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    Wednesday, June 17, 2015

    Out of the Park Baseball 16 and the 1996 Cleveland Indians

    Once again, this year, I’ve been given the chance to play Out of the Park Baseball’s new edition and write about it. This year’s edition is another wonderful entry in the series-I feel like it’s definitely the smartest entry in the series yet, at least, with computer teams acting closer and closer to real people. It certainly made my yearly alternate-history run a lot more interesting, at least. So what alternate baseball history did it let me try out this time?

    As you may or may not be aware, the city of Cleveland just saw its most recent best hope for a title in five decades end. Maybe the Indians can turn it around and take the title this year, but realistically, it seems that the city’s chances at a title will have to wait until 2016. One thing that fascinates me about this drought, though, is the presence of the 1990s Indians. That group has to be the closest thing a baseball team can be to a dynasty without actually winning anything. From 1994 to 2001, they averaged a .578 winning percentage (about 93 and a half wins over a full season), peaking with a .644 mark in 1995. They made the playoffs six out of seven times (since 1994 was a strike year) and won two pennants. They had a core that included peak play from Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar, and Albert Belle, all of whom have varying degrees of cases for the Hall of Fame. They couldn’t even find a spot for future inner-circle Hall of Pretty Great player Brian Giles because they were just too deep.

    But they couldn’t capture that elusive title. Which is why I’m giving them a chance to go back and claim it. I’m taking control of the Indians starting in 1995, and seeing if I can guide them to their first World Series win since 1948.

    My thoughts are to at least start with mostly the same roster as the actual 1995 team. I’m wary of a potential outfield and designated hitter logjam, thanks to Manny, Lofton, Belle, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, and prospects Giles and Jeromy Burnitz all needing to share four spots in the end. But I can stash the last two in the minors, and Murray and Winfield are both old and likely won’t each be on the roster the whole year. I do shop them around a bit, especially since the rotation looks a little weak (Charles Nagy, Mark Clark, Buddy Black, and aging Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser). In the end, I hold steady, thinking I’ll let the roster make the decisions. If one of the prospects plays his way into a job, or both of Murray and Winfield hit, that’s a good problem to have.

    The problem solves itself rather soon, though. I put Dave Winfield on Waivers 22 games in to call up Jeromy Burnitz, who started the year on the disabled list but apparently needed to be on the Major League roster. Winfield hadn’t played an at-bat yet, and we were off to a good start at 14-8, but the decision apparently hit fan interest hard according to the owner (who had even given me a mandate to resign Winfield). I look it up and realize that Winfield only played in 46 games for the Indians in real life, though, so I feel even less bad about this decision. Anyway, Seattle claimed him.

    The first month went well, with Albert Belle picking up Player of the Month. He and Thome each won a Player of the Week award as well. However, Omar Vizquel went down on May 1 with an injury. Thankfully, my sub was on a bit of a hot streak…until he went down two days later. I wind up claiming someone off waivers to plug the hole. We win our 20th game later in the month (for a 20-9), but then Jim Thome immediately gets hurt. Luckily, it looks like I don’t need to put him on the DL.

    A little later, Darren Daulton goes on the trade block. They’re willing to take Orel Hershiser for him, straight-up. I don’t need a catcher thanks to Sandy Alomar Jr., but Hershiser has faltered hard, and at 36, I don’t think he’s going to get much better. I’m hoping I can work out a 3-way deal where I immediately flip the superior-rated (and slightly younger) Daulton for pitching help. Promising prospect Chad Ogea can fill in if there’s any time in-between trades. I end up dealing Daulton immediately for Mark Portugal from the Giants. I’m a little disappointed with the results, but it makes sense (this is also what gives me the sense of a stronger AI-I used to use this strategy frequently, trading up rather easily. Now it seems the computer knows.)

    At the end of May, Manny Ramirez strains his lat and needs a 6 week DL trip. I call up Brian Giles to fill his roster spot. It’s still going to hurt, as he had a 156 OPS+ so far on the season, but my lineup is doing pretty well. We enter June in first, with a 31-20 record and a 2.5 game lead in the division.

    I see in my player updates that Carlos Baerga’s skills are trending down despite him being just 26. I know he fizzled out young, but he’s doing so well this season (the game puts him at 2.4 WAR already). Still, I shop him out of curiosity and see that the Yankees are offering John Olerud for him.* He’d make a fine upgrade from Paul Sorrento over at first, but that’d leave me without a second basemen. And I can’t just blow up a first-place roster like this, right? Still, the nagging idea is there. (And this is to say nothing of me still agonizing about what to do with the outfield; Albert Belle is my easily best player right now, best in the league, in fact, but I could certainly trade him for an ace for my still-weak rotation and sub in Brian Giles and be mostly fine after this season, right?...) And first baseman Paul Sorrento’s been a total zero at first…

    *The Yankees also have John Olerud, in this alternate universe, thanks to trading off Jorge Posada. He’d be dealt twice more from there before the year ended, going from the Blue Jays to the Dodgers to the Brewers.

    But then I notice that Sorrento and Baerga are only signed through this season, and Olerud’s good through 2000, while I could flip Sorrento for Mike Bordick according to my intel. An Omar Vizquel-Mike Bordick double play combo would be a dream to watch, defensively… And it would save us about half a million, which isn’t bad in 1995 money.

    Everything trending down at once in-game is worrisome, and as they say, fortune favors the bold. What the heck; I pull the trigger on both moves (but not before saving) the day after the scouting report comes out. (Olerud goes 4-5 with a double in his debut, a 13-3 win; hopefully a good sign; Baerga, meanwhile, goes 0-3)

    I also deal Randy Ready, who I picked off of waivers to cover when my two shortstops went down, for Jesse Orosco. Didn’t know what else to do with him, was surprised anyone wanted him. That’ll make the so-far below-average pen a little bit stronger.

