The Indians have sent a shockwave of energy through the team and fan base with the signing of Edwin Encarnacion. They went out and silenced the “Dolan’s are cheap” crowd (for now). With that said, in the past the Indians have had varying degrees of success with big free agent signings, from the recent failures of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to the past successes of Robbie Alomar and Juan Gonzalez.
Unfortunately for the Indians, they have never been in the fiscal position to be able to miss on big-time free agent signings, so when they miss it stands out more. That’s what makes the signing of Encarnacion so amazing, it goes against what their philosophy has been over recent memory. Even back in the glory years of the mid 1990s, the Indians rarely made a big free agent signing; instead they brought up high level talent from their minor league system and tried to lock them up long term.
Prior to signing Encarnacion the Indians had never signed a free agent to a $60 million contract. As with all free agent signings there comes risk. Some players pan out while others don’t. I’m not going to dive into recent bigger signings, as we all know how Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn played out. Below are a few “big” free agent signings from the last time the Indians championship window was legitimately open.
Chuck Finley (Signed 3 yr/ $25.4 million deal in 2000)
Chuck Finley came to the Indians at the tail end of their magical run of the late 90s-early 00s. He was one of those types of players who was at the end of his career and the Indians were trying to squeeze out the last bit of talent in him.
Finley had varying degrees of success while with the Tribe. In his first year he went 16-11 with an ERA of 4.17 in 34 starts. He had a good first half of the season, going 7-6 with a 3.73 ERA and had a .234 batting average against earning him an All-Star nod for the Indians that year. The left-hander continued having a solid season through the second half and actually finished off very strong in September going 6-1 with a 3.34 ERA. Unfortunately, the Indians missed the playoffs in 2000 as they finished one game behind the Seattle Mariners for the Wild Card spot.
The 2001 season was a different story for Finley as he went 8-7 with a 5.54 ERA. He had two different stints on the disabled list with a neck injury, but managed to return in September and had a good month going 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA. The Indians made the playoffs in 2001, but Finley didn’t fare too well. He was 0-2 with a 7.27 ERA and the Indians lost in the ALDS in five games to the Seattle Mariners.
Finley was traded close to the deadline in 2002 to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Luis Garcia and a player to be named later. Luckily for the Indians that PTBNL was Coco Crisp.
Career with Indians: 74 games, 28-29 record, 4.59 ERA, 5 complete games, 437.0 innings pitched, 184 walks, 376 strikeouts
Roberto Alomar (Signed 3 yr/ $21.9 million in 1999)
The acquisition of Roberto Alomar, to me, was the best free agent signing the Indians have ever made. When he was signed he was coming off of nine consecutive All-Star game appearances and had won seven of the previous eight Gold Glove Awards at second base. He was in his prime and helped form one of, if not, the greatest keystone combination in the history of baseball as Robbie and Omar Vizquel turned some of the most unbelievable double plays. Videos of their double plays would have been staples on every social media site if they played today as they were a sight to behold.
During the 1999 season, his first with the Indians, Alomar was spectacular batting .323 with 24 home runs, 120 RBIs and 37 stolen bases. He also led the American League in runs scored (138) and was eighth in both doubles (40) and RBIs (120). He also finished third in AL MVP voting, won a Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger award. The Indians made the playoffs in ’99 and Alomar was exceptional batting .368 with 4 doubles and 3 RBI’s against Boston. Unfortunately, the Indians were eliminated in five games.
The 2000 season was more of the same as Alomar batted .310 with 19 home runs, 89 RBIs and 39 stolen bases. He made the All-Star team and won another Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award, but the Indians missed the playoffs.
The 2001 season saw Alomar have one of the best seasons of his career as he batted a career high .336 with 20 home runs, 100 RBIs, 34 doubles, and 30 stolen bases. He finished the season in the top 4 in MVP voting and added yet another Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award to his mantle. Unfortunately, he and the Indians didn’t have an October to remember as the Seattle Mariners were, for the most part, able to neutralize him as he went 3-for-21 in the five game series.
After the 2001 season the Indians traded him to the Mets, which at the time looked like a bad move, but since 2001 turned out to be the last effective season Alomar had in the majors his loss didn't hurt as much. What hurt was the Tribe wasn’t able to turn him into any core pieces, which set in motion a few down years in Cleveland.
Career with Indians: 471 games, 362 runs, 564 hits, 114 doubles, 17 triples, 63 home runs, 309 RBI's, 106 stolen bases, 243 walks, 249 strikeouts, .323 batting average
Juan Gonzalez (Signed 1 yr/ $10 million in 2001)
Juan Gonzalez was brought in on a one year deal to replace the production lost when Manny Ramirez left for Boston. Gonzalez was coming off a “down” year in Detroit were in 115 games he hit .289 with 22 HRs and 67 RBIs. That just goes to show the level of production he was at to consider that a poor year.
After the 2000 season he rejected a $140 million contract from the Tigers. The Indians signed what turned out to be one of the biggest “bargains” in the majors at the time. Gonzalez was everything the Indians could have hoped for and more as he had a great bounce back season in 2001. He started the season off with a bang as he homered twice on opening day and continued that production through all of April finishing the month batting .389 with 8 HRs and 26 RBIs. He parlayed that hot start into an All-Star appearance and finished the season batting .325 with 35 HRs and 140 RBIs.
The 2001 Indians team won the AL Central over Minnesota by six games, but as stated earlier, they lost to the Seattle Mariners in the ALDS, three games to two. Gonzalez had a huge series in the ALDS. In the five games he batted .348 with 2 HRs and drove in 5 RBIs.
Career with Indians: 140 games, 97 runs, 173 hits, 34 doubles, 1 triple, 35 home runs, 140 RBI's, 41 walks, 94 strikeouts, .325 batting average.
Other Notable Indians Free Agent Signings
Ellis Burks (Signed 3 yr/$19.5 million in 2000)
Ellis Burks was signed to help replace the production lost when Manny Ramirez left for Boston. He turned out to be a good signing and produced well in the first two years of the contract. The third year he only played 55 games and the Indians parted ways with him after the season.
Career w/ Indians: 317 games, 202 runs, 331 hits, 68 doubles, 66 home runs, 193 runs batted in, 133 walks, 239 strikeouts, .287 batting average
Dennis Martinez (Signed 3yr/$13.25 million in 1993)
Dennis Martinez was signed before the 1994 season and helped usher in one of the greatest eras of Indians baseball. He pitched well all three seasons he was with the Indians and made an All-Star game appearance in 1995.
Career w/ Indians: 72 games, 32-17 record, 2.58 ERA, 11 complete games, 475.2 innings pitched, 127 walks, 239 strikeouts, 1 All-Star Appearance (1995)
Eddie Murray (Signed 3yr/$8 million in 1994)
Eddie Murray was signed to add a veteran presence to a young line-up. He played 2 1/2 seasons with the Tribe and was part of the 1995 team that made it to the World Series. The highlight of his Indians career came in Game 3 of the '95 World Series as he delivered a walk-off single in the 11th inning. That win was the first World Series win ever at Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field), and the Indians first World Series win since 1948.
Career w/Indians: 309 games, 158 runs, 339 hits, 51 doubles, 50 home runs, 203 runs batted in, 104 walks, 163 strikeouts, .281 batting averagenull