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CLEVELAND -- The story of the 2011 Cleveland Indians' stunning rise to the top of the American League Central standings began long ago in a galaxy a world wide web away.
Few were even aware the web contained the personal site of one Carsten Charles Sabathia until the night of Feb. 13, 2008, when said site posted an official statement from the AL's reigning Cy Young Award winner. In it, Sabathia, the Indians' former homegrown ace and first Cy Young winner in 35 years, announced that he was breaking off contract extension talks with general manager Mark Shapiro and assistant Chris Antonetti, making it clear that he would test the free-agent waters at season's end.
There the Indians were, on the eve of Valentine's Day, getting dumped.
Not that any of this was a surprise, really. The economics of the game are such that a player of Sabathia's caliber can command almost anything he wants on the open market and find a big-spending club to offer it. While the Indians made an earnest effort to keep him, offering what would have been the largest contract in club history, they never really stood a fighting chance at keeping CC. He would, of course, go on to wear Yankees pinstripes, becoming the highest-paid pitcher in the game and winning a World Series in 2009.
But that's Sabathia's story. What about the Indians?
Well, they hoped for one last hurrah with their ace in tow in '08. And their rotation, unbeknownst to them, would be further boosted by a 22-win season from Cliff Lee. Yet it still wasn't enough, as the roster was ravaged by injuries and underachievement. They hit a skid in mid-May and never recovered. By early July, they were well out of contention for a playoff spot.
And that's when the first of 10 key turning points that led to this 2011 team took place.
1. Saying sayonara to CC (July 2008)
Like the Bartolo Colon trade of 2002, this was the Indians' attempt to get high-caliber prospects (rather than more risky Draft picks) back for their homegrown ace before he left them as a free agent. Unlike the Colon trade, Cleveland did not necessarily view this as the initiation of a total rebuild, as it still had an eye on contending in 2009.
The Tribe found a perfect bidder in the Brewers, who were in contention in the National League Central and had an eye on their first playoff appearance in 26 years. They were hungry, maybe even a little desperate, and were willing to part with two of the best bats in their system, slugging outfielder/first baseman Matt LaPorta and speedy center fielder Michael Brantley.
Sabathia was a two-month rental for the Brew Crew, who fell in the first round of the playoffs and then lost him to the Yankees without even getting a first-round Draft pick back. LaPorta and Brantley, meanwhile, are now everyday players in this Tribe lineup. Another veteran nearing free agency, Casey Blake, would also be dealt that month, with the Indians getting prized catching prospect Carlos Santana in return.
2. A Draft of impact (June 2009)
After Sabathia was taken 20th overall in 1998, these were the Indians' first-round Draft picks from 2000-07 (note that the club did not have a No. 1 pick in 1999 or 2006): Corey Smith, Dan Denham, Jeremy Guthrie, Michael Aubrey, Jeremy Sowers, Trevor Crowe and Beau Mills.
Aside from a strong second-half showing from Sowers in 2006, none of those players have, to date, made a sustained and meaningful impact in a Tribe uniform.
The Indians restructured their amateur scouting department at the end of '07. Highly touted third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall was taken in the first round in '08 and should join this team before year's end. But it's the selection of Alex White at No. 15 overall in 2009 that signaled the start of an increased emphasis on big-bodied, accomplished amateur arms with good stuff. His arrival to rescue an injury-ravaged rotation shows how far the Indians have come in terms of getting it right with their high-profile picks. Alas, in recent days, White has been injured himself. A sprained ligament in his right middle finger will cost him at least two months.
3. The ousting of Fausto (June 2009)
Two years after he won 19 games and was a viable Cy Young candidate for the Indians, Fausto Carmona was optioned to the Minors in the middle of the '09 season. Carmona was certainly not the first young player to get sent back down for retooling after his big league break-in, but he was one of the few who was sent all the way
back down, i.e. rookie ball. That's how mechanically and mentally out of whack Carmona had become.
For the next two months, Carmona worked on his delivery and worked his way up the Minor League ladder before rejoining the team in August. He wasn't completely fixed, but the framework had been established.
Last year, a reborn Carmona achieved All-Star status. This year, he's had some shaky moments, but he entered the year as the only veteran starter with a real track record on which to rely, and that was an essential building block for this starting staff.
4. The fire sale (Summer 2009)
The intent might have been to contend in 2009 (the Indians even invested $20.5 million in Kerry Wood in an effort to shore up their bullpen), but that was not the result. The losing continued, and that led to another round of blockbuster trades. This time, however, the Tribe's course was clear. This was the official initiation of a rebuilding period that threatened to last for years.
Veteran infielder Mark DeRosa was the first domino, shipped to the Cardinals in June for relievers Chris Perez and Jess Todd. Perez was the key acquisition, given his short-term closing experience with the Cards and his fireball-tossing arm. Two years later, he's locked in as the Tribe closer -- an extremely valuable commodity.
The following month, the trade activity would really heat up when reliever Rafael Betancourt and first baseman Ryan Garko were sent packing. But by far the biggest move came on July 29. The Indians played a day game in Anaheim and announced afterward that Lee, the reigning Cy Young winner, and outfielder Ben Francisco were headed to the Phillies.
The move was a stunner, in that the Indians still had contractual control of Lee for 2010. But ownership had made it clear to the front office that no additional financial resources would be committed to the 2010 club, so Shapiro and Antonetti opted to eke as much value out of him as possible. They received four prospects -- right-hander Carlos Carrasco, who has impacted the rotation; catcher Lou Marson and infielder Jason Donald, who have served as role players; and right-hander Jason Knapp, who has high upside but is in Class A ball.
