For the past four years, the Cleveland Indians have been among the bottom third of the major leagues in payroll. They entered at $77 million, a salary commitment that was slightly less than their 2012 payroll. Despite a 92-70 record, the Tribe’s average attendance ranked in the bottom third of the majors. But Cleveland fans clearly get up for an occasion — by Sunday night, tonight’s AL wild-card playoff game at Progressive Field, the team’s first postseason trip since 2007, was sold out even though the Indians’ opponent (Tampa Bay) wasn’t determined untill Monday.
The Indians may still suffer for being in a small market and posting five straight non-winning seasons, but they found a way to overcome their shortcomings, charging into the postseason on a 10-game winning streak. The Indians reached the playoffs thanks to shrewd moves by President Mark Shapiro and General Manager Chris Antonetti. They finished only one game behind one preseason World Series favorite Detroit in the AL Central. The Tigers’ payroll of $148 million was nearly double that of Cleveland.
The majority of the team’s core — Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Ubaldo Jimenez, Drew Stubbs, Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles — were acquired through trades, some big transactions and other smaller exchanges. Patience with Jimenez, one of their blockbuster deals, finally reaped huge returns this season as he recovered from a 17-loss, 5.40 ERA 2012 season to punch up a 1.82 ERA in the second half this season, practically pitching the Indians into the postseason.
With an influx of cash from their new cable TV deal, the Indians saw an opening to compete. So they made a push through free agency to fill their rosters needs. They committed nearly $100 million to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn — and they combined to produce 4.4 fWAR. A minor league deal for Scott Kazmir, who was making a career comeback, was a small gamble that paid big — he made 29 starts and was 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA. Smaller deals for Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi added vital bench production and clubhouse leadership respectively. Cody Allen, Danny Salazar, all-star Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall are the current roster’s only homegrown talent. Another major offseason acquisition, the hiring of manager Terry Francona, has also proved to be a successful match.
Now, the Indians’ fate rests in rookie Salazar’s right arm. Salazar has only made 10 starts this season. He has shown strong stuff — 65 strikeouts in 52 innings — but is still raw. The Indians ranked fifth in runs and boast the seventh best OPS (.737). Their roster features 11 pitchers, so if Salazar can give his team five innings, Francona will match up with his bullpen. And if the Indians win the do-or-die game, they advance to face Francona’s old team, the Boston Red Sox.
8 p.m. on TBS
RHP Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA) vs. RHP Danny Salazar (2-3, 3.12 ERA)
Rays lineup: David DeJesus LF; Wil Myers RF; James Loney 1B; Evan Longoria 1B; Ben Zobrist 2B; Desmond Jennings CF; Delmon Young DH; Yunel Escobar SS; Jose Molina C.
Indians lineup: CF Michael Bourn CF; Nick Swisher 1B; Jason Kipnis 2B; Carlos Santana DH; Michael Brantley LF; Ryan Raburn RF; Asdrubal Cabrera SS; Yan Gomes C; Lonnie Chisenhall 3B.