2015 Cleveland Indians: The unappreciated

Joe Azcue

Joe Azcue, known as “The Immortal Azcue,” came from Cuba to play 11 years for six major- league teams, none more than the Indians. The Indians were Azcue’s third stop and his longest, playing seven years for them beginning in 1963. He hit .284 that year with 14 homers, 46 RBIs and a .779 OPS in 94 games — all career-highs. Azcue hit .275 in ’66, 11 homers in ’67 and .280 in ’68, when he was an All-Star for the only time, but his strength was his defense. Azcue threw out 45% of base stealers for his career, and 62% in 1966. Only 45 attempts were made to steal bases against Azcue that year, and he threw out 28. Azcue was dealt to the Red Sox in 1969 as part of the package for Ken Harrelson, but lasted there only a few months. He sat out 1971 in a contract dispute with the Angels, and played a final year in ’72 with the Brewers. Azcue stole only five bases himself in his career and was caught 12 times, and hit into 87 double plays. He also hit into the first unassisted triple play in 41 years in 1968 when he lined out with two on to Washington shortstop Ron Hansen, who stepped on second for the second out and tagged the runner on first, who was running assuming a base hit, for the third out. Final numbers: .252 average, 50 home runs, 712 hits, .648 OPS, 84 OPS+, 8.5 WAR.

Francisco Lindor was the fastest Indian at camp, winning their sprint competition by diving across the finish line. He’s approaching the majors in the same manner, reaching AAA by age 20 and being ready to go head first from there. Lindor was the Indians’ first-round pick at age 17 in 2011 and one of the many talented young shortstop prospects in baseball. Lindor’s skill set may be old-fashioned, even if he isn’t: defense, the ability to reach base (.355 career on-base percentage), and the ability to steal when he does (27, 25 and 28 steals the last three years). Ready or not, Lindor will likely start the season in AAA, so the Indians can extend team control. That’s akin to moving the finish line back as Lindor reaches for it. But he could also use the preparation — he had season-highs last year in strikeouts (97) and caught stealings (16) and season-lows in on-base percentage (.338) and doubles (16). Even if Lindor is delayed till June, he’ll still be only 21 when he gets to the majors, which is winning the race.

Trivia: Which Indian has played the most games for the team at shortstop? Answer below.

What he said: Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer after MLB stopped him from flying his drone over its property: “Obviously, I’m not trying to break any rules here. I enjoy flying the thing. It’s kind of cool and I figured it would take some cool pictures for the fans to see.” What he meant: “We’re going to need it to find some of the home run balls I throw.”

Outlook: The Indians won 85 games last year, which might not seem like much, but it was a second straight winning season. They haven’t done that since 2000-01, when Charlie Manuel was the manager, Jim Thome was still hitting home runs and fans were still coming out to watch them — more than three million of them. The Indians might be the hardest team in MLB to figure out, and many of their fans have apparently given up. They drew just 1.4 million fans last year, their second-lowest total since leaving Cleveland Stadium and the lowest total in the majors. The Rays drew 9,000 more fans, but did so with three more home dates. The Indians offered three single-admission doubleheaders — remember those ? — because of weather and they drew 9,029, 17,562 and 12,637.

Apparently the only thing in Cleveland worse than having to go watch the Indians play is having to watch them twice.

It’s another puzzle to a team that has a lineup full of them, because it deserves better.

The Indians haven’t won a World Series in 67 years and the city hasn’t celebrated a title in any sport in 51 years. A certain amount of disbelief is understood.

But the Indians, who won 68 games as recently as 2012, have been winners the last two years and contenders in both. They have a competent manager, a budding rotation, good young infielders and a following that’s apparently been beaten down as if it’s been hit, like the drum in center field, with every loss and disappointment of the last 67 year.

There’s a lot of things that aren’t easy to understand about the Indians, but the lack of conviction from the faithful is foremost.

The Astros, who won 15 fewer games and whose TV ratings once were less than the Food Channel, drew 314,000 more fans. The Mets, who won six fewer games and who charged four dollars more per average ticket, drew 710,000 more fans. And the Marlins, who won eight fewer games and were accused of trying to lose as recently as two years ago, drew almost 300,000 more fans.

You have to wonder what there is in Cleveland to do that’s so much better than watching the Indians.

The Indians were in the race until the final week last year even though Jason Kipnis was bad (.240 and six homers) and Nick Swisher worse (.608 OPS), Danny Salazar (4.25 ERA) went back to the minors and maybe Bauer should have. For all the touting of the Indians’ young pitchers, Corey Kluber was the team’s lone double-figures winner; only swingman Carlos Carrasco won more than six.

The Indians start 2015 with an opportunity, even if the Royals might have a better one. The Tigers are creaking, and the Indians have built a decent infield, a durable bullpen and added Brandon Moss’ power potential at minimal cost.

If the rotation is really as good as some people think it might be, the Indians will be worth watching. Let’s see how many people in Cleveland do.

Trivia answer:  Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau has played the most games for the Indians at shortstop, 1,486 of them. Boudreau, as player-manager, had the advantage of writing his own name into the lineup, which he did for nine seasons. Omar Vizquel is second, just 14 games behind; Joe Sewell, who started as the Indians won the 1920 World Series, is third (1,214); and Ray Chapman is fourth with 957. Chapman was 29 when he died after being hit by a Carl Mays pitch in that 1920 season. Sewell played just 22 games in the 1920 regular season, taking over for Chapman.
Team song: The Band: I Shall Be Released


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