It’s impossible for a baseball franchise to future-proof itself; to make certain that no changes in the game or how other teams evaluate it will blindside them into irrelevance. But the Cleveland Indians are damn close.
They are a team built from within, with a strong farm system — top to bottom — that fosters talent hand-picked with more than just gut instincts and decades-old ways of thinking. The Indians that made an improbable run to the World Series last season — without two of their top pitchers, mind you — got there because of forward-thinking decisions years ago.
You could certainly argue that trading for Corey Kluber was luck. The Indians only traded a broken-down Jake Westbrook for their future ace. But it wasn’t a one-for-one trade; the deal also involved the St. Louis Cardinals sending outfielder Ryan Ludwig to the San Diego Padres so Kluber could join the Indians. Kluber was the target for the Indians and their now-former ace, Westbrook. That’s no accident.
Then there’s the Casey Blake trade. After five years of solid play out of the third baseman, including a spectacular 2004 campaign, the Indians dealt Blake to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitching prospect Jonathan Meloan and catcher Carlos Santana. Meloan was the “headliner” of the deal, as the only player to make Baseball America’s top-10 prospect list for 2008, but he and Santana were rarely much more than “a pair of prospects” in headlines discussing the trade.
More recently, the Indians filled out last year’s roster with small, effective signings in Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis. Combined, they were signed for next-to-nothing in current-day free agent terms, but they accounted for a combined three Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs’ metric, and multiple reports have Napoli as the veteran presence that held the team together through adversity.
With more money to burn and more at stake, the Indians went bigger than usual in the last nine months. They traded for Andrew Miller at least year’s deadline, utilizing the deep farm system they spent so much time building. For most teams, losing one of your top two — or top, in some circles — position prospect in Clint Frazier, an excellent pitching prospect in Justus Sheffield and two top-flight bullpen prospects in JP Feyereisen and Ben Heller might cripple the future. But it did no such thing for the Indians. If anything, the farm is almost strong now than it was last year thanks to some breakout seasons from Yandy Diaz, Francisco Mejia, Greg Allen, Triston McKenzie, and World Baseball Classic certified international superstar Tyler Krieger, among others.
Forgotten at the deadline amidst the fireworks of the Andrew Miller trade was a smaller trade for an outfielder by the name of Brandon Guyer. While always an above-average hitter in the majors, Guyer was a mostly quiet talent for the Tampa Bay Rays. Maybe that’s why the Indians were able to wiggle him away for small-time outfield prospect Nathan Lukes. The Indians saw past Guyer’s overall numbers. Instead, they saw a right-handed bat who absolutely crushed left-handed pitching. A perfect match for their current right fielder, Lonnie Chisenhall, who struggled against southpaws.
But the Indians’ forward-thinking attitude is more than just how they acquire players, or which players they acquire. It’s how they develop them. Kluber didn’t become The Klubot by luck. It wasn’t until he was with the Indians that he developed a devastating curveball (or whatever that breaking ball is) and a fastball re-purposed into a sinker that won him the Cy Young Award in 2014.
From top to bottom, the Indians farm system is recognized as one of the best around the league. This past December, Indians Baseball Insider’s Tony Lastoria went in-depth with the Tribe’s struggles of the past regarding drafting and development and how it has improved over time to the staple it is today. Lastoria talks of the Indians’ international signings, such as Danny Salazar and Jose Ramirez, as well as the numerous players seemingly stolen for nothing from other major-league rosters, like the aforementioned Santana and Kluber as well as a Mike Clevinger for Vinnie Pestano swap that still probably stings Los Angeles Angels fans to this day.
The Indians’ dedication to cutting-edge development can also be seen with how they embrace Driveline Baseball, a radical new way of training pitchers to gain velocity and pitch more effectively, longer. When Trevor Bauer was being mocked on national television for his long-toss routine before games, the Indians went out and traded Shin-Soo Choo for him. Years later, under former director of player development and currently director of baseball operations, Eric Binder, the Indians are now readily using Driveline’s pitching methods, and pitching methods similar to the Driveline’s including full adoption of a weighted ball program developed by former University of Washington pitching coach Ken Knutson. Kyle Boddy, Driveline’s founder and owner, has even called the Indians organization the “most in tune organization on pitcher development.”
When it comes to game-time decisions, there is a synchronicity between manager and front office, between Terry Francona and those dang nerds and their spreadsheets. Just last season, Francona bucked the trend of speedy lead-off guys when he put Carlos Santana, a lumbering first baseman with a great eye at the plate, as the lead-off man because he consistently has lead the team in walks since he broke out in 2011. We saw Francona use his bullpen in revolutionary ways in October, wielding Andrew Miller like a lit torch through a dark forest shrouded in the horror of closer roles. The result was an ALCS win for the Indians an an ALCS MVP for Cleveland’s new favorite relief pitcher.
Most of the time, when fans think of a face of a franchise, it’s tempting to pick an individual player or coach. But I don’t think that’s the case with the Indians. The face of the Indians is behind the scenes. It’s the thought and effort put into making the right decisions, not the gut reactions based on what’s important now, but decisions based on what is going to benefit the team in the future.
Unfortunately, this face probably will not last forever. Already the talent that runs this well-oiled machine of a franchise is being plucked away by rival front offices. Derek Falvey, who spent four years as the Tribe’s director of baseball operations and one as its assistant general manager, is now the executive vice president of the Minnesota Twins. More and more front office personnel are probably going to be stripped away in the coming years as the Indians continue to find success with their approach.
It happened with the ‘90s Indians, when the “dream team” of John Hart, Dan O’Dowd, Mark Shaprio, Josh Byrnes, Paul DePodesta, Ben Cherington, Neal Huntington, and Chris Antonetti all occupied the same front office space but were eventually hired away. It’ll happen again with this front office, and it will be up to them to adapt.
But for now, and for the foreseeable future, whenever you are cheering the Indians after a win, make sure to give a little nod of acknowledgement to the management at the corner of Carnegie and Onatorio.