Almost 50 games into the MLB season, the Cleveland Indians continue to baffle fans, writers, analysts — and especially other teams — by having the best record in the league. The Tribe has scored the second-most runs in the American League, and its biggest spring training problem area, the pitching staff, has allowed an AL-low run total.
What should not come as a surprise, however, is the emerging trend of a baseball team coming from obscurity to contend for a championship.
Five of the MLB’s eight playoff teams last year did not qualify in 2009, including both the World Series runner-up Texas Rangers and the champion San Francisco Giants. Four 2009 playoff teams missed the postseason in 2008.
During the past few years, teams in small markets with tighter spending habits have excelled by building through the MLB Draft and trading stars for prospects. They wait one or two years for the prospects to peak before eventually losing their best players to large-market teams via free agency or trades. The pace at which the process repeats depends on the quality of the team’s minor-league players.
The Tampa Bay Rays famously jump-started the system by improving upon a 66-win season in 2007 to 97 wins and a World Series berth in 2008. The Rays missed the playoffs in 2009 but returned last year, and their winning ways seemingly came from nowhere and have shocked the baseball world.
Since 2006, the San Diego Padres (91 wins last year), Colorado Rockies (World Series appearance in 2007) and Giants (2010 champions) have thrived on the same strategy as the Rays. The Indians also came within a game of the World Series in 2007 before unloading almost their entire roster the following two years.
Is this an ideal system to build a contender? Of course not. Does it annoy fans who want to see a consistent winner? Yes. But it’s the best strategy for small-market teams.
The Indians have perfected the approach this year. The cornerstones of the 2008 C.C. Sabathia trade (Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta) have turned into adequate Major Leaguers, with Brantley emerging as a quality leadoff hitter (though manager Manny Acta still insists on having Grady Sizemore bat first — ugh). Justin Masterson (acquired from Boston for Victor Martinez) has been the ace of the pitching staff, and Carlos Carrasco (acquired from Philadelphia for Cliff Lee) has nailed down a spot in the starting rotation.
All of that coupled with the development of Carlos Santana, Josh Tomlin, Asdrubal Cabrera and Chris Perez has turned the Indians into a contender once again. The fans are slowly (and begrudgingly, it seems) piling back into Progressive Field, and the nostalgia from the magical teams from the ’90s has gently spread across the city. The only thing holding back the fans appears to be questions about whether the Indians can sustain their success for the rest of the season.
They can, and probably will. Just don’t expect it to happen again next year.
—Vince Nairn is a senior studying journalism and The Post’s sports editor. If you are excited about the Tribe’s success or wary of a midseason collapse, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @ThePostSports.