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IBI Power Poll: The greatest Indians player from the 90's?

Have fun with this one...

IBI Power Poll: The greatest Indians player from the 90's?
February 9, 2014
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The Cleveland Indians of the 1990’s are synonymous with greatness for the current crop of fans here on the North Coast. While the Indians of the 40’s and 50’s are legendary in Tribe history, that 90’s team remains fresh in our minds for their run to six AL Central Division crowns in seven years (from 1995-2001), two World Series appearances (1995, 1997) and for their prodigious hitting thanks to Manny RamirezJim ThomeAlbert BelleKenny Lofton and Sandy Alomar, just to name a few.

While ranking the 1990’s Indians seems a silly task, it became clear over the past few weeks that there was an interesting distinction to loyal fans with regards to who was the best player of that era. Was it Jim Thome, who left the team as the home run leader? Was it Manny Ramirez, who may have been the best all-around hitter in Indians’ history? Was it Albert Belle, who may have been the most feared slugger in Indians history? Was it Kenny Lofton, who was the straw that stirred the drink for the entire 90’s run, minus 1997? Was it Omar Vizquel, who was the unsung hero offensively and spectacular defensively? Was it Sandy Alomar Jr., who was oft-injured, but still maintained the role as “leader” on a team that had several stars? Was it his brother Roberto, who played only three seasons here, but were perhaps the greatest-ever seasons by any Indians’ second baseman?

For the sake of our discussion, we are going to consider all of the 90’s Indians, and include their years in the 2000’s as well, if they extended that far. This certainly isn’t going to be a stat-driven piece, to say the least, but I’m simply stating that so that you can consider their numbers past the 90’s. I’m also going to stick to the players that I would consider top candidates. I’m only going to select the players I would consider top candidates, and you can feel free to have a differing opinion. I’ve left off David JusticeMarquis Grissom and Matt Williams, simply because they never really felt like full-time parts to the great teams here in Cleveland, although they did play important roles. I also left off players in the ilk of Paul Sorrento, simply because it’s ridiculous to think he’s the top player.

Now, this is not meant to be a historical piece in that it’s extremely difficult for me to differentiate one player from another. It does seem like an odd topic in that I loved this team from top to bottom. I loved watching El Presidente take the mound and soft-toss 75 milers and still confound hitters. I loved watching Orel Hershiser prove that wily placement is often greater than pure heat. I loved Wayne Kirby spark-plug-like antics. I loved Mark Clark followed by Dave Burba, who were really good at times…no…really. I loved Tony Pena’s timely homer and Chad Ogea’s odd last name. I loved Julian Tavarez, and his commercial for BW3 (seriously, if anyone can find him covered in BBQ sauce, post a link here), and I even loved Jose Mesa for awhile, and Eric Ker-Plunk and Paul Assenmacher and Casey Candaele and Bip Roberts and JJJJJJuuuuuuulllllllliiiiiiiooooooooo Franco’s return.

I loved this team.

It wasn’t about a competition for who should be on a statue. It was about winning baseball games, and fights in locker rooms over music, and what horrible thing could Albert do that would make us cheer him all the more, and who would we trade for at the deadline, or would we sign Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson or Matt Williams or Chuck Knoblach or Schilling or Roberto Alomar or Jack McDowell or…well…you get the point.

The Indians were at the top of the MLB heap, and if it weren’t for that late run by the 90’s Yankees, who would the best American League team of the 90’s be?

That era is now gone, and the current crop of Indians are still trying to pry themselves out of their shadow, but boy, it sure is nice to have that shadow, isn’t it?

It sure is better than talking about losing 100 games.

Let’s take a brief look at the candidates:

Bartolo ColonColon was probably the most talented starting pitcher for the Cleveland Indians during their 90’s-era run. In his six seasons with the Indians, he went 75-45 with a 3.92 ERA, and was a four or better WAR player in each of his six seasons. He was never a factor in a World Series, but he did ultimately build the foundation for the Aught Indians, which should be a part of the equation.

