Comparisons, especially when it comes to professional sports, are inevitable.
That’s true for a team like the 2013 Cleveland Indians.
The Tribe currently boasts an 89-70 record, and the team is on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since 2007 when they came within a game of reaching the World Series. That 2007 team finished 96-66, but the season is still widely regarded by fans as the year that got away — with a 3-1 lead in the American League Championship Series, everyone seemed to think it would finally be Cleveland’s year.
Comparing the teams is a difficult practice, and it also may be unfair. After all, both teams are different and Major League Baseball itself was also quite different just six years ago.
However, the reality is that playoff appearances have been far and few between as of late in Cleveland. Since the start of the 2002 season, the Indians have qualified for the postseason just one time, and that trip came in 2007. Also, the Tribe really has never even come close since then… until now.
There are three games left in the regular season, and they will all be played on the road against the Minnesota Twins. If the Indians win two of the three, the team will qualify for a one-game tiebreaker at the very least.
Indeed, these are special times for the Wahoo Warriors, and it’s easy to see why.
Opinions on how far the Indians will actually go if they qualify for the postseason seem to be somewhat mixed. While the team has performed admirably in their first year under manager Terry Francona, there is no denying that the 2007 team appears to be the more talented team of the two.
That 2007 team featured a handful of multiple American League All-Stars, many of whom have since gone on to continue their storied careers with other teams.
Now go ahead and take a look at the roster of the current team. Is there even any one player who remotely resembles a star? There are certainly a handful of quality players who serve their roles well, but it does seem fair to conclude that this is a team void of stars.
Except maybe this team doesn’t need stars.
Yes, it is true there is no Grady Sizemore on this team. There is no player who has numbers that resemble the .277/.390/.462 line with 24 home runs that Sizemore put up in 2007. There is no player who combines the skills of power, speed and Gold Glove defense that the majestic Sizemore seemed to routinely do when healthy. There is no player that can say he’s made three All-Star Games, won two Gold Gloves and one Silver Slugger.
But there is Michael Brantley.
If Sizemore was the engine that made the Indians teams of the past go, then Brantley is definitely the starter on this year’s Indians squad.
Comparing Brantley to Sizemore may seem like a bit of a stretch as Brantley does not possess the pure innate ability that Sizemore seemed to display on a daily basis.
He does not hit for much power, he does not steal enough bases and he’s been relegated to left field despite the fact that he’s a center fielder by trade.
Yet, take a moment to watch him play. He simply has IT.
In many ways, Brantley is kind of a poor man’s Sizemore. While he’s never approached 30 stolen bases as Sizemore seemed to do regularly, Brantley has nabbed a career-high 17 this season. He also may never have the gaudy power numbers of Sizemore, but he has seen his power numbers rise to a career-high of 10.
But there’s also one area where Brantley seems to excel even more than the talented Sizemore.
In 2007, Sizemore hit .265 in September down the stretch and .318 with two outs and runners in scoring position.
In comparison, Brantley has hit an incredible .394 in September and .364 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Most players are worn down come September, but Brantley has saved the best for last.
Ask yourself who you would rather see up in a clutch moment of a big game? The answer is definitively Brantley, whose intrinsic value just cannot be explained.
Of course, that 2007 team was also blessed with Victor Martinez, who hit .301/.374/.505 with 25 home runs and 114 RBI. The 2007 Indians were fortunate as it’s rare for a team to have a power-hitting catcher with that type of offensive production.
The 2013 team has two.
Gomes currently has a .295/.350/.491 line with 11 home runs and 36 RBI in 85 games. Santana has also been impressive and boasts a .267/.376/.446 line with 19 home runs and 70 RBI in 151 games.
Gomes has also been incredible defensively as the right-handed hitting catcher has thrown out 42 percent of base stealers this season. In 2007, Martinez threw out 32 percent.
The other legit criticism is that this team does not have the potent one-two punch of 19-game winners like the 2007 team had in C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona.
