It was the best team in the American League, but it wasn't quite good enough. The Cleveland Indians won 100 games in a shortened season last year and went to the World Series for the first time since 1954, but general manager John Hart surveyed the competitive landscape three months ago and decided to make some dramatic changes.
Second baseman Carlos Baerga -- once thought to be the heart and soul of the Indians lineup -- was traded along with Alvaro Espinoza to the New York Mets for Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino.
If it ain't broke, they say that you shouldn't fix it, but Hart is not of the old school. He has always been of the opinion that if you stand around, somebody is going to pass you by. So, when he sensed that Baerga was outliving his usefulness in Cleveland, he acted decisively. And when it became apparent that Murray's playing time would decline in the second half of the season, he made a bold move that was not particularly popular in the clubhouse or the stands.
Result: The Indians shook off a midseason malaise and cruised home with their second straight American League Central title. They meet the Orioles tomorrow at Camden Yards in the first game of a best-of-five division series.
"It was tough," Hart said. "I felt that there were things we needed to change on our ballclub, and they weren't particularly popular. I said to our fans, 'Trust our track record. We've done creative things with contracts and free agents. We've built a good track record. Just trust us on this.' And I'm not sure that we'd be in the position we're in now if we hadn't done the things we did."
This clearly is not the same Indians team that cruised through the first playoff round last year and defeated the Seattle Mariners in the American League Championship Series. Hart moved quickly last winter to augment an already solid starting rotation with free-agent pitcher Jack McDowell and to beef up the batting order with Julio Franco.
The club opened the season as a strong favorite to return to the World Series and maybe even clear the final hurdle this time, but the road to the postseason was not nearly as smooth as it had been in 1995.
Franco was out much of the first half because of injury, prompting a deal that sent former Orioles reliever Jim Poole to the San Francisco Giants for first baseman Mark Carreon, which in turn led to the Murray trade. The Indians also struggled defensively, which led to the agonizing decision to trade one of the cornerstones of the club's renaissance.
Baerga was one of the team's most popular players -- with the fans and with the local media. There was a time when he was considered one of the game's best all-around second basemen, but Hart said that time had passed.
"Carlos was a big part of our organization when we got good," Hart said, "but we felt we needed help. Carlos just wasn't getting the job done defensively, and his offense was down. He needed a position change, but we already had a prototype third baseman and we weren't going to play him at first base."
Instead, the Indians packaged him with Espinoza and acquired Kent, who can hit for power and play all infield positions, and Vizcaino, who led National League shortstops in fielding percentage last season. The club already had a fine shortstop in Omar Vizquel, but the addition of two more solid middle infielders gave manager Mike Hargrove tremendous defensive depth and flexibility.
"Those moves also relieved us of $9.5 million in payroll," Hart added, "so it was a short-term, long-term thing."
Hart, a former minor-league manager and major-league coach for the Orioles, has always had a knack for making the numbers work. He was the guy who signed the Indians' top young players to multi-year contracts long before the club was in any danger of losing them. That raised eyebrows in other front offices, but it turned out to be sound economic policy and made it possible to keep the team's talented nucleus together long enough to turn Cleveland back into a baseball powerhouse.
Most of that team remains intact. Center fielder Kenny Lofton still is at the top of the batting order, still running opposing pitchers and catchers ragged. Left fielder Albert Belle has behaved himself in the second half and again enters the postseason with MVP credentials. Third baseman Jim Thome has had one of the best seasons by a left-handed hitter in the history of the franchise. And outfielder Manny Ramirez finished the season with numbers that would make him the team MVP in about 20 other cities.
The only question that remained was how all of the midseason juggling would affect clubhouse chemistry. Murray and Baerga were considered clubhouse leaders, so Hart was gambling that other players would step in to fill the leadership gap.
"In both deals, clubhouse chemistry was a big deal," Hart said. "We talked with the staff, and we felt that we had enough leadership on our ballclub . . . that Ken Lofton and Albert Belle and Jim Thome and Vizquel and Sandy Alomar would step in to fill that gap. They've done that. Our club is full of leadership and confidence. We feel it was the right thing to do."
The end has certainly justified the means. The Indians ran away from the second-place Chicago White Sox down the stretch and became the first division winner of 1996. That allowed Hargrove plenty of time to arrange his pitching staff and rest his regulars, which could be a big advantage against an Orioles club that had to fight into the final weekend to wrap up the wild-card berth.
Pub Date: 9/30/96