Welcome to the All-Time Franchise Starting Lineup, where we review one of the 30 current MLB franchises every other week to determine the best players by position in franchise history. This week, we’ll tackle the Cleveland Guardians. If you’re interested in any of our prior installments, you find them here.
The Ground Rules
- Each player’s WAR with the franchise was the primary driver of the selections. We used two WAR calculations, one from Fangraphs and the other from Baseball-Reference. When the WAR between two players was similar, we considered other factors such as stats and awards to break the tie.
- Only statistics earned with the franchise in question for each player were used. For example, someone like Albert Pujols won’t be the Dodgers’ first baseman since he only played there for part of a season near the end of his career.
- Players with multi-position eligibility can play any position they played for a reasonable period with the team.
- Outfielders can be shifted between center, left, and right as long as it makes sense defensively – especially for center field.
- Since we have universal DH now, we will assign one DH per team. Doing so also allows us to get more deserving hitters into the lineup who played at a log-jammed position.
- Three pitchers will be named – one right-handed starter, one left-handed starter, and one reliever.
The Guardians were one of the eight original American League teams formed in 1901. The original nickname of the franchise was the Blues, but they have always been in Cleveland. After one season, the Blues became the Bronchos; after another, they became known as the Naps. The team changed its nickname after the famous Napoleon Lajoie signed with them. This addition was huge for the league and the franchise as Lajoie was one of MLB’s biggest stars.
In 1915, the first season after Lajoie left the team; the franchise became the Indians, until 2022 when they became the Guardians. Cleveland won their first World Series in 1920 but didn’t return to the Fall Classic until 1948 when they were victorious again. Unfortunately, that was their last World Championship. The club has made it to the postseason 13 times since 1948, including four World Series, but has yet to earn another ring. One of their best runs came in the 1990s when the team made the playoffs six times over seven seasons with two series appearances. Unfortunately, they couldn’t make it to the finish line.
The Guardians have been successful outside championships, with a franchise winning percentage of .512 over their 122-year history. They are in an excellent position to make it to yet another postseason in 2022, so you never know; maybe they’ll break the drought this year!
Catcher: Victor Martinez
The choice for catcher came down to Steve O’Neill and Victor Martinez. O’Neill, who played in the early 20th Century, was superior defensively. However, “V-Mart” was above average defensively early in his career and one of the premier offensive catchers of his era.
Martinez debuted as a September call-up in 2002 but began 2003 in the minors. He was back up by mid-season, though, this time to stay. The following season he was the starter and broke out with 23 HRs and 108 RBI while batting .283. This earned him his first All-Star bid and first Silver Slugger. Martinez went to three All-Star games with Cleveland, five total in his career. In addition, he won a second Silver Slugger with Detroit in 2014.
V-Mart’s rise within the organization came after the great teams of the 1990s, but he did see the postseason once with Cleveland. In 2007, Cleveland beat the Yankees in the divisional round and took Boston to seven games before losing the ALCS. Martinez acquitted himself nicely, batting .318 with two HRs and seven RBI over the 11 games.
Cleveland traded Martinez to the Red Sox in July 2009 for fear of losing him to free agency after the 2010 season. He didn’t retire until 2018, spending most of his final years with Detroit as their DH. Martinez won’t be eligible for the Hall of Fame until 2024.
First Base: Jim Thome
Thome played third base for about half his tenure in Cleveland, shifting to first in 1997. First made more sense for the make-up of our All-Time lineup, so here he sits. Besides, Thome made our list of the Top Ten First Basemen of All-Time, so it seemed odd to put him in a different position.
Thome broke in with Cleveland in September 1991 but didn’t establish himself as a full-time major leaguer until 1994, and even then, he platooned for much of the season. His career took off in 1995, and in 1996 he won his one and only Silver Slugger. He developed into one of the premier power hitters of his generation and was an OBP machine. Thome attended five All-Star games in his career, the first three while in Cleveland.
