The Yankees are rolling. Well, they’re rolling well enough to be in contention for the second wild card and have a chance to reach the postseason. The only problem is the standings for the second wild card are currently a mess with a handful of teams in position to earn the playoff berth. But with a big weekend against the Indians, the Yankees can get rid of one of the teams in the second wild card mix.
With the Yankees and Indians meeting for the second and last time this season, I did an email exchange with Jason Lukehart of Let’s Go Tribe to talk about the 2008 trade of CC Sabathia, what it’s been like to have Nick Swisher on the Indians and the emotional stress of having your team in the one-game playoff.
Keefe: CC Sabathia threw his last pitch of the 2014 season on May 10 and some believe it might have been the last pitch he ever throws given the unknown nature of his leg. After thinking he could continue to be a staple in the Yankees’ rotation for a few years and be maybe the last, or one of the last pitchers, to reach 300 wins, at 208 that now seems impossible.
Living in New York, I don’t know many Indians fans. Actually, now that I think of it, I don’t know any. So I’m asking you as an Indians fan what it was like to watch Sabathia drafted and developed for seven-plus seasons in Cleveland before being forced to trade him to the Brewers in the summer of 2008?
Lukehart: The Indians are almost never in a position to add a top level starting pitcher through free agency or a trade, so if they’re going to have one, they’ve got to draft and develop him, or trade for him before he reaches the majors.
Sabathia was drafted in 1998, which was before I had any real awareness of the draft. It was the middle of 2000 when I first heard of him, when he was promoted to Double-A while still a teenager. He was on the Indians at the start of the 2001 season, and he went on to finish second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting that year. I remember finding it really cool that he was the first player born the same year as me to play for the Indians.
He took a big step forward in 2003, and made his first All-Star team that season, and because Bartolo Colon had been traded away, that was the year Sabathia first felt like the ace of the rotation. He wasn’t quite as good the next couple years though, but then in 2006 he was great, probably one of the five best pitchers in the American League. That was the year I started picking which games to go to based on whether or not Sabathia was pitching.
In 2007 he improved again, and suddenly he was maybe the best pitcher in baseball. The Indians were awesome that season, and after being spoiled by the 90s teams, five straight season of missing the playoffs felt like an eternity, so it was a delight to have the team playing so well, and Sabathia was front and center in that. The Indians had never had an MVP or Cy Young winner in the 20-plus years I’d been a fan, so having Sabathia win the Cy Young was a big deal to me. At the same time, it felt inevitable that 2008 would be his last year with the Indians, and when the team couldn’t recapture the magic from the year before, it was inevitable that he’d be traded. Bring a Tribe fan, you sort of get used to losing the team’s best players after a few years, but it’s still a bummer every time.
Keefe: When the Indians traded CC Sabathia to the Brewers they received Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and a player to be named later. That player to be named later ended up being Michael Brantley.
The centerpiece of that deal was LaPorta, who became a bust, but it’s Brantley, who has turned into a franchise player, showing consistent growth in production each season and now hitting .320/.378/.509 with 16 home runs and 72 RBIs as an All-Star outfielder.
What happened to LaPorta and how refreshing is it to see a young player like Brantley grow within the organization?
Lukehart: LaPorta was a bust. A lot of highly-rated prospects are busts. He wasn’t even the most highly-rated prospect the Indians have had in the last decade who didn’t pan out, so while of course I wish he’d turned into the slugging first baseman many predicted he would become, I never lost much sleep over it. I’ve liked Brantley for a while, and there’s real value in a slightly above average young player who can hold down a spot in the lineup for a few years. I certainly didn’t see a season like this one coming from him though. The Indians have a solid core of hitters, all fairly young and under team control for another three to six years, a group that includes Brantley, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, and Jason Kipnis.
Kipnis is having sort of a down year, possibly because of an oblique injury, but he was one of the best second baseman in baseball last year, and Santana has successfully transitioned from behind the plate to first base (after a short stint at third base, which didn’t go so well). Santana moved because Gomes is a great defensive catcher who also hits well, and now Brantley looks like maybe the best of the bunch. This core isn’t on the same level as the Belle/Lofton/Ramirez/Thome/Vizquel group from 20 years ago, but they’re good, and if the Indians can find a way to build a better starting rotation, the team should be competitive over the next few seasons.
Keefe: Nick Swisher might be my all-time least favorite Yankee, and that’s saying a lot because of Kevin Brown’s tenure with the team and Javier Vazquez’s and Raul Mondesi’s. But Swisher carried himself in a way that made Yankees fan dislike aside from him going 21-for-130 (.162) in four postseasons with the Yankees. Swisher was playing himself out of town long before his defensive lapse in Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS that lost the game for the Yankees in extra innings and caused Derek Jeter to break his ankle, and before his meltdown with the Bleacher Creatures in Game 2 of that same ALCS. I wanted Swisher out of town as fast as possible and I got my wish when the Indians signed him to a four-year, $56 million deal after the 2012 season.
