The Cleveland Indians had a mini dynasty going back in the mid-to-late 90s, winning five straight division titles (six in seven years) and making it to the World Series twice. That string of success was built upon a large core of homegrown players who were signed and developed, then given long-term contracts, by the Indians.
Cleveland is back in the postseason for just the second time since then, and if the 2013 edition of the Indians teaches nothing else, it's that there's more than one way to skin a cat.
This is not the Indians of Carlos Baerga, Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar, Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. A vast majority of the roster headed to the playoffs did not start with this organization. More than perhaps any organization in baseball, the Indians have found tremendous value in the trade market, bringing in talent in all shapes and sizes to help them put together this American League Wild Card club.
The Cleveland braintrust clearly felt it was close, despite a 94-loss season in 2012, so it was aggressive on the free-agent market prior to the 2013 season, providing the necessary pieces that led to this year's 24-win turnaround.
"If you look at our roster, we've gotten contributions from each of our areas of player acquisition," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "[We've gotten help] from the Draft and from Latin America. Our pro scouting department [contributed] with trades and free-agent acquisitions. We've gotten guys at different points in the development spectrum. We've tried to assimilate them all into a team that's as good as possible to win as many games as we can."
Here's a closer look at how the Indians' roster was built:
Depending on how postseason rosters shake out, the Indians may have the fewest number of truly homegrown players of any of the playoff teams. What they don't have in quantity, though, they make up for in quality.
Jason Kipnis represents the draftees extremely well. The 2009 second-round pick was an All-Star in 2013 and has been a rock in the lineup and in the infield in just his second full Major League season. While Kipnis was big, particularly in the first half, the club received a huge second-half boost from Danny Salazar, the lone member of the roster who was signed and developed by the Indians out of Latin America.
"Both of those guys have made a huge impact on our team," Antonetti said. "Kip carried us for better part of a month and a half. He's been a very steady performer. Danny helped us get through a couple of injuries. Without him filling that void, we'd have had a tough time staying in the race."
Cody Allen and Lonnie Chisenhall also made contributions, perhaps not quite as large as the other two. Allen was a mainstay in the bullpen all year, and while Chisenhall's overall numbers aren't too pretty, he's come through at the plate at times and gives the Indians either some power at the bottom of the lineup or a left-handed bat off the bench.
"All of them have made some contributions, with Kip and Danny at the head of the class," Antonetti said.
Making deals, it turns out, has been the Indians' bread and butter. More players on their playoff roster have come via trades than by any other means, by far. It's been a combination of smaller moves and some blockbusters that has brought this successful mix of players together.
Acquired via trade
Cleveland has proven adept, over the years, at identifying talent, sometimes bringing in unfinished products and helping them become productive big leaguers. Asdrubal Cabrera was a Triple-A infielder when they got him from Seattle in 2006. While Carlos Santana had a breakout year in 2008, he was still in A ball when the Indians got him from the Dodgers in 2008. Justin Masterson, while more of a known quantity when he came from the Red Sox, had an unclear role. Some felt he didn't have the tools to be a starter long-term, but the Indians did, and he's been a workhorse in their rotation since.
The Indians' track record on the blockbusters is a little spottier. Trevor Bauer was thought to be the biggest prize in last offseason's huge three-team trade, but he ended up making just four starts in the big leagues in 2013 and did not receive a September callup. On the plus side, all of the other pieces -- Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw from the D-backs, Drew Stubbs from the Reds -- all contributed to the playoff push.
The Indians took a good amount of heat when they sent Drew Pomeranz and Alex White -- two of the better pitching prospects in the game, at the time -- along with a solid prospect, in Joe Gardner, to Colorado for Ubaldo Jimenez in 2011. Cleveland thought it could make a run that year, and the fact the club ended up under .500 and 15 games out didn't help when evaluating the deal. But sometimes it takes longer for a deal's benefits to come to fruition. Putting aside the fact that neither Pomeranz nor White have lived up to expectations, Jimenez's return to pre-trade form, especially in the second half of the season, has been huge for the Indians.
"We don't spend a lot of time looking at what people externally are talking about," Antonetti said about the critique of the trade. "But without question, without Ubaldo's contributions, we would not have been in the position we were to compete for a playoff spot."
The other blockbusters over the years have been a little less fruitful, part of the risk involved when making any kind of deal. The trades of two elite lefties, in CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, netted the Indians just one player on the current roster, outfielder Michael Brantley, though Jason Donald was later sent as part of the deal with the Reds and D-backs. It may not have been the return the Indians hoped for, but Antonetti feels the overall scorecard is still pretty positive.
"Not everyone is going to make perfect decisions and trades," he said. "If you look at the whole portfolio of trades, we've had a fair amount of success. If you look at the composition of this team -- not just this year, but over the past several years -- those deals have worked well for us and been a big part of how we've constructed our team."
The Indians typically aren't ones to go nuts on the free-agent market. That's what made what they did prior to the 2013 season that much more interesting. But what made it truly impactful was surrounding their two big-ticket free agents -- Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher -- with some Minor League signings that have really paid off.
Acquired via free agency
Scott Kazmir had been pitching in independent league ball in 2012. Ryan Raburn was coming off of a season with the Tigers that saw him post a .480 OPS as a part-timer. Cleveland's staff saw something in both, and Kazmir has been a rotation mainstay while Raburn has been impressive as a utilityman.
"We try to be relentless in looking at every way possible in acquiring talent," Antonetti said. "Those were guys who had down years, or were relatively low risk. Our pro scouts did a good job. There were reasons to think they would bounce back, and both guys have been huge contributors so far."
It's quite possible, though, that with all of these other moves, the 2013 season will be looked at as the time the Indians rolled the free-agent dice and won. Within a span of a few weeks, Cleveland signed both Swisher and Bourn for over $100 million combined. And while neither veteran has put up huge numbers, there's no doubt their additions have paid dividends.
"We had a very disappointing 2012 season," Antonetti said. "We wanted to do everything we could to improve our [ability to compete], not just in 2013, but beyond. We had a need for position players to help bridge the gap. We thought Michael and Nick could really help us and contribute, and both guys have certainly done that."