As a member of the late 90s Cleveland teams, Thome went to the postseason six times from 1995 to 2001. Twice they advanced to the World Series, and twice they lost. Thome did his thing in those two series, though, with three HRs, six RBI, and a .352 OBP in the 13 games.
Thome left Cleveland via free agency after the 2002 season and joined the Phillies. He played another ten seasons before retiring in 2012. In 2018, Thome joined the Hall of Fame after being voted in on his first attempt with 90% of the vote. He is wearing a Cleveland cap on his plaque. That same year, his #25 was retired by the club.
Second Base: Nap Lajoie
Napolean LaJoie is the oldest member of our lineup and is third on our list of the Top Ten Second Basemen of All-Time. As mentioned above, when Lajoie joined Cleveland, he was such a big star that the “Bronchos” became known as the “Naps.” Cleveland wasn’t Lajoie’s first AL team, though. He jumped his contract with the Phillies to join the cross-town American League Athletics in 1901. However, Lajoie’s time with the A’s was short-lived as legal action by the NL prevented him from playing in Philadelphia for any team other than the Phillies. Hence his move to Cleveland.
In his one season with the Athletics, Lajoie dominated the league in almost every statistical category, including the Triple Crown. So it is understandable why the franchise was so giddy about signing him. He didn’t disappoint, leading the AL in hits, batting average, and doubles three times; SLG and OPS twice; and OBP and RBI once. Nap also became the team’s player/manager in 1905, a post he held through 1909.
Lajoie played 13 seasons in Cleveland before returning to the A’s for his final two seasons in 1915-16. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937, with the second group of Cooperstown legends.
Shortstop: Lou Boudreau
Lou Boudreau is another of our Top Ten Players of All-Time and thus a no-brainer for our shortstop. He broke Spring Training in 1940 as Cleveland’s starting shortstop after playing one game in 1938 and 53 in 1939. He quickly established himself as an All-Star, making his first of eight appearances that season. Boudreau was excellent on defense, leading the AL in fielding % eight times and defensive WAR four times. He could also hit, winning a batting title in 1944 and leading the league in doubles three times. His best season was 1948, when he hit .355 with 116 runs, 18 HRs, and 106 RBI en route to winning the AL MVP. It was his only MVP win, but Boudreau was top-10 in MVP voting eight times in the 1940s.
In addition to being a great player, Boudreau became Cleveland’s player-manager, starting with the 1942 season. He was only 24 years old and is still the youngest MLB manager in history. Boudreau was the first manager to employ the “Williams shift,” aligning six defenders to the right of second base when Ted Williams was at the plate. In 1948, the year he won MVP, Cleveland won the World Series, making him a champion as a player and a manager. As mentioned earlier, it was the last time Cleveland was the World Champion.
Boudreau player-managed Cleveland through 1950, at which point he left the team and signed with the Red Sox. By this time, his skills were declining, and he retired as a player in 1952. It took a while, but Boudreau was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1970. That same year, Cleveland retired his number 5.
Third Base: José Ramírez
José Ramírez is the only active player on our list. Joe Sewell was also considered for third base, but he was primarily a shortstop, only playing two seasons at third for Cleveland. The two players’ WARs are pretty similar, so Ramírez gets the nod as he figures to pass Sewell in short order.
Ramírez debuted on September 1, 2013. He started 2014 in the minors and, other than a brief call-up in May, remained there until late July. Ramírez made the team out of Spring Training in 2015 but struggled and spent much of the season back in Triple-A. He was a utility infielder over these early seasons, and undoubtedly no one would have predicted what he would become.
In 2016, Ramírez settled in as the regular third baseman, and his career took off. From that point forward, he has a 162-game average of 32 HRs, 105 RBI, 105 Runs, and 26 SBs, with a .285 batting average and .363 OBP. He also has four All-Star appearances and has won three Silver Sluggers. The 2016 Cleveland team made it all the way to the World Series, where Ramírez hit .310 with a home run and a couple of RBI in the seven-game loss to the Cubs. Ramírez signed a contract extension this season, which runs through 2028. If he remains with the club for the entirety of the contract, he may go down as one of the top players in franchise history.