Charles NagyWhile Colon was certainly better than Nagy, there wasn’t a more consistent pitcher on the Tribe roster than Nagy. He pitched for the Tribe from 1990-2002, and won 15 or more games from 1995-1999. Of course, wins don’t equate to being the best, but there was always something about Nagy that made him an integral part of the team. Some would say it was the fact that he was the best of a bad lot, but the reality was that he was a tenacious starter for an offensive-laden team.

Roberto Alomar: Alomar came late to the party, but he brought with him a whole lot of thunder. He was likely the biggest free agent to ever sign with the Indians in his prime, and he managed to hit .323 with an unseemly .920 OPS, with 63 homers and 309 RBI in 471 games. His 20.3 WAR was only two points beneath his five year total with the Blue Jays. Defensively, he won the Gold Glove all three seasons with the Indians. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

Omar Vizquel: When you talk about Omar Vizquel and the Cleveland Indians of the 90’s, it’s a complicated thing. With Omar, above everything else, and that includes his defense, is the fact that was easily the most liked player of the bunch. Omar outlasted everyone, sticking around with the Indians until the 2004 season. He’s the best defensive shortstop in the history of Cleveland, and arguably, in the history of baseball. He wrapped up eight Gold Gloves, 279 stolen bases, and walked 612 times against only 586 K’s. Vizquel was as unassuming a superstar as you’ll ever meet, and he was a superstar. The fact that he played the complimentary role as compared to the rest of the “stars” shows what kind of player and person he really was.

Albert Belle: When I think of the Indians of the 90’s, the first player that pops into my mind is ole’ #8, Albert Belle. Sure, some of that is because of Halloween chases, ventilation system escapades with Jason Grimsley, and beaning hecklers and cameramen from 500 feet, but that truly just added to the lore of Belle as a larger-than-life power hitter. The Indians had never really had that one guy over the years who pitchers truly feared, and then came “Joey,” who changed all that. His prodigious hitting hit its zenith in 1995 with 52 doubles and 50 home runs, which was the first time in the history of the game someone managed 50 in both categories in the same year. Belle signed the largest contract in the history of baseball after 1996, with the Chicago White Sox, and the only town that could love him, began hating him. There were many moments in the 90’s that stand out, but none maybe more than in the 1995 playoffs against the Red Sox. Belle crushed a homer, and Kevin Kennedy question the bat, causing the umpires to take it away. Belle’s response? He infamously flexed his bicep, showcasing perhaps the one moment that summed up the Indians of the 90’s.

Manny Ramirez: Long before Manny went to Boston, Clevelanders were familiar with the phrase, Manny being Manny. While I could spend time talking about getting picked off or taking bathroom breaks behind the Green Monster, that phrase to me meant hitting the baseball. Let’s face the facts: Manny Ramirez was likely the best pure offensive player in Cleveland Indians history. Of course, “pure” may be a stretch, but there’s no doubt that Manny was a hitting savant. From 1995, Manny never had an OPS below .953, and saw his WAR top out at 7.5 in 1999, when he hit 44 homers, with 131 runs and 165 RBI. The Indians made a serious play to keep him in Cleveland after the 2000 season with a  mega-deal, but he ultimately used the Indians to bump up the Red Sox fee, sending yet another slugger to a rival American League team. While Belle may have made a bigger splash via the headlines, he wasn’t nearly the all-around offensive threat that Ramirez ultimately became.

Kenny Lofton: I often wonder if Kenny Lofton played on the wrong team at the wrong time. Don’t get me wrong here, Lofton was an amazing member of the Cleveland Indians in the 90’s and beyond, but like Omar Vizquel, without the big lumber, he’s often overlooked by people outside of Cleveland for his impact on those 90’s teams. The Indians stole Lofton from Houstonj in a deal that sent Willie Blair and Ed Taubensee to the Astros. He never looked back, starting with the Tribe in 1992. Lofton led the league in stolen bases that season, and for the next five, topping out at 75 in 1996. He was dealt to Atlanta after the ’96 season, but returned on a new deal in 1998 for four more seasons. The Indians dealt for Lofton for one last ride at the deadline in 2007, and he helped the Indians to one last run to the ALCS, falling one game short. While his speed and play were clearly in decline, his overall numbers can’t be questioned. His average with the Tribe in his ten seasons was .300, with an .800 OPS. He stole 452 bases, and scored 975 runs in 1,276 total games. He truly was the straw that stirred the drink.

