1992 is another year, like ‘91, where I’m not going to spend much time on the ebb and flow of the season itself, because there really isn’t anything notable. Anything anyone remembers from 1992 at a macro level came from the individual performances of players, not the team itself. They were just a pretty consistent sub .500 team the whole year. But to focus on that misses the truth of what was happening in the organization in 1992.
Following the 1992 season the Indians were named “Organization of the Year” by Baseball America for the combination of the young talent they had on the roster already combined with the top prospects who were still a couple of years away. They also made some shrewd trades to net key pieces of the 95 team that won the AL pennant.
Oscar Nunez was sent to Minnesota before the season for First Baseman Paul Sorrento. Sorrento was by no means a superstar, but a solid player and a consistent presence in the Cleveland Lineup for the next handful of years. He’d eventually be moved to clear up the corner infield logjam that was quickly mounting, but he was a solid contributor to some very good offenses. Eric Plunk was also signed that offseason and would become a key cog in the dominant ‘95 bullpen. Jose Mesa was also acquired in a trade with Baltimore for a guy who never made the majors. Mesa, as many fans remember, had one of the most dominant seasons by a reliever in franchise history in 1995, and despite being known primarily for blowing the save in the ‘97 world series is one of the best relievers the franchise has ever had.
While the last few pieces of the 1995 puzzle wouldn’t be assembled until ‘93 and ‘94, most of the familiar names were at least in house by this point, and many of them were starting to show flashes of who they’d become. Kenny Lofton had a stellar rookie season in the Majors (he played some in ‘91 with Houston, but not enough to lose his rookie eligibility). Somehow Pat Listach from Milwaukee kind of ran away with Rookie of the Year despite Lofton posting near identical stats offensively except hitting 5 homers to Listach’s 1, plus playing dramatically better defense in one of the hardest parks to play CF. He also posted 2 whole WAR more than Listach. You could make the case that Listach deserved but there’s no world where he deserved 20 of the 27 first place votes over Lofton.
Another move that was made that made a pretty big impact was trading Greg Swindell to Cincinatti for a package centered around Scott Scudder and Jack Armstrong. The impact of the deal was not in the player they gave up, or the players they got, but rather the philosophy change that led to the trade. I want to preface by saying that we need to remember these are the Jacobs years not the Dolan years we’re talking about here. But Swindell went to arbitration and the number he and his camp submitted was dramatically higher than the one the Cleveland F.O. submitted. When the arbitrator made his decision Swindell was walking away with a massive payday that Cleveland felt was far beyond his talents as a player. We can debate the merits of that statement all we want, but it led to a philosophy change in Cleveland to avoiding arbitration at all costs. Extending young talent early, paying them more pre arbitration to avoid massive paydays in their arbitration years thereby making your payroll far more predictable and being able to spend more to supplement your young core. There were a few misses, Glenallen Hill and Alex Cole were given deals that never paid off in Cleveland, but the philosophy of extending young players pre arb was fairly revolutionary and to a certain extent began with Cleveland. This would be the driving force behind the Swindell trade as well.
We’re officially in what I would call the last of the dark ages. While 1993 doesn’t get counted as part of the dominant run in the 90’s, the clear delineation created by the new stadium and the strike as well as the wildcard era and new uniforms really separates ‘93 season out from the good years. However, I’d argue that ‘93 was the year when things started to come together and the team really showed flashes. They finished with the same record as the ‘92 season but there’s a big difference between a sub .500 team that loses because they have a talent deficit and one that loses because they just haven’t quite put it together yet. ‘92 was the former and ‘93 was certainly the latter.
More on that tomorrow!