February 25, 2024

How the Indians/Guardians Turned a $3000 Signing Bonus Into Some of Its Best Ballplayers: A Retrospective

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What you’re about to read is part one of a retrospective on a chain of transactions completed by the Cleveland Indians/Guardians organization that has spanned over three decades. The players will be familiar and their stories will be known to most of you, but the sequence of events in itself is remarkable. Even if you know the story, a look back may provide a fresh perspective as we have the benefit of hindsight on the deals that have transpired in this chain of events. I personally enjoyed the nostalgia and hindsight in looking back over the facts, figures and players, and I hope you will do the same. We begin on a summer night in a decrepit ballpark from a bygone era.

June 26, 1993.

On this day more than two decades ago, the Cleveland Indians played host to the Kansas City Royals in their last season as Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Over the course of about two and a half hours, a crowd of approximately 25 thousand would watch the Indians gather a lead in the early going before squandering that lead, culminated by a George Brett solo home run in the top of the 8th that would tie the game at four. The Royals’ momentum would be short-lived as Albert Belle would hit one of just twenty-one career triples in the bottom of the inning, driving in two and reaffirming Cleveland’s lead. The Indians would go on to win the ballgame on that Saturday evening, 7-4.

The win would bring the Indians to 32-34. Young talent that they had been cultivating since Hank Peters signed on as general manager in 1988 was beginning to matriculate to the Majors. Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga were both on the field alongside Belle that night. As we all know, there would ultimately be a full harvest of talent in the years that followed.

What no one knew on that night though was that another seed had been planted 1700 miles away in the Dominican Republic. On this very same day, the Indians organization would come to terms with a right-handed pitcher from the small baseball-loving island nation. He would go on to pitch professionally for three decades (and is still technically pitching to this day). June 26, 1993, wasn’t just the day of an Indians victory in their final year at old Cleveland Stadium. It was the day they would sign Bartolo Colon to a minor league contract with a mere $3000 signing bonus. That move would set forth a chain reaction of future transactions rife with talent that we are still experiencing today.

But it would all start with Colon. The stout right-hander with a rocket for an arm would first come to America in 1994 when he debuted professionally for the Indians’ Rookie League Burlington Indians in Burlington, NC. Despite being just 21 years old and the certain shock of a new country, culture and language, Colon would perform admirably. He pitched to a 3.14 ERA while winning seven ballgames on a team that went 20-45 overall, despite having fellow Major Leaguers Russell Branyan and Jaret Wright on it.

Colon’s minor league performance would only get better in ’95. While the big league club was on a journey to a World Series, Colon was at High-A Kinston going 13-3 with a dominant 1.96 ERA in 128 2/3 innings over 21 starts. The season would thrust him into top prospect conversations, as before the two seasons that followed, Baseball America would name him the #15 and #14 prospect in all of baseball.

So by Spring Training of 1996, the Indians were on the path to developing a potential ace of the future, and they had done this solely by offering a minor league contract with a $3000 signing bonus. For reference, the top prospect according to Baseball America that year was Andruw Jones, who was similarly signed as an amateur international free agent outside of the draft. However, Jones’ signing bonus was $46,0000- more than 15 times what the Indians spent on Colon. Even further, the player directly above Colon on the top prospect list was pitcher Billy Wagner. Wagner entered pro baseball like Colon in 1993 and was drafted 12th overall by the Astros with a $550,000 signing bonus- more than 180 times more than what Colon was offered.

Now, you can look at the offers that are being compared to what the Indians agreed to pay Colon and you can focus on Colon’s pay being a pittance. That’s understandable. Minor league salaries to this day aren’t very lucrative and lucrative signing bonuses can make a world of difference. I can hear people remarking about how Cleveland baseball is such a “poverty franchise” as I write this right now.

However, I don’t see it that way. In the 1990s, amateur international free agent signings were the wild, wild west. To a point, they still are to this day, but signings at the time were largely based on the free market. That means that the Indians bringing on Colon for just a $3000 bonus speaks to the fact that they found a diamond in the rough. The Indians were one of the first teams to invest in scouting the Dominican Republic by building an academy there. The team’s ability to find Colon when presumably no one else was hot on his trail is massive to their credit.

Colon would first make the Majors in 1997 at the age of 24 but would really stick in the bigs the following year when he pitched 204 MLB innings, made 31 starts and earned a 3.71 ERA. People didn’t know what WAR was back then, but he would finish with 4.4 of it in ’98, good for the 20th best of any pitcher in baseball. He would lead the starting pitchers on an American League Championship Series-bound Indians team in ERA, K/9, HR/9, Complete Games and WHIP. After Wright had staked a claim as the Indians ace of the future via his superb pitching performances in the Indians’ ’97 World Series run, Colon had upped the ante with his performance in ’98.

And Colon would win out. Between 1999 and 2002, Colon would have the 12th highest war of any starting pitcher in baseball and the 21st-best ERA. He would finish 4th in Cy Young voting in 1999. No Indians starter would win more games, have a better ERA, K/9, Complete Games, Shutouts (four of them!), or have a better WHIP during those years. He would pitch 731 2/3 innings over those four seasons for the Indians. No one else would come within 160 innings of that mark. He would be the Opening Day starter in 2000, 2001 and 2002. In short, Colon quickly transitioned from ace of the future to ace of the present.