Sandy Alomar Jr: I’m not going to talk numbers with Alomar, because they really don’t stack up to any of the offensive players on this list. You’ll hear people talking about a couple of big-time seasons, and they would be correct. When Alomar was healthy, he was truly special. Ultimately though, injuries really put a hurt into his overall numbers. But Alomar, in many ways, symbolizes the Indians of the 90’s more than any other player. It was the Joe Carter trade that brought him from San Diego that truly started the rebuild, at list visibly. It was Alomar, behind the plate, who wasn’t a trouble-maker, and seemed to be the leader of the team, on-or-off the field. It was Alomar, who hit the game-winning homer for the American League at the Jacob’s Field All-Star game in 1997, winning the MVP. It was Alomar who rolled out a 30-game hit streak that same season. It was Alomar’s shot off of Mariano Rivera in game four of the ALDS that changed the momentum of a series the Indians won. That 1997 was what Alomar COULD have been had he played healthy for his entire career…but he was the MVP of that team in ’97, and likely could be considered the glue of the 90’s.

Carlos BaergaIn many ways, Carlos Baerga is a forgotten member of the great 90’s team, and came over to the Tribe in the same trademark Joe Carter trade that brought Alomar to the team. How good was Baerga? At one point, the historical name most associated with the Indians 2nd Baseman was Rogers Hornsby. Why? He became the first second baseman since Rogers Hornsby in 1922 to have back-to-back 20+ homer, 200+hit, 100+ RBI and .300+ average seasons. It was a streak that likely would have had three years attached to it, but the strike shortened 1994 season ended that hope. He was the first player in the history of baseball to hit a homer from both sides of the plate in one inning. Baerga came into the 1996 season out of shape, and his game began to decline. He came into camp at 230 pounds, and was still nursing a wrist injury from the ’95 season. He fought to get into shape, dropping 30 pounds, but with the weight loss came a loss of stamina, and before the Indians run to the playoffs, Baerga was gone. He’d return for a bit in 1999, but not as a regular. Baerga was a really good player, but never took the next step to greatness.

Jim Thome: I’m not going to say a whole lot about Thome, because I really do believe that this statue-business has overshadowed the player he was. Thome went about his business in a fairly quiet manner on a team in which there were several boisterous and cantankerous players surrounding him. He always fit in, and he always played a major role on the team, although one could argue that he was never THE major bat in the line-up, until Manny Ramirez left after the 2000 season. That’s an arguable point, of course, but a legitimate point. Still, there was an unselfishness to the game that made him stand out. It was never more apparent than in 1997, when the Indians reshaped their team, and asked Thome for a favor. Thome was coming off his first prodigious year in 1996, a season in which he finished 15th in MVP voting, hit 38 homers, drove in 116 RBI, and walked 123 times. His OPS that year was 1.062, which led the team. The Indians lost Albert Belle to free agency, but signed Matt Williams in free agency. The Indians only signed Williams after Thome agreed to move to first base. He didn’t want to, but gladly did it. You all know the numbers. You all know why he left, and how. You all know that he came back, and is now getting a statue. It’s funny that the most unassuming player of the bunch may just be the most controversial pick.

It’s not an easy choice, and it’s hard to set the criteria for which you should use. You could legitimately make a case for overall play, power, longevity, defense, clubhouse factor, fan favorite, how they left, and how far they took the team. Of course, that can all get trumped by perhaps the hardest bias to overcome: who is your favorite? Feel free to use whichever criteria stands out to you, and leave a comment below to let us know what that criteria is...