Left Field: Tris Speaker
Tris Speaker was not a left fielder. He never played a game in left for Cleveland. He will be on the short list of the Top Ten Center Fielders of All-Time next week, but the Guardians’ history is replete with great center fielders. In fact, all three of our outfielders were primarily center fielders. We put Speaker in left as Kenny Lofton is one of the best defensive center fielders of all time, and by the time he got to Cleveland, Speaker was average defensively by the numbers (though not by reputation). In any case, both players belong, and without a doubt, Speaker is one of the franchise’s greatest players.
Speaker spent the first nine years of his career in Boston and was also named to our All-Time Franchise Starting Lineup for the Red Sox. In April 1916, the Red Sox traded him to Cleveland following a contract dispute, and he remained with the team through the 1926 season. He made a huge first impression on the club, leading the league in hits, doubles, batting average, OBP, SLG, and OPS in 1916. “The Grey Eagle” would lead the AL in doubles five more times over the next seven seasons.
In 1919, Speaker became player/manager for the team, and the following season they won their first World Series championship. Tris batted .320 in the series with a .393 OBP. He would continue to play and manage through 1926, after which he left the club and played two more seasons with the Senators and Athletics. Speaker’s .444 OBP with the club is still the best in franchise history, and his .354 batting average ranks second to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. In 1937, Speaker was among the second group of players elected to the Hall of Fame along with Nap Lajoie and Cy Young. That’s some pretty good company.
Center Field: Kenny Lofton
Kenny Lofton has the fifth highest all-time rank in Fangraphs defensive WAR among center fielders. His defense is the driver of his inclusion in our lineup, but he was an excellent offensive player too. Lofton is the franchise leader in stolen bases by a mile and is also third in runs scored and fifth in OBP. He was drafted by the Astros but had only 79 plate appearances with the team before they traded him to Cleveland after the 1991 season.
Lofton was Cleveland’s starting center fielder to begin the 1992 season. He finished second in the rookie-of-the-year voting that season after leading the league in SBs with 66 and repeated this feat over the next four seasons. In addition, he led the AL in hits in 1994. Lofton won his first of four consecutive Gold Gloves in 1993 and was an All-Star for the team five times.
In March 1997, Cleveland traded Lofton to Atlanta. After the season, Kenny was a free agent and re-signed with the team, staying put until he hit free agency again in 2001. Lofton would float around for the rest of his career but finished back in Cleveland for a playoff push in 2007. The team brought him back in a deal with the Rangers at the deadline.
Lofton saw the postseason six times with Cleveland, including his last season in 2007. He was on the 1995 team that lost the World Series but missed out on the 1997 team as he was in Atlanta that season. Lofton came close to facing his old club in the series that season as Atlanta went down in the NLCS. Kenny may not be a Hall of Famer, but he is one of the franchise’s best players.
Right Field: Larry Doby
Most baseball fans remember Larry Doby as the second African-American to play in the MLB after Jackie Robinson (first in the AL). He was much more than a historical footnote; he was a great baseball player. Doby played primarily center field in his career but did cover right field for a bit of his time with the club, so it was natural to slot him here with our glut in center.
Doby began his professional career in the Negro Leagues with the Newark Eagles. He gained notoriety after the Eagles won the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series and caught the attention of Cleveland owner Bill Veeck. The team purchased his contract, and he debuted in Cleveland after the All-Star break in 1947.
It wasn’t easy for Doby in the clubhouse, and he struggled to adjust that season. But in 1948, he showed what he could do, hitting .301 with 14 HRs and 66 RBI. Doby was an All-Star the following season and returned to the midsummer classic for the next six years. Twice, Cleveland made it to two World Series with Doby in center field, including the franchise’s last victory in 1948. He fared well in that series, hitting .318 with a HR and two RBI.
After the 1955 campaign, Cleveland traded Doby to the White Sox, ending his tenure with the team. He played four more years and retired in 1959. In 1994, Cleveland honored Doby by retiring his #14, and a few years later, in 1998, the Veteran’s Committee inducted him into the Hall of Fame.