    Brian Giles is doing pretty well in short service time, and Jeromy Burnitz is serving admirably as an injury stopgap. This means my crowded outfield might be a problem soon, but a good one. In the meantime, I focus on locking in the core a little longer;I negotiate a 3 year, $9 million extension for starting catcher Sandy Alomar Jr, and sign Omar Vizquel to a 5 year, $3.5 million extension. Also around this time,
    Eddie Murray gets his 3000 hit for us., as was expected.

    By July 1, we’ve fallen hard. A 7-game losing streak (which included a sweep at the hands of new division leaders Chicago) has left us 41-38. We’re 7.5 out of the division and 5 out of the Wild Card. My moves don’t seem to be the problem, though. Olerud has almost kept up his batting since the trade (133 OPS+ and 1.2 WAR  before, 119 and 0.5 since), while Baerga has comparatively floundered (134 and 2.3 before compared to 78 and 0.1 since). Meanwhile, Bordick was hitting better than Sorrento before the trade, and has combined with prospect David Bell to form an admirable tandem at second, while Sorrento has started just once since the trade almost a month ago.

    We have far and away the best lineup in the league, even with Manny out. Our 511 runs are 30 ahead of second place Seattle. We’re middle of the pack (sixth) in runs allowed, nothing too terrible. So it seems it’s just a spot of bad luck.* Hopefully, we can bounce back. Still, it looks like the bullpen could use a little shuffling, so I demote struggling closer Jose Mesa.

    *(I check, and we’re 4 games behind our Pythagorean record, while the White Sox are 4 ahead of theirs.  Of course.)

    Then, Mark Portugal goes down for the seson. He wasn’t irreplaceable, but my staff is already pretty thin… I deal Jason Grimsley (stuck in AAA) to Royals for Mark Gubzica. He’s struggling, but I just need innings at this point, so a reclamation project might work (except he gets injured in late July).

    We limp into the All-Star Break, 46-41, and now only 6 back of the division and 3 in the Wild Card. It’s great that we can keep pace with all these injuries, but we’ll need to start picking up ground soon. We send three representatives to the Midsummer Classic: Jim Thome, Albert Belle, and ace-setup-man-turned-closer Eric Plunk.

    Manny comes off the DL on July 29. We’re 7.5 back, still in second place in the division and the wild card, though. This spot of hope is short-lived, as John Olerud gets injured in early August, out for 2 months. This isn’t the year, it begins to seem. Giles comes back up, a week after he was demoted to make room for Manny. Olerud’s final line with us is .289/.369/.492, a 125 OPS+, and 1.2 WAR. Both figures top Baerga, who has only recently moved above replacement level since becoming a Yankee (his ratings have dropped even further, though, and it seems he’s missed a dozen games or so due to injury). While it may not have been a perfect outcome, it seems I did the best I could do, given the circumstances.

    I try and trade struggling (still) setup man Jose Mesa for Mike Stanton; it fails, because it’s a waiver deal. Strangely, it fails because of teams (plural) claiming Mesa and his 8+ ERA. Obviously, none wanted him badly enough to take him, though, and I need someone to absorb innings on a pitching staff that’s rapidly taking in water.

    About halfway through August, and we’re making a late run. Only 5 back from Chicago. We’re now third in Wild Card race behind both New York and Boston (first time all-year we aren’t second), but 4.5 back from Chicago. Maybe it happens? We keep treading water right where we are for a few days. And then Albert Belle gets hurt for 2 weeks. Now we’re almost certainly done.

    On a lighter note, I notice that Oakland puts Paul Sorrento on the trade block, so that deal seems to have worked out.

    August first, and we’re now 69-65. 7 Games back. The team continues to rake (30 run lead on the second best team), but our pitching has slipped to fourth-most runs allowed in the league. It doesn’t help we’re 6 games below our Pythagorean now. Our last chance sort of slips away, as we lose 2 of 3 to Chicago in mid-September.

    We finish 83-79, and in second place in the division, but there’s a lot to be excited for. As mentioned, our lineup was dominant-1039 runs scored, nearly 30 ahead of second place in the AL and more than the actual 1995 Indians scored per-game. Our bullpen wasn’t that bad in the end either, finishing fourth in ERA. Unfortunately, only two rotations in the AL allowed a higher ERA than ours. Jim Thome and Albert Belle finished first and fifth in WAR and second and fourth in wOBA. If I had only gotten more games out of the core (Thome/Belle/Manny/Lofton/Sandy Alomar/the Olerud-Baerga combo), who knows how many runs we could have scored. Even the role players did a great job, with Bordick, Burnitz, Vizquel, Murray, and Giles all making significant contributions in part-time roles.

    The challenge will be figuring out where to go with this promising team from here on out. Fixing the rotation will clearly be the top priority for 1996; it was obviously the weakest part, and Dennis Martinez is retiring while 38-year old Buddy Black is a free agent. Overall though, the core seems to be in order for next year-the most notable free agents are all relievers, Mesa, Dennis Cook, and setup man Paul Assenmacher (and given the year Mesa had, only those last two will be challenging to replace). Now I just need to figure out where to find those aces I need…

    As a bonus epilogue, the results of the postseason:
    Orioles defeat Angels, White Sox defeat Yankees in ALDS
    Expos defeat Astros, Giants defeat Braves in NLDS
    Orioles sweep White Sox in ALCS
    Expos defeat Giants in NLCS
     Orioles sweep Expos in World Series

    Looks like a boring postseason, as teams that lost the series went a combined 5-24.

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