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

User Comments

Jwahoo
February 10, 2014 - 11:27 PM EST
I mean Belle would have been the answer except he wasn't. Sure, he was the best player in 1995 but I can't see him as the best of the decade.

Its such a hard question.

Thome was my favorite at the time because he seemed like a nice guy and I just loved his home run swing.

Vizquel was so much more amazing then he gets credit for. Watching him play SS was just magic for a young kid like I was at the time.

Ramirez is the best Indians hitter probably of all time.

Baerga was the 3rd hitter in 95 everyone seems to forget that. He might have been the best all around hitter that year.

But, its gotta be Lofton. He brings it all.

He had the swagger, the bat, the speed and made some of the most amazing catches I have ever seen. Combine that with the fact he was a good dude and was here the most and its gotta be him. He could change the game in so many different ways.

Kenny Lofton is the most dynamic Indians player of the 90s.
BrianM
February 10, 2014 - 12:11 PM EST
It's gotta be Lofton. these guys were all great on the field, but for me it comes down to the way he embraced Cleveland. He was upset, but very professional about his trade to Atlanta prior to the '97 season. While many players would be bitter about an experience like that, Lofton kept it together, played a great season with the Braves, and came right back and signed a 3 year deal with the Indians. How often do you see that happen? Kenny is and always will be the face of the 90's for us.

In regards to not having an ace during those years, I know for sure that the Indians actually came close to acquiring Curt Schilling from the Phillies Twice during his time with them. I also know they were involved in trade talks for Randy Johnson, but we either got outbid or he just refused to come to Cleveland (he wasn't a big fan of the team or players). I think there were a few other guys we targeted in trades (Pedro being on of them), but I can't remember off the top of my head.
Jim
February 10, 2014 - 11:09 AM EST
Walt--

The only thing that counts is winning or getting to the World Series. I concur that if the '95 and '96 teams, and even the '94 team, played the '97 team, they'd likely win.

But when it counted, the Indians performed in '97, and came closer than any team since 1948 to bringing a title to Cleveland. Had they done that, we wouldn't be having this discussion at all...;)

My favorite Indians teams are the 94-95 teams...and I actually liked the 99-01 teams as well...Alomar and Vizquel up the middle was exquisite...
Walt Coogan
February 10, 2014 - 10:32 AM EST
Jim, the 1997 Indians only posted a .531 winning percentage (in the regular season, which is what should really count, intellectually, in baseball). Conversely, the 1995 Indians and 1996 Indians respectively posted winning percentages of .694 and .611, the best in baseball both years. So the 1997 Indians were worse than the earlier incarnations with Belle, but they were worse primarily because their pitching really fell off that year.
Walt Coogan
February 10, 2014 - 10:22 AM EST
Den, in Jose Canseco's first book, "Juiced," he identifies Albert Belle as one of the era's few superstars whose strength proved all natural.

And let's just say that when the subject is steroids, Canseco knows what he's talking about.
Walt Coogan
February 10, 2014 - 10:15 AM EST
Den, the Indians' pitching was far from terrible; had it been terrible, they would not have been so successful. Indeed, Cleveland actually led the American League in ERA in 1995 and 1996, when the Indians won the most games in the major leagues each season.

What the Indians never quite possessed was that dominant ace to front their staffs. In retrospect, what if Cleveland had offered, say, Jaret Wright and Brian Giles to Montreal for Pedro Martinez following the 1997 season, when the Red Sox acquired him? Granted, Wright was coming off an impressive postseason at the tender age of twenty-one, but Martinez was only four years older and already the best pitcher in the game, having received the 1997 National League Cy Young Award with an ERA below 2.00 and over 300 strikeouts.

