Baltimore dismissed the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series of the 1996 American League playoffs, striking an early blow to the middle market dynasty in Northeast Ohio. The Indians promised a new look for the 1997 season, trading Jeff Kent (among others) to San Francisco for Matt Williams. Young aces-in-training, Jaret Wright and Bartolo Colon, stood to make their first significant contributions to the Tribe’s rotation. The makeover became even more extreme with the season was set to open, as the Indians traded Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree to Atlanta for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. The core was realigned, but the Indians were ready to compete. Mike Hargrove’s nine would win the 1997 American League Central with 86 victories.
I gather that Brewers fans are shouting for an active trade deadline, or questioning general manager Doug Melvin’s judgment in preparing the 2012 Brewers to defend the 2011 Central Division championship. A simple question can be asked of any (or every) playoff club: what percentage of a playoff roster should be maintained for the following season?
The initial answer is obvious. A playoff club should reasonably maintain as much of their roster as remains under control. The tough decisions come with players that become free agents after the playoff season, or players running low on remaining contract years with the club. In that regard, a playoff club’s roster will only change according to the number of roster spots occupied by expiring contracts, and beyond that, according to some mixture of replacing underperforming players or finding spots for promising prospects.
With that in mind, should Doug Melvin have been expected to change a greater percentage of the Brewers’ roster, from 2011 to 2012?
I have started charting regular players used by playoff clubs during the Wild Card era, in order to judge roster turnover from one playoff season to the following season. There is obviously more turnover on the fringes of just about any ballclub, as front offices deal with pitching replacements for injuries or ineffectiveness, middle relievers, utility players, etc. So, I tried to limit my survey to approximately 20 significant spots on each club: the starting 8 fielders, a DH, and the top 2 bench or utility players (typically I tried to limit each position player to those with 150-200+ PA); on the pitching side, I included the 5-man rotation, a swingman, and the most frequently used relievers (always including the closer).
Furthermore, I limited my survey to smaller / middle market clubs for relevance to the Brewers. It is indeed valuable to ask whether teams like the Yankees and Phillies keep their cores together after playoff seasons, but that question is carried in different ways by those clubs because they can afford astronomical top free agent contracts. In that regard, those clubs are likely to change their rosters every now and then, when CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Mark Texeira-type players become available. Given that that’s a resource unavailable to the Brewers, I tried to look at how clubs that could not afford such resources evaluate their cores after playoff seasons.
Cleveland Indians, 1995-present
The Cleveland Indians’ franchise is perhaps the perfect club to study in terms of turning over their roster, not only because they are one of the most competitive small/middle market clubs in the last 16 seasons, but also because they doubly capitalized on significant advances in baseball marketing. Their Jacobs Field was one of the model 1990s ballparks situated in an urban setting (don’t let the industrial valley or Lorain Bridge scare you, you can walk there from nearby neighborhoods!), but after the stadium novelty (and mini-dynasty) wore off, the club became one of baseball’s smallest markets to control their own television rights. If there are, oh, 25 other clubs that are upset about baseball’s construction boom swindle (Bud Selig failed to mention that if everyone builds a stadium, they can’t all be competitive), everyone should take notice as yet another club proves the significance of controlling their own television revenue.
If you’re like me, and grew up in the mid-1990s, you could probably name more Cleveland Indians players that you liked than Brewers players (it’s a harsh truth, but Greg Vaughn could only carry the Milwaukee nine so far). The mid-1990s Indians featured a strong core, including Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, Sandy Alomar, Orel Hershiser, and Charles Nagy, just to name a few. The mid-1990s Indians were also interesting due to the aggressive moves made by their front office.
After winning 100 games in the strike-shortened 1995 season and coming within two victories of a World Series title, the club made minimal changes. Julio Franco came aboard for the 1996 campaign, as the club lost Paul Sorrento to free agency. The core was ready for yet another year of competition, but the front office aggressively traded away core members to begin reshaping their future core. The Indians traded away Carlos Baerga during the 1996 season, picking up Jeff Kent (who would be a crucial trade piece for Matt Williams). The 1996 club put together another great season, but the turnover had already begun.
