Colon
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP Ryan Drese
RHP Danys Baez
LHP Chuck Finley

The bench was made up of Brady Anderson, John McDonald, Wil Cordero, and Eddie Perez. The bullpen looked like this:

CL Bob Wickman
RHP Paul Shuey
LHP Ricardo Rincon
RHP David Riske
RHP Mark Wohlers
RHP Jarrod Riggan
RHP Charles Nagy

And on the disabled list:

IF Jolbert Cabrera (GSW)
OF Alex Escobar (knee)
RHP Jake Westbrook (arm)
RHP Jaret Wright (arm)
C Eddie Taubensee (back)

You know what? This roster won. For the first 12 games of the season. On Saturday, April 13th, the Indians were 11-1, scoring more than 5 runs in 11 of the first 12 games. Sunday's game against the Royals was rained out, and after that, the winning run was over in more ways than one. The Indians dropped 12 out of their next 14, thanks in large part to an anemic offense.

The first casualty of the losing streak was Wil Cordero:

4-22: Purchased the Contract of 3B Earl Snyder; Designated IF Wil Cordero for Assignment

Cordero was making $4.167M in 2002, one of John Hart's legacies (PD, 4/23):

Cordero played with the Tribe in 1999 but missed most of the year after breaking his wrist. He signed a three-year deal with Pittsburgh in the off-season, then Hart assumed Cordero's hefty contract with a July 2000 trade that sent Alex Ramirez and Enrique Wilson to the Pirates. At the time, Cordero was hitting .282, with 16 home runs and 51 RBI in 89 games with Pittsburgh. In 142 subsequent games with the Indians, Cordero hit four home runs and knocked in 38. He leaves town with two hits in his last two at-bats. "Salary was not an issue," Shapiro said. "We will eat the contract. It was not a factor. We are doing what we think is best for the team."

5-21: Released OF Brady Anderson; Recalled OF Chris Magruder from Buffalo (AAA)

Anderson hit .162/.327/.250 in 80 at-bats, a year after he hit .202/.311/.300 in 430 at-bats. He was done.

Cordero's departure allowed Russ Branyan to get more at-bats in left field. Unfortunately for Russ, he was the next one to go:

6-7: Traded 3B/OF Russ Branyan to the Cincinnati Reds for 1B Ben Broussard

Branyan hit .205/.278/.379 in 2002 with the Indians. Broussard was widely seen at the time as Thome's replacement should he leave after the season. Hoynes' take on the trade (PD, 6-8):

Power was never Branyan's problem. Contact was. He struck out 294 times in 711 big-league at-bats with the Indians. That means he struck out 41 percent of the time, which devalued his 45 homers. This season he is hitting .205 with eight homers, 17 RBI, 17 walks and 65 strikeouts. In the minors, Branyan struck out 39 percent (838 strikeouts in 2,151 at-bats) of the time and hit 170 homers. Branyan and first-year hitting coach Eddie Murray appeared to have their differences this year. It was not an uncommon theme for Branyan. "We've had a lot of different coaches working with him for a lot of different years," said Shapiro. "Ultimately, it comes down to the player. The book isn't being closed on Russell. Just the one chapter that deals with Cleveland."

The problem for the Indians is that they didn't have much in the minors beyond AAAA guys like Chad Allen, Todd Dunwoody, Bruce Aven, Bill Selby, and Chris Magruder, all of whom saw time in the outfield at one time or another.

Adding to the offensive difficulties was a rash of injuries. At one time or another, Ricky Gutierrez, Paul Shuey, Bob Wickman, Charles Nagy, Milton Bradley, Matt Lawton, Einar Diaz, and Travis Fryman were on the 15-day Disabled List.

On June 26, this was the lineup against the Boston Red Sox:

RF Chris Magruder
2B Jolbert Cabrera
DH Ellis Burks
1B Jim Thome
3B Bill Selby
CF Milton Bradley
LF Ben Broussard
C Einar Diaz
SS John McDonald

The team was a total mess. The Indians' best hitter would be a free agent at the end of the season, they had a weak farm system, and little financial wherewithal to add players thanks to some bad contracts. Even though the team was still only 5 games under .500, they were already 7.5 games behind first-place Minnesota. And to even have that record was fortunate, given their -62 run differential. Only Tampa Bay (297) and Detroit (282) had scored less runs than the Indians' 300.

The time had come to rebuild.