Once Lee was gone, it made no sense to keep catcher Victor Martinez, on whom the Indians also had a 2010 option. He was sent packing two days later. It was a particularly painful move for the Indians and for Martinez, who had a genuine love of the organization that had made him a Major Leaguer. But it has already turned out to be a successful trade, in that it netted the Tribe a quality starter in Justin Masterson, as well as two prospects in Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price.
5. A change at the helm (October 2009)
Eric Wedge was entrenched on the Tribe bench for seven seasons, winning 93 games in 2005 and 96 games and the AL Manager of the Year honor in 2007. Shapiro had often referred to Wedge as his "partner," so philosophically linked were the GM and skipper.
But somebody had to be the fall guy for what transpired in '08 and '09, and, as usual, the manager bit the bullet.
The Indians did not seek a grand departure from Wedge's managerial stylings. They just felt a new voice from outside the organization was needed. In Manny Acta, who had been dismissed by the Nationals earlier that summer, the front office found a voice of optimism and enthusiasm, and a manager who needed them as much as they needed him.
While all managers are ultimately only as good as what their rosters afford them, Acta, whose club lost 93 games last year, made it clear in camp this year that the expectation was to win now, no matter what the skeptics said. That mentality proved contagious in the clubhouse.
6. A new preacher for the pitchers (November 2009)
The managerial shakeup was significant, but a move that was of at least equal significance was the decision a few weeks later to promote Tim Belcher to pitching coach. It was a surprising move, given that the Indians were generally expected to look outside the organization, as they did with the managerial hire, and Belcher had never coached at any level.
But Shapiro and Antonetti knew the mark that Belcher, an accomplished veteran of 14 Major League seasons, had made on the organization as a special adviser, and they felt he'd thrive in this role. They recommended the move to Acta, who approved. And in the time since, Belcher has created a competitive culture in which the importance of getting strike one is strongly emphasized and acted upon.
7. The surgery that saved Sizemore (June 2010)
Medical advancements have played a major role in the Indians getting where they are today. Look to Travis Hafner's shoulder surgery or Santana's knee surgery for proof. But no procedure came with more concern than the one Grady Sizemore had performed on his left knee one year ago.
At one time, Sizemore's injury would have been considered career-ending, but a microfracture procedure that is still relatively rare in baseball rescued him. Given the complex nature of the recovery, there were plenty of questions about what kind of player Sizemore would be once he returned, and some of those questions will continue until he's able to play a full season. But the immediate impact Sizemore made upon his return in April bodes well for his future, assuming his current injury to his other
knee is not more serious than the Indians are making it out to be.
8. Momentum on the mound (July to October 2010)
Before the All-Star break last year, Tribe pitchers put together a 4.64 ERA that was the third worst in the AL at that time. In the second half, though, the club had a 3.86 mark that was tied for the fourth best in the league. That included a bullpen ERA of 2.95 that was second best, behind that of the Yankees.
There were three keys to the surge. The first was a staff-wide emphasis on first-pitch strikes that finally began to bear fruit in September. The Indians finished the season with the lowest first-pitch strike percentage (56.2) in baseball, but that number jumped to 59 percent in the season's final month. Momentum was established that would be carried into 2011.
But the other keys revolved around the performance of two starters. One, Masterson, endured such a miserable first half that it was almost assumed that he would be in the bullpen in 2011. The other, Josh Tomlin, hadn't even been on the big league radar entering the year.
Tomlin arrived out of necessity as injuries and the trade of Jake Westbrook ravaged the rotation, and by pounding the strike zone, he went a respectable 6-4 with a 4.56 ERA, lasting at least five innings in each of his starts. Masterson, who was 3-10 at the end of July, finally clicked in August, going 2-0 with a 1.63 ERA in his last four starts.
Though the proof that this was a new trend and not a blip on the radar wouldn't come for several months, a positive pitching tone had been established.
9. A new infield alignment (Spring Training 2011)
With so many ground-ball-inducing pitchers on board, the Indians' defensive issues last season (their 110 errors were tied for the fourth most in the AL) only exacerbated the shakiness of the staff.
Getting full health out of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who missed six weeks with a fractured forearm last season, was a big help. But a huge boost also came from the addition of veteran Orlando Cabrera to man second base and the surprise showing from Jack Hannahan at the hot corner.
Hannahan wasn't even expected to be on the big league roster this season. The Indians were planning to audition youngster Jason Donald before promoting top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall. But when Donald fractured his middle finger on his left hand early in Spring Training, the Tribe was stuck. Hannahan, a Minor League signee, was the best option available and landed the job. He's provided the Indians with the best defense they've seen at third base since the Travis Fryman years of the early 2000s, and it's made a huge difference for the pitching staff.
10. A walk-off wallop (April 29, 2011)
This was a "turning point" in the sense that it was precisely the type of game the Indians would have lost last season, and those in the clubhouse who had experienced the many humbling moments of 2010 pointed to it as a significant sign of the new attitude in 2011.
The Indians were down 5-2 after the top of the seventh, and they were looking relatively clueless at the plate against the Tigers' Max Scherzer. But they tied it up in the bottom of the inning. And in the ninth, they loaded the bases for Santana, who smacked Joaquin Benoit's 3-1 fastball out to right for the walk-off grand slam that lit up the Cleveland night.
For a franchise that had been all but abandoned by the fan base the year before -- when Progressive Field saw the lowest attendance total in the big leagues -- this was the night when the ballpark really began to come alive again. As the Indians' winning ways continue and the magic that seemed to ooze out of that building in the 1990s returns, well, who knows what other surprises might be in store?