But in 2002 times were changing for baseball in Cleveland. The team was under a new general manager in Mark Shapiro, and more than a half-decade of excellence in the American League was beginning to erode. On June 27th of that year, Cleveland found themselves at a record of 36-41 and 7.5 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. On that day, they pulled the plug.

They did so, by shipping away Colon to the Montreal Expos for first baseman Lee Stevens. Or at least, those were the Major League players involved in the deal. Montreal, flirting with contention at 40-36 but also on the verge of relocating due to apathy among their local public, was desperate to make a splash both to be in the news and to make a run at the playoffs. They were, in fact, so desperate that they would send the 15th overall prospect in baseball to Cleveland as well as two other minor leaguers. The total haul would be infielder Brandon Phillips (the 15th overall prospect) as well as outfielder Grady Sizemore and left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee.

Cleveland fans were up in arms, completely unhappy at the team’s retreat, drunk on nearly a decade of baseball prominence to which they had become accustomed. To make matters worse, Colon would pitch wonderfully for Montreal down the stretch, going 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA while the Indians ended the year in 3rd place and 20 games out of the division lead. But much like in 1993, no one knew at the time what the Indians would ultimately have down on the farm. But they would learn in the long run.

Ironically, Phillips wouldn’t end up working out in Cleveland. He would spend four years with the organization, three of those clashing with manager Eric Wedge who was perturbed with Phillips starting with their first Spring Training together because Phillips had the audacity to own batting gloves with the moniker “The Franchise” on them. Phillips would eventually be traded to Cincinnati after batting .206 with six homers in 135 games with Cleveland. He would go on to be a three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover at second base with the Reds.

Sizemore would patrol center-field for the Indians starting in earnest in 2005 and for that year as well as the next four, would be one of the best position players in baseball. He would make three All-Star teams, win two Gold Gloves as well as one Silver Slugger and would collect MVP votes each year between 2005 and 2008. He would also be insanely durable, not missing a single game in 2006 or 2007. But unfortunately, durability would ultimately be his demise. After averaging 160 games played in those four seasons, he would average just 53 games played in the next four. He would miss the entirety of 2012 due to injury and never play for the Indians again.

Where I really want to focus though, is Cliff Lee. Lee would wrap up 2002 pitching in the Majors for the Indians and would look stellar, making two starts and only allowing two runs in 10 1/3 innings of work. His combined efforts between the Majors and minors would be strong enough that Baseball America would name him baseball’s 30th-best prospect before the 2003 season. He would battle injuries to start 2003, but as the season progressed, would make it back to the big leagues, eventually pitching well in his time in the Majors with a 3.61 ERA in nine starts.

Lee would make the Opening Day roster in 2004, but his full-time foray with the Indians would become one part inconsistent and another part slow burn. 2004 would see Lee stick in the Majors for the full season on an Indians team starting to transition from rebuilding to being on the way to contention. He would get a full year of valuable MLB experience, but gave up 30 home runs and 81 walks in 179 innings and ended the season with a 5.43 ERA.

2005 would look like both Lee and the Indians were turning a corner. Lee would get over the 200-inning mark and would improve his ERA to 3.79 while allowing 30 fewer walks and eight less homers in more innings. As a team, the Indians would narrowly miss the playoffs on the last weekend of the season. But 2005 would look like the peak for Lee for a while. The following year would see him allow 29 home runs in 33 starts over 200 2/3 innings. His ERA raised to 4.40. The Indians would continue to show confidence in the lefty though, signing him to a three-year extension through 2009 during the course of the season.

Despite the vote of confidence, 2007 would see things really devolve as Lee would miss the start of the year on the Disabled List. He would return to the team early in May but would struggle mightily. After being confronted in the clubhouse by catcher and team leader Victor Martinez in late July about possibly hitting Sammy Sosa with a pitch on purpose on a night when the Texas Rangers were celebrating Sosa’s 600th home run, Lee would lay an egg in his next start and get demoted. He would be recalled in September and pitch in relief down the stretch, but would not make the post-season roster for the Indians’ run to the ALCS.

Whether due to embarrassment or just a want to come back better, Lee would spend a portion of the off-season with Indians pitching coach Carl Willis working on his mechanics. The work would pay massive dividends as Lee would come back like an entirely different pitcher in ’08. In fact, he would come back brilliant. Lee would win 22 games that year while leading baseball in ERA at 2.54. His struggles to avoid walks and gopher balls were obliterated too, as he led all qualified pitchers in both BB/9 and HR/9. Whatever work Lee and Willis had put in during the off-season paid off in spades as Lee would win the Cy Young Award.

And that year would not be a flash in the pan either. Lee would come out and pitch nearly as well to start 2009. In 22 starts for the Indians he would have a 3.14 ERA and would be good for the 6th most WAR of any pitcher in baseball.

But in 2009 times were changing for baseball in Cleveland. On July 29th of that year, the Indians were less than two years removed from being one game away from the World Series. But they were also a dismaying 42-59 in the standings and in fourth place in the AL Central. A core that consisted of Lee, Sizemore and Martinez, among others, were either injured or on their way to being priced out of the team’s future plans.

Another trade would have to be in offing. Another trade that we will talk about next time.

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