It’s hard to call a 99 win season a disappointment, but 1996 sure feels like one. In 1994 and 1995 there was a very real sense of “we’re just happy to be here” but when you’re as close as the 1995 team was to baseball immortality, suddenly anything less than that starts to feel like failure. It’s amazing how quickly a team can go from 3 seasons of 100 losses in a 6 year stretch to “World Series or bust’ but that is the beauty and the pain that comes with the game of baseball. Thinking to yourself “we’ll be back” isn’t a given, you can’t take for granted that the stars will align like they did for you on your magical run, so many all time teams have fallen just short of a world series. Nobody wants to admit it, but there’s an incredible degree of luck that goes into winning just one playoff series, let alone three. Baseball is a constant war between doing everything you can to maximize your chance of winning in the aggregate, to maximize your output over a large sample size only to have everything come down to a game or two, and a couple of isolated events. Even if you have an absurd 80% chance to win the series, there’s still a 1 in 5 chance you don’t and suddenly it doesn’t seem so certain. If you put the 2023 Oakland A’s in the playoffs, there is a chance, however slim, that they could theoretically pull it off. Your pitcher catches too much of the plate, you hit some line drives with a .950 expected batting average right at guys, and suddenly you’re watching Rob Manfred present the Oakland dugout possum with a world series ring. That’s baseball.
Even though it seemed like the M.O. would be to just run it back with mostly the same roster as ‘95, that didn’t stop John Hart from making a couple of major splashes in Free Agency. After letting first baseman Paul Sorrento leave after his contract expired there was suddenly a hole to fill at first base. Eddie Murray was pretty much relegated to being a DH by this point and Jim Thome was still at third. Hart signed a familiar face in Julio Franco, the ageless wonder, to fill the void. But they weren’t done there, after Atlanta’s pitching stifled them in the world series, Hart knew that they needed to sign an ace, and that’s just what they did signing Jack McDowell. The 29 year old McDowell was just two years removed from back to back 20 win seasons, and was the winningest American League pitcher of the 90’s to that point. Though hindsight and the modern view of pitching analytics tells us he was probably more of a solid middle rotation guy on the decline, matching Atlanta’s Cy Young winners with one of our own was a big get.
Franco responded well hitting .322 with 14 home runs in only 112 games, providing exactly what Cleveland needed to fill the void left by Sorrento. McDowell, on the other hand, started out incredibly strong. He opened as the #2 starter in the rotation and responded with 4 straight starts of 6+ innings and fewer than 2 runs allowed, including a complete game shutout in his 3rd start. Unfortunately he suffered a forearm strain early in the season that would later require a trip to the injured list. The injury, in McDowell’s telling, completely sapped his ability to throw his breaking ball effectively. Despite a lack of confidence in his curveball and arm pain that plagued him the whole season McDowell gritted out 30 starts and 5 complete games but was a shell of the pitcher that had won the Cy Young award only a few years before.
The 1996 season also saw regressions from some key cogs of the ‘95 team, Carlos Baerga and Eddie Murray. There has always been a great deal of speculation surrounding Baerga that after 1995 he stopped working hard and taking care of his body, coming to spring training overweight and never quite getting going. It’s unclear how much of that is true vs. just rumor but the decline in production for one of the best players in baseball was surely jarring. Murray was in a fairly major contract dispute with the front office following the 1995 season. Murray’s contract was up after the ‘96 season, but he wanted to stay in Cleveland where he felt he had a good chance to win another world series. Unfortunately by this point in his career Murray was confined exclusively to a DH role, and the extension offer the Indians gave him reflected that fact. Murray felt that the offer was less than what he was worth and declined. After some early season struggles he was starting to lose at-bats to bench players and Hart traded him to Baltimore. A move that would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Don’t let all the talk about McDowell’s disappointing season and Baerga and Murray’s regression fool you, the 1996 Indians were still an absolute juggernaut. Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez were only getting better, Albert Belle was still Albert Belle, and rookie Brian Giles had a scorching hot 50 game audition with the club that saw him hit .355. Despite a shaky bullpen and massive regression by Jose Mesa, the Indians still won 99 games in 1996 and cruised into the playoffs, winning the division by 14.5 games.
That is, unfortunately, where the Eddie Murray trade came back to bite them. Facing the Orioles, Brady Anderson (who inexplicably hit 50 home runs after topping out at 21 in the previous 8 years of his career) led off game 1 with a home run, and the Orioles never looked back. Murray hit .400 in the series and the Indians fell in 4 games.
While the 1996 season would’ve seemed like a dream come true to a Cleveland fan in 1986, it certainly felt like a kick to the teeth after the success of 1995. Thankfully Cleveland fans wouldn’t have to wait long to get another crack at the World Series.
More on that tomorrow