After the heartbreak that was the 1997 season, the Indians were desperate to get back to the world series in 1998. They had been one of the most dominant teams of the last 4 years, but had nothing to show for it. They were quickly joining their mid 90s contemporaries, the Buffalo Bills, as an example of a team that could just never quite get it done.
The ‘97-’98 offseason was fairly eventful. Matt Williams asked to be traded, preferring to be back on the west coast, and after a disappointing 1997 campaign that saw him, while remaining productive, fall dramatically short of his usual brilliance, the Indians obliged. Williams was traded to the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for another third baseman, Travis Fryman. Fryman is one of my favorite players of all time, he always seemed like a stellar person, and was a damn good third baseman. But Fryman’s acquisition would be vastly overshadowed by the return of Kenny Lofton. In ‘97 Lofton had one of the best years of his career at the plate, hitting .333 but his stolen base numbers cratered. Lofton had averaged 65 stolen bases every year since becoming a full time player in 1992, in 1997 he only stole 27 bags and led the league being caught stealing 20 times. While the bat and on base ability were still there, suddenly his “diminished” baserunning ability raised questions about his long term prospects and dramatically decreased his market in free agency. While in hindsight this is incredibly silly to think about now, a consistent .400 OBP, .300 hitting defensive wizard in center is an incredible player regardless of whether he steals even a single base, but the league’s loss is Cleveland’s gain as they were able to afford to sign Lofton that offseason. They had traded him a year earlier for Justice and Grissom and then resigned him after one year anyway? Talk about a fleecing. Lofton responded well, stealing 54 bases and continuing to hit well despite being on the wrong side of 30.
The Indians, always in search of pitching, signed veteran Dwight “Doc” Gooden. Gooden had been one of the best pitchers in the game early in his career in New York with the Mets, but off the field issues derailed his promising career. At this point he was more of an interesting reclamation project than a high profile free agent, but he responded with a really solid season, posting a 3.76 ERA and an 8-6 record in 23 starts. That never ending quest for pitching would become what derailed the steady flow of talent the Indians had been producing. Their farm system was churning out big league hitters the way the modern Guardians do with pitching. Rather than try and develop an ace of their own, they took an area of strength, offense, and tried to use it via trade to supplement their pitching.
The first casualty of this was Sean Casey. Casey wasn’t the traditional profile for a first baseman, more reminiscent of a Carlos Baerga or Julio Franco type at the plate than the more stereotypical Jim Thome or Paul Sorrento. Casey could flat out hit though, batting .302 for his career and averaging 15 homers and 35 doubles a year. Unfotunately this was all for Cincinatti as Casey was traded for pitcher Dave Burba in the hopes of solidifying the rotation. While Burba was certainly solid, it’s deals like this that gutted the farm system and left the Indians in drastic need of a rebuild following the 2001 season. There’s a world where Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez walk in free agency, but instead of handing the reins to Brian Giles, Richie Sexson, and Sean Casey, we got Chris McGruder, Ricky Guttierez, and Shane Spencer.
There have been rumors that there was a proposed 1:1 swap on the table that offseason that would’ve sent Jaret Wright to Montreal for Pedro Martinez, but the Indians (allegedly) declined, preferring to keep Wright, claiming “we have Pedro Martinez at home” or something like that.
The Indians cruised through the 1998 season into the playoffs. Nagging injuries prevented them from posting a truly dominant win total as they struggled somewhat down the stretch, but they finished with 89 wins, enough to win the AL Central pretty substantially. They beat Boston in 4 games in the ALDS but ran face first into the buzzsaw that was the 1998 Yankees. They actually carried a 2-1 series lead with game 4 and game 5 taking place in Jacobs Field but couldn’t close out the Yankees as 1998 came to a disappointing end.
4 straight division titles isn’t bad, but this is where the desperation started to set in and the normally calculating Indians front office started to get away from what had gotten them where they were. The desperate reshuffling and constantly plugging leaks with fingers causes you to eventually run out of fingers, and that’s where the Indians found themselves just a few short years later.
Thankfully we still have some time before then.
See you tomorrow!