Between 1995 and 1996, the turnover within the most significant 20 roster spots was minimal. Sandy Alomar and Tony Pena swapped plate appearances, the Indians’ utility players and bench played musical chairs, as did their fringe rotation. Jack McDowell and Julio Franco were the club’s most significant new players in 1996. Between 1996 and 1997, the turnover was massive; five new faces graced the starting line up, Julio Franco moved to a utility role, and a couple of fresh young pitchers jumped into the rotation. Michael Jackson joined the bullpen, foreshadowing a move for 1998.
The transactions continued for 1998, although they were not as severe as the previous season. Matt Williams was swapped out for Travis Fryman, Kenny Lofton returned, new, younger bench players played significant roles, and the same occurred in the rotation to replace old hands. The offseason between 1997 and 1998 primed the Indians for their core to ring in the new century, as the club was a year away from solidifying their second base spot, while their rotation and bullpen remained relatively steady.
In 2000, the Indians missed the playoffs for the first time in five years. During the season, the Indians traded Richie Sexson (and a few other players) to the Brewers for Jason Bere, Steve Woodard, and Bob Wickman. The arms helped to strengthen the club due to injuries and ineffectiveness from their pitching staff, but a revolving door opened in the outfield. Five new players served significant roles for the Indians in 2001, including ace-to-be CC Sabathia. Although the 2011 season proved to be a final hurrah for many of the remaining players from the 1990s dynasty, the first piece for the Indians’ next playoff club was in place. Unfortunately, that playoff season remained five years away.
It’s interesting to see how the levels of playoff accomplishment changed the organization’s approach to building and rebuilding their core during a dynasty. After getting to the World Series in 1995 with a dominant club, a subsequently (relatively) disappointing season in 1996 — as well as a couple of promising new players — spurred the club to change at many different positions. World Series and Championship Series clubs in 1997 and 1998 largely resulted in clubs that featured the same significant players over the course of a few years, with the only major changes occurring where injuries or ineffectiveness occurred (in general).
Moving forward, it should not be surprising that the 2007 and 2008 Indians featured largely the same core, given the club’s appearance in the Championship Series (they took the eventual Champion Red Sox seven games in that series). Once again, except for a couple of outfield trades, musical chairs in the bullpen, and the emergence of Asdrubal Cabrera, the Indians’ core remained largely in-tact for their 2008 campaign. Unfortunately, injuries and ineffectiveness plagued the roster, including significant players such as Victor Martinez and Jake Westbrook. The final note was sounded when the Indians traded CC Sabathia for the Brewers, ironically providing them an outfielder that would eventually serve as one of the young, emerging anchors for their competitive clubs in 2011 and 2012.
I’ve only reviewed one franchise thus far, but I think some interesting points of analysis can be made. First and foremost, it should not be surprising that a small market club develops a core of young players and keeps the useful parts of that core in place. Some musical chairs might be played in order to determine the strongest possible core — in the case of the Brewers, their shortstops J.J. Hardy and Alcides Escobar proved to be better trade fodder than long-term organizational pieces (especially given Hardy’s extended control years after an untimely minor league demotion), netting (in part) significant pitchers or role players for the Brewers’ 2011 club (namely Zack Greinke, Carlos Gomez, and, to some extent, Yuniesky Betancourt).
When a small/middle market club gets its main core to the Championship Series, I gather that their General Manager will largely keep that core roster in-tact. When injuries and ineffectiveness eventually strike, or major free agents are lost, fans might be tempted to look back and say, “who else could have been traded from that playoff club?” In reality, fans should not expect small/middle market clubs to shed contract-controlled core players from strong playoff squads.
In the Brewers’ case, aggressive roster building included lucrative buyout deals to Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks, and Corey Hart (as well as Joathan Lucroy), and significant trades involving highly-regarded organizational prospects (from Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley, to Jake Odorizzi, Alcides Escobar, and Brett Lawrie). The result, of course, is a core that doesn’t expire in just one season, and a strong pitching staff anchored by two average-or-better American League ex-patriots. Unfortunately, ineffectiveness and injuries once again show an indiscriminate appetite for even the most prudently built small/middle market clubs.