2014 Cleveland Indians: They’ll need rewrite

Leon Wagner

Leon Wagner was colorful, quotable and powerful, and hit 211 home runs in his big-league career, most of them in six seasons from 1961-66. Wagner was called “Daddy Wags,” and he said he caught flyballs with one hand because, “the other one just gets in the way.” He once owned a clothing store and told people to “buy their rags from Daddy Wags,” according to the hardballtimes.com. Wagner went to Tuskegee, and reached the majors in 1958 after hitting 51 minor-league homers in 1956. (He lost 1957 to military service.) But the Giants had Willie Mays, Wilie Kirkland, Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou, and Willie McCovey on the way. Wagner homered 18 times over 1958-59 in 360 at-bats and was sent to St. Louis, where he played less, and worse. He was traded on the eve of the ’61 season by minor-league Toronto to the expansion Angels (for ’65 World Series hero Lou Johnson), and Wagner became the Angels’ first star, hitting 28, 37 and 26 homers in their first three seasons, and driving in 107 runs in ’62. But he was traded to the Indians for journeyman pitcher Barry Latman (59-68, 3.91 ERA) and aging slugger Joe Adcock, who was 36. The trade wasn’t popular with Angels fans, least of all Latman’s father-in-law, who according to wikipedia asked, “Is that all they got for Wagner?” Wagner hit 31 homers and knocked in 100 runs for the ’64 Indians; in ’65 he cut his strikeouts by more than half from 121 to 52 and raised his walks by four (56 to 60) and his average by 41 points (253 to .290). He still hit 28 home runs, and then 23 more in ’66. But he hit 17 home runs over the next three seasons, batting just 12 times with the Giants, back where he started. Wagner acted in a couple of movies (A Woman Under The Influence, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings) but he died homeless at 69 in 2004. Friends said he had been using drugs for years. His final numbers: .272 average, 1,202 hits, .340 on-base, .455 slugging, 211 home runs, fourth in the ’62 MVP race, 11.9 WAR.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: The Indians will pay Asdrubal Cabrera $10 million to play shortstop this year, but this may be the last time they do that. Especially if Cabrera approaches last year’s .242 average, .299 on-base percentage and 114 strikeouts. Cabrera’s contract expires this year, which should be all the time the Indians need to prepare for 2011 No. 1 draft pick Francisco Lindor, who won’t turn 21 until November. But Lindor reached AA in his second full season, after hitting .306 with a .373 on-base percentage in Class A, and should reach the major leagues next year as Cabrera is leaving Cleveland. If it wasn’t the Indians, you’d think they planned it this way. Lindor could arrive even earlier, if he excels in the minors and the major-league team doesn’t. Trading Cabrera might seem appealing, although promoting Mike Aviles, the apparent backup, won’t. Lindor has more of Omar Vizquel’s skill than Jhonny Peralta’s: a .364 career on-base percentage in the minors, 111 walks and 53 steals, but just eight home runs in 912 at-bats.

Trivia: Seven players have hit 40 or more home runs in a single season for the Indians. One did it three times, three more did it two times, four once each. Name them. Who hit the most as an Indian? Answer below.

What he said: Indians manager Terry Francona: “In our game, you pick up the paper every morning, and you see in any camp, somebody has a strained shoulder, somebody turned an ankle. I hope it’s not us, but that’s part of dealing with Major League Baseball.” What he meant: “I’m on board with OPS. You expect me to read my news on an Ipad?”

Outlook: The Indians had the second-biggest improvement from 2012 to 2013, from 68 wins to 92 (the team that won the World Series, remember, went from 69 to 97). Expect some regression in 2014, first because it’s typical after such a big upgrade, and second, because the Indians aren’t that good.

They were fifth in runs scored in the AL last season, but it’s not easy to understand how: fifth in on-base percentage, seventh in slugging percentage and seventh in OPS. They were seventh in ERA. The Indians were better than 2012, and even good in 2013, but not 92 wins so.

Look at the Indians depth chart, and if you see a 92-win team, it’s time for sabermetric Lasik surgery: their outfield is Michael Brantley-Michael Bourn-David Murphy, their third baseman is Lonnie Chisenhall (.225 average, .270 on-base percentage), their closer is Joe Axford, who failed at the job in Milwaukee, and Carlos Santana is DH, where his .832 OPS is less impressive than catcher, but moreso than his 18% throwing rate is behind the plate.

The Indians have plus players in second baseman Jason Kipnis (.284, 17 homers, 76 walks at age 26), Justin Masterson (3.45 ERA, .624 OPS against), Brazilian-born catcher Yan Gomes (.481 slugging, 41% of base stealers thrown out) and first baseman Nick Swisher (22 homers , 76 walks in a down year). And Danny Salazar, who has yet to throw in spring training, has ace stuff.

But the projected starting outfield hit 29 home runs last year, the bullpen is thin and miscast and the middle infield is an injury away from Mike Aviles (anyone who watch too many 2012 Red Sox games thinks too many Aviles at-bats start at one).

The minor-league system isn’t strong — ESPN’s Keith Law ranked it 19th — and last year’s good season may have unfairly raised expectations. Then again, the Indians were 28th in attendance last season, drawing more fans only than Tampa Bay (they averaged more than the Marlins, who had one more date).

Perhaps the Indians’ fans, who haven’t had a World Series triumph to celebrate in 66 years and counting, know more than we give them credit for.

Trivia answer: Jim Thome hit 40 home runs in a single season for the Indians three times (1997, 2001, 2002), Manny Ramirez (1998-99), Rocky Colavito (1958-59) and Albert Belle (1995-96) did it twice each and Al Rosen (1953), Travis Hafner (2006) and Hal Trosky (1936) did it once each. Thome’s 52 in 2002 are the most by an Indian; Belle is the only other Indian to have hit 50, in 1995.

Team song The Kinks: Celluloid Heroes

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