There was a nice moment the other day after the Cleveland Indians clinched their first American League pennant since 1997. Ernie Johnson of TBS was in the clubhouse for postgame interviews, looking for manager Terry Francona, but the manager had stepped away from the celebration for a few minutes. He wanted to allow Chris Antonetti, the president of baseball operations, and general manager Mike Chernoff a few minutes in the spotlight. So Johnson interviewed the two executives, who were standing there in shorts and T-shirts.
It was a well-earned moment. The Indians organization -- first under Mark Shapiro, who departed last fall for the Blue Jays, then under the Antonetti-Chernoff regime -- has been building to this goal for several years. Cleveland's 94-67 season didn’t come out of nowhere. After winning 96 games and reaching the American League Championship Series in 2007, the Indians got crushed by injuries for a couple of seasons and then entered a rebuilding phase. In 2013, the first year under Francona, the team won 92 games and a wild-card spot. The 2014 team won 85 games, undone by an 11-17 April. Last season the Indians went 81-80 as another slow April hurt, but there were positives, such as outscoring their opponents by 29 runs. The team was closer to contention than many realized.
Like all small-market franchises, the Indians must excel at player development. They’ve done an excellent job, ranking fifth in the majors in 2016 in homegrown WAR. Francisco Lindor is the star product of the farm system, the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft. Cody Allen was a steal in the 23rd round that same year. Jason Kipnis was a second-round pick in 2009 out of Arizona State. Josh Tomlin was drafted in the 19th round back in 2006 out of Texas Tech. Lonnie Chisenhall and Tyler Naquin were both first-round picks. Jose Ramirez and Danny Salazar were signed out of the Dominican Republic.
The Indians have supplemented that homegrown talent with some astute trades throughout the years. Only the Cubs, Tigers and Blue Jays had more WAR in 2016 that was acquired via trade.
Carlos Santana was acquired from the Dodgers back at the trade deadline in 2008 for Casey Blake. The Dodgers needed a third baseman for the playoff drive and while Santana was in the midst of a big year at Class A, he was in just his second year of catching.
Carlos Carrasco was part of the Cliff Lee trade in July 2009. He was a top-rated prospect, the only one of the four players acquired who did anything with the Indians. Still, the Indians displayed extraordinary patience with him, as it wasn’t until 2014 that he began delivering value.
On July 31, 2010, the Indians, Padres and Cardinals completed a three-way deal. The Indians sent veteran starter Jake Westbrook, an impending free agent with a 4.65 ERA, to the Cardinals and received Corey Kluber in return. Kluber was a fourth-round pick in 2007 and had a 3.45 ERA at Double-A at the time of the trade. He led the Texas League in strikeouts, but Baseball America still rated him as Cleveland’s 26th-best prospect entering 2011, citing his “average” slider. I’d say that slider (or curveball) has improved quite a bit.
The Diamondbacks drafted Trevor Bauer third overall in 2011 but quickly soured on him because of some personality conflicts. The Indians were willing to buy low. As part of a three-team deal with the Reds, the Indians traded Shin-Soo Choo (with one season remaining before free agency) and Tony Sipp and acquired Bauer and reliever Bryan Shaw. Bauer has won 23 games the past two seasons, and Shaw has appeared in more games than any other reliever the past four seasons.
Cleveland purchased Dan Otero from the Phillies last December. He gave them a 1.53 ERA over 70 innings.
And you may have heard of this one: Andrew Miller from the Yankees on July 31.
It’s an astonishingly successful run of deals. The only players of significant value they gave up were Lee and Choo. (Plus, there’s Michael Brantley, injured this year, obtained in the CC Sabathia trade with the Brewers in 2008.) It’s the only way a team like the Indians can compete. You have to make out in these kinds of trades. Relying solely on the farm system is a nice ideal, but not a solution. Six of the 10 teams with the most homegrown WAR this season missed the playoffs.
The Cubs, likewise, have made several impact trades (Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Addison Russell), but they also have the financial means to supplement them with big-ticket free agents. The Cubs had 15.9 WAR acquired via free agency; the Indians had just 4.3, most of that coming from low-cost veterans Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis.
There’s a reason other teams keep going to the Indians’ pool of executives. Derek Falvey, the Indians' assistant GM, was recently hired to head the Twins' baseball operation. Mike Hazen, just hired by the Diamondbacks, got his start with the Indians after playing two seasons in the minors. Brewers GM David Stearns also spent a year in the Cleveland front office.
The hope for those teams: a bunch of trades like the ones above.