That duo was electric that season as Sabathia finished 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA to win the American League Cy YoungAward while Carmona finished fourth in voting after going 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA.
Yes, this is true — the 2013 Indians have no combination of legit front-of-the-rotation aces like the 2007 team could boast.
But here’s what they do have.
They have a rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez, a pitcher who’s been down on his luck more times than a person can count, yet he never stopped fighting and pushing through.
Since the All-Star Break, Jimenez has a 1.86 ERA, and he has looked every bit like the ace the Indians envisioned when they acquired him back in July of 2011.
They have a resilient Justin Masterson, who has the ability to just dominate any lineup on any given day and has posted a 3.50 ERA in 190 1/3 innings of work. He’s worked his way back from a strained oblique, and it looks as if he will be a factor come playoff time. The one-two punch of Jimenez and Masterson may not be Sabathia-Carmona, but it’s damn close.
They have a rising star in Corey Kluber, who has always had excellent stuff, but just never seemed to be able to command it. He has done just that this season though and boasts a 10-5 record and 3.61 ERA. What’s even better is that Kluber looks to be the real deal as his peripherals suggest that his numbers should actually be better than they are right now.
They have a revitalized Scott Kazmir, who seems to have come out of nowhere to reestablish himself as a legit, power-throwing left-hander. Just over a year ago, Kazmir was 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA in 14 starts with the Sugar Land Skeeters. Today, the left-hander owns a 4.14 ERA in 28 starts and 152 innings with the Indians. How does one even go about trying to explain that other than conceding that this team is indeed special?
The 2007 team did get a nice boost though in August when they promoted shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to assume the everyday second base duties. Cabrera did not disappoint as he posted a .283/.354/.421 line in 45 games down the stretch to help the Indians secure the Central title.
Cabrera was very much a spark on that team, and played an integral role in the Tribe’s success. This year’s team has had no rookie come up to the Majors and immediately leave such a strong offensive impression.
They’ve got something better.
Instead, an impression has been made in the pitching facet of the game.
Plain and simple, Danny Salazar is well on his way to becoming an ace in the Major Leagues. The young right-hander has gone 2-3 with a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts with the Indians. He’s displayed astonishing strikeout stuff as he’s recorded 65 strikeouts in only 52 innings of work.
There was some concern from fans when the Indians did not make a big move at this year’s trade deadline, but why would they need to? Salazar has joined the big league rotation and has had a much greater impact than any player the team could have acquired at the deadline.
Speaking of the trade deadline, back in 2007, the Indians enjoyed a blast from the past when they acquired outfielder Kenny Lofton.
Always a fan favorite, the 40-year-old Lofton seemed to be the perfect veteran to join the club and help keep everything even-keel over the final months of the season.
Yet, this year’s team seems to have found their Lofton in 42-year-old slugger Jason Giambi. Francona continues to praise the impact Gimabi has had in the clubhouse at every chance he gets.
Also, if there was any doubt of Giambi’s impact on the field, that question was put to rest on Tuesday after his bat rescued the Tribe from the ashes when he hit a two-out, two-run home run to lead the team to a 5-4 walkoff win over the Chicago White Sox.
That season, the soft-tossing Borowski was up-and-down as he posted a 5.07 ERA and led the league 45 saves, but also led the league with eight blown saves. Similarly, Perez currently has a 4.33 ERA and has blown five saves on the year.
It appears as if much of the good aspects of the 2007 team are present on the 2013 squad. Unfortunately, the same can be said for some of the bad aspects.
So, with that being said, take a step back and look at your current Cleveland Indians. What do you see?
I see a team that stacks up much more favorably to the 2007 team than we might initially think.
I see a team with a handful of young hurlers, who are only going to get better as they progress in their careers.
I see a team that is playing its best baseball when it matters most (18-6 record in September) just like the 2007 team did (19-9 record in September).
I see a team with a manager with a proven track record of being able to compete and win in October.
But most importantly, I see a team that has not even begun to scratch the surface of just how good it can be.