As for the best Indian of the nineties, it has to be Albert Belle, with Kenny Lofton running second. And if Roberto Alomar receives a mention with just one year logged with Cleveland in the nineties, then David Justice is certainly worthy of a citation as well. I mean, how was Justice not a "full-time part"? His 1997 season alone (.329 BA, .418 OBP, .596 SLG, 33 HR, 101 RBI for a team that reached Game Seven of the World Series) renders him worthy. Also, Marquis Grissom was the ALCS MVP that year.
den
February 10, 2014 - 8:27 AM EST
Unfortunately a great team with terrible pitching throughout their run...and more than one or two steroid bolstered individuals. The only good time to be in Cleveland though was during this run...the sellouts were amazing and even though I cannot imagine what drug cocktails he took, Albert (joey) Belle was the scariest Indian at the plate....ever!
Themaven
February 10, 2014 - 5:46 AM EST
My choice was Ramirez,he's the best right handed hitter I've seen and that includes Miguel Cabrera.

Belle was a force of nature and comes in second.

Lofton was awesome and awfully entertaining to watch.

Thome had incredible power and patience,but was a limited player.Still a HOFer though.which really speaks to the collection of talent those teams had.

Watching Vizquel and Alomar play the keystone was the single thing I appreciated the most.My nephew,who was in his late teens, reminded me the other day of when I admonished him to pay attention and cherish the rare opportunity to watch two such craftsmen at work.
art
February 10, 2014 - 1:09 AM EST
Belle, with Ramirez the runner up.
Rocky55
February 10, 2014 - 12:03 AM EST
Kenny. My 2nd fave all-time. Now, are we talking the '90's era teams or the '90's literally? If you mean the 90's only, Kenny rules. Best leadoff hitter and best CF for the whole decade in all of MLB. Without research I'd bet that Kenny played the most games, had the most AB's, scored the most runs, and possibly had the most hits and the fewest K's. Plus, possibly excepting Omar, Kenny played the field better than any of them.

Kenny's my MVP for the '90's.
Tony
February 9, 2014 - 6:08 PM EST
I picked Albert Belle.

I loved Omar, Thome, Lofton and Ramirez more as players and people....but Belle was better than all of these guys. Had Belle remaining healthy he'd be a no doubt hall of famer and a clear step above Thome/Ramirez.
Jim
February 9, 2014 - 5:53 PM EST
I don't think Belle would ultimately win this...but it's interesting that people feel the same way I do in the sense that he more or less set the tone for the mashers that this team would become in the early 90's...prior to most of these other guys. I'm not saying it's more valid than the other guys...but I do think that plays a part in it. This team with Belle had some serious swag.

The 1997 team was so different with Matt Williams and Justice and Grissom...not worse...just different...and how they got to the World Series bears that out...

Fun to talk about though...for sure...
Lisa
February 9, 2014 - 5:37 PM EST
Albert Belle without question. And he should have won at least one MVP and he should be in the HOF if players with shortened careers like Koufax are. His problem is the same one Ted Williams had, problems with the media largely of his own doing like Williams.

Lofton and Omar were great, but Albert was the guy who "stirred the drink" and made pitchers sweat..
Jim
February 9, 2014 - 5:08 PM EST
sorry about the lofton miss...he's there now...

Richard...I was vague on definition on purpose...but you did a really nice job with the Belle analogy...which in a lot of ways I concur with...
Richard
February 9, 2014 - 4:47 PM EST
Define what is meant by "greatest". (a la Bill Clinton)

Vizquel was the greatest defender of our generation.
Thome the greatest Indian HR hitter.
Lofton the greatest Indian CF.
Baerga the greatest bat control (and happiest)
Roberto Alomar the greatest 2b Indian.
Sandy the most professional.
Manny the greatest hitter and nut.

But without Albert Belle - the 90's Indians would not have been so great.
Roger
February 9, 2014 - 4:24 PM EST
i picked omar to me he was the consumate indian of the 90's he from the 2 hole made everyone perfect in their roles. he could bunt was a better hitter than he gets credit for. and he was here a long time. Roberto Alomar was perhaps the most talented player from that era but omar was the most consistently outstanding talent on the team at that time. If that team had a captain it would have been omar. and after astrubel is gone they should retire number 13.
John
February 9, 2014 - 4:08 PM EST
Jim - please toss Kenny into the poll!

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