This post is a continuation of my countdown of the 30 best Indians of the last 30 years, a list I'm doing because that's how long I've been a fan of baseball in general, and the Tribe in particular. Basically, this series is a way for me to gaze at my navel for a bit, while also giving you all something to weigh in on. This series is a companion to a more involved countdown I'm doing at Ground Ball With Eyes, counting down the 30 best MLB players of the last 30 years. What I've done so far for that project can be found here.
Other entries in this series:
Alright, on to this week's entry, with the next five players in the countdown... (I've also included a link to each applicable player's post in LGT's fantastic Top 100 Indians series, which was created prior to the 2012 season.)
20) Jason Kipnis
I have never caught a home run at a game, but in August of 2011, before a game at Progressive Field, I stood in Heritage Park, watching over the fence as the Indians took batting practice. Kipnis, who'd made his MLB debut not three weeks earlier, lined one over the wall, and I leapt down and played the ricochet perfectly to snag a souvenir. I was already plenty excited about Kipnis, one of the team's top prospects from recent years and someone who'd already homered five times in his first fourteen games, but that moment turned me into an even bigger Kipnis fan (which is both a perfectly normal reaction to getting a ball that was hit by a player, and also a sort of crazy one). Kipnis' 2012 wasn't as impressive as his brief stint in 2011, but his 2013 was great. Then his 2014 wasn't so hot, but then his 2015 was great. If he can string together consecutive great season by putting up good numbers in 2016, he might take over as the top second baseman the team's had during the 30 years I'm looking at, and he might eventually go down as the second-best second baseman in franchise history.
19) Michael Brantley
This placement means Brantley gets my vote as having done the most for the Indians among the guys currently with the team (with Kipnis, Santana, and Kluber all just behind him), not bad for the guy who was considered the throw-in prospect when the Indians sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee in 2008. Brantley made his Major League debut in September of 2009, and over the next few years he built himself into a solid player, an above-average left fielder you'd be happy to have batting sixth. I (and many others) argued by the end of 2013 that his production meant he was already a decent return for the final few weeks of Sabathia. Not everyone agreed. The argument ended in 2014 when Brantley had a breakout season, turning in numbers that made him an MVP finalist. Few hitters in baseball inspire more confidence with runners in scoring position, because Doc Smooth doesn't miss.
18) Asdrubal Cabrera (#84 in LGT top 100)
The earliest thing I remember from Cabrera is a home run he hit against the White Sox about a month after he was called up by the Indians. There haven't been that many 21-year-old players for the Tribe during the last 30 years, so a middle infielder that age with some power was an attention-grabber. Four years later, still only 25, Cabrera was named to the AL All-Star team, having hit .293/.347/.489 in the first half, with 14 home runs and 12 stolen bases. That first half would prove to be his best extended stretch with the team, but his overall numbers during roughly seven years with the team are very good. A .270/.331/.410 batting line, above average production for any position, but especially at shortstop.
17) Greg Swindell (#66 in LGT top 100)
If you're a certain age, the term "Rated Rookie" means a lot to you. I am of that certain age. I pulled Swindell's card in a pack of Donruss when I was seven years old, and immediately found myself very excited about Swindell's prospects. During the four seasons that followed that year, Swindell was the team's best pitcher, averaging 220 innings with a 3.60 ERA. I didn't know it at the time, because I was a decade away from creating the thing, but on May 2, 1988, Swindell also pitched the Tribe's first known Maddux, finishing off a two-hit shutout against the Angels on just 94 pitches.
16) Cliff Lee (#59 in LGT top 100)
Sixteenth on this list might seem a little low for a guy who spent the majority of his career with the Indians, won a Cy Young with the team, and will receive some support for the Hall of Fame when his time on the ballot arrives. Lee's time with the Tribe was strange though. In his first few years, Lee established himself as someone you were fine with as the 3rd or 4th starter, nothing more, nothing less. Then in 2007, as the rest of the team was taking off, he seemed to forget how to pitch. By the end of that year, Lee had thrown more than 700 Major League innings, with a 4.64 ERA and equally unimpressive peripherals. In one of the biggest turnarounds in baseball history, Lee returned in 2008 and put up arguably the best season by an Indians pitcher in the last three decades, going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA (167 ERA+) and the lowest home run and walk rates in the league, coasted to his Cy Young victory. Without that season, he wouldn't be anywhere near this list, which makes sixteenth pretty impressive.