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75 years and Counting: The story of the 1990 Cleveland Indians

The turnaround begins

Cleveland Indians Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

We’re getting very close to some good baseball here. We have to get through a couple more absolute stinkers first, but in the process there’s going to be some names that start to get mentioned that resemble actual good baseball players.

On December 6th, 1989 the Indians and the Blue Jays made a blockbuster trade. Cleveland sent their star outfielder Joe Carter, fresh off a 39 home run season, to San Diego in exchange for Chris James and two prospects. James had a solid 1990 season for the Indians, but it was the two prospects who are the reason we look back at this trade as the one that kick started the dynasty of the mid 90’s in Cleveland. Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga.

Though, at least in my opinion, much of Alomar’s career is colored by nostalgia lenses as if you look at his actual production, he was an average player who had a few solid seasons and one really good one. Not that WAR is everything, but a 13.9 bWAR in 11 seasons in Cleveland (and bWAR tends to be generous) isn’t really anything to write home about. Sure he had some injuries, but if we’re being honest with ourselves he was an average to decent player who was a 10/10 human being and on some of our favorite teams so we remember him more fondly. I know his reputation was as a defensive wizard, but the advent of advanced defensive metrics hasn’t been particularly kind to him. Again, I know I’m venturing into the realm of blasphemy here because it’s Sandy freaking Alomar for crying out loud, and I’m not suggesting he was some stiff, but just presenting what I’m seeing.

Baerga on the other hand became one of the cornerstone pieces of the 90’s teams. Again the modern statistics that value OBP as much as they do aren’t thrilled about him only having a single season where he drew more than 35 walks, but with the high batting average and reasonably high slugging percentage he’d post every year he could get away with it to a certain extent.

Between the two of them, Cleveland had some young pieces to build around. Another Familiar face who made his Cleveland debut in 1990 was RHP Charlie Nagy. Nagy’s humble, no nonsense approach and soft spoken manner quickly endeared him to Cleveland fans as he became one of the most well liked players on the team. While it would certainly be a stretch to call him an ace, he was a very good pitcher for a number of years and the type of guy you need if you’re building a championship caliber team. Not an ace, more of a good #2 or a stellar #3. The type of guy you’re confident handing the ball on any given day in a playoff series, but is probably at somewhat of a disadvantage against a majority of #1’s in the playoffs.

Between those three, plus Jim Thome and Albert Belle already in the system the Indians were beginning to develop a really good looking core of young players. Their top overall prospect was former #2 overall pick Mark Lewis who turned out to be a pretty major bust, and there were trades for young players that never quite materialized for them. Guys like Glenallen Hill, Mark Whiten, Alex Cole, and more were seen as solid prospects at one point or another but never quite caught on in Cleveland. But there were more hits than misses, or at least enough hits to build the 90’s teams that we all remember so fondly.

As for the 1990 season itself, let’s just say I’d much rather talk about the prospects and the trades and whatnot. They were pretty bad, finishing 75-88, although they did finish the year on a hot stretch going 15-6 down the stretch. Sandy Alomar captured Rookie of the Year honors and there was some reason for optimism headed into 1991.

Unfortunately it would be dashed quickly as 1991 would be one of the worst seasons in Cleveland baseball history

But more on that tomorrow