The last time the Yankees and Indians met (July 7-9), Swisher entered the series hitting .197/.287/.317 with five home runs and 29 RBIs. But sure enough, he hit two home runs in the four games, including one off Masahiro Tanaka, to stick it to Yankees fans.
What are your thoughts on Swisher as an Indian now that he has been with the team for almost two years? And what are, or were, your thoughts on his contract?
Lukehart: Yankees fans may have the luxury of turning up their nose at good hitters, but for the last decade in Cleveland, we’ve had to take what we could get! Swisher posted four very good seasons at the plate in New York, hitting 23 home runs with an on-base percentage of .374 in the worst of those four seasons. He’d been healthy too. I didn’t expect him to be an MVP candidate or anything, but he certainly looked like an offensive upgrade for the Indians when they signed him, and the contract, while pricey for a team without the revenue streams teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have, was probably a bit below the market rate for a guy with Swisher’s numbers.
Whether it was going from a hitter’s park to a (slight) pitcher’s park, or suddenly being the biggest name in the lineup after years of being overshadowed by better known players, or just getting older (I think it was probably just getting older), thing have not worked out in Cleveland. A strong September gave him okay numbers in 2013, but he’s been one of the worst regular players in the league this year, which makes the remaining two seasons on his contract look pretty grim.
Keefe: In 2011, Justin Masterson looked like he was becoming the front-end starter the Indians hoped they had traded for from Boston in 2009 when he put together a 12-10 season with a 3.21 ERA. He regressed in 2012, but bounced back in 2013, going 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA, making the All-Star Team as well. But this season between bad pitching and injury, Masterson was a mess for the Indians (4-6, 5.63) and eventually was traded to the Cardinals for prospect James Ramsey, who tore up Double-A this season before getting moved to Triple-A.
What happened to Masterson and why was he never able to find consistency from year to year? Do you agree with the trade?
Lukehart: Masterson has said he injured his knee during his second start of the season, but that it didn’t keep him from pitching. I don’t know, I guess it just kept him from pitching well. In terms of his inconsistency from year to year, I don’t really know that there is an explanation. I think what makes the great one great is their ability to do it game after game, year after year. The minor leagues are littered with pitchers who could throw a great game here or there, and most starters who last at the MLB level have a particularly good year or two somewhere along the way. I think Masterson was a good pitcher, but not a great one, and that’s what you’d get if you took his overall numbers from his years with the Indians.
In terms of the trade, I was fine with it. Masterson is going to be a free agent at the end of the season, and after the two sides were unable to work out an extension this spring (despite Masterson reportedly being willing to sign for three years, $45 million… maybe the front office knew something we didn’t!), there wasn’t really any way he was going to come back in 2015, unless it was on a qualifying offer, and after his walk rate spike dramatically and he went on the DL for the first time, I don’t know that the front office was thrilled about the idea of making him a qualifying offer. I suspect his numbers will look better in St. Louis, in part because he’s probably bit healthier after a few weeks off, and in part because pitching in the National League is easier. I think the Indians did the right thing though, getting something for him while they could.
Keefe: I was the President of the No Second Wild Card Club the moment it became a possibility that Major League Baseball might institute a one-game playoff to decide a spot in the division series. My voice wasn’t heard as they went with the idea anyway and here we are in the third year of the playoff format where any team .500 or better is technically still in the race until the end of the season.
Now that the Yankees are no longer an annual lock to win the division or win what used to be the only wild card, I have started to come around on the second wild card because for them, especially this season, it might be their only way into the playoffs. I always said I don’t know if I could emotionally or physically handle a one-game playoff at the end of the season to get into the postseason, but this year I might find out.
You had to deal with the one-game playoff last year when your Indians played the Rays. What are your thoughts on the second wild card?
Lukehart: It’s funny how your favorite team’s circumstances can change your view on the second wild card, isn’t it? Last season I was happy about the second spot, because it seemed like it gave the Tribe a much better chance of reaching the postseason. Then they won their last 10 games of the regular season, and won the first wild card, and suddenly a bemoaning the existence of the second spot. “The Indians should be going straight to the ALDS!”
The wild card game’s merit will change year to year. In 2013, there were three teams all bunched together, and it made sense that they all still had a chance after 162 games. This year it looks like the Angels might be forced to play a do-or-doe game against a team with eight or nine fewer wins, which doesn’t seem so fair. I like that it places an increased value on winning the division, but I don’t like that it increases the chances that a team with a record barely above .500 might get into the playoffs.
As for the one-game nature of it, think of it as going straight to Game 7, which the Yankees have played their fair share of. If you can survive losing four straight to Boston in 2004, you can survive the wild-card game!