Designated Hitter: Earl Averill
Earl Averill is the franchise statistical leader in several offensive categories, including plate appearances, triples, runs, and RBI. He also ranks third in hits and doubles and fourth in home runs. So we needed to find a place for him in the lineup, and where did he play? You guessed it – center field! Unlike Speaker, Lofton, and Doby, however, Averill was below average defensively. Thus, he seemed best suited for DH in our lineup.
Averill didn’t debut until he was almost 27 in 1929. He was a splash from the beginning, hitting .332 with 43 doubles, 13 triples, 18 homers, 110 runs, and 96 RBI his rookie season. However, Averill didn’t slow down, putting up incredible statistics for the next decade with the team. He represented Cleveland at the first All-Star game in 1933, returning for the next five seasons. His best season was probably 1934, when Averill led the league with 232 hits and 15 triples while batting .378 with 28 HRs, 136 runs, and 126 RBI. He finished third in the MVP vote that season, behind Lou Gehrig and Luke Appling.
In June of 1939, Cleveland traded Averill to the Tigers. He retired two years later, a few games into the 1941 season. His place in Cleveland’s record books is all the more incredible when considering his relatively short career. He surpassed 2,000 hits in roughly 12 seasons, which is no small feat. In 1975, the Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee inducted Averill, and that same year Cleveland retired his #3.
Right-Handed Starter: Bob Feller
The choice for our #1 starter was easy as Bob Feller’s WAR far surpasses any other in franchise history. It would have been even higher had he not lost most of four years to WWII. Feller leads Cleveland in games started, innings, wins, and strikeouts and ranks among the greatest players in their history regardless of position.
Feller broke in with the team when he was only 17 in 1936. It took him a few years to hit his stride, but by 1938 he was an All-Star for the first of eight times. Feller led the league in strikeouts that season but also in walks as his control was still developing. Each season from 1939-41, until he left for the war, Feller led the league in wins, innings, and strikeouts. He was the MVP runner-up once and third in the MVP vote twice during this span. In the runner-up year, 1940, Feller won the pitching Triple Crown with 25 wins, 261 strikeouts, and a 2.61 ERA.
Feller picked up where he left off after the war and continued to dominate for another decade. Post-war, he led the league in Ks, wins, and games started three more times and innings twice. When Feller was on, he was unstoppable. He threw three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters in his career and struck out 18 batters in a game which was a record for many years. Feller retired in 1956; the following season, his #19 was retired by the club. In 1962 he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with 93.8% of the vote.
Left-Handed Starter: Sam McDowell
“Sudden Sam” McDowell’s career has been somewhat underrated, perhaps because his best seasons came in the dominating pitching era of the 1960s. However, he was a force for Cleveland from the time of his first full season until he was traded eight years later. McDowell debuted in 1961 when he was only 18 and shuttled between the minors and majors for his first three seasons. He also started 1964 in the minors but was called up on May 31 and never looked back. The following season he won the ERA title, led the league in strikeouts, and made his first All-Star team. For five of the next six seasons, McDowell returned to the midsummer classic and was the AL strikeout king.
Over this span, from 1964 to 1971, McDowell averaged 244 IP with 253 strikeouts and had a 2.81 ERA. Despite this dominance, he only won 116 games as Cleveland during this era was not very good. The losing may have led to his departure as Sudden Sam made it clear he would welcome a change. It was granted after the 1971 season when the team traded him to San Francisco. McDowell played only four more years after that as a combination of injuries and alcoholism led to his retiring in 1975 at only 32 years old. McDowell didn’t have the longevity to warrant Hall of Fame consideration, but his numbers speak to how dominant he was in his time with Cleveland.
Reliever: Doug Jones
It can be challenging to select the reliever for our all-franchise team as often the list of candidates features players who weren’t with the team very long. This was the case with the Guardians franchise, where the leading candidates were Cody Allen, Paul Shuey, Rafael Betancourt, and Doug Jones. All had their merits, but Jones got the nod as his WAR was the highest by a fair margin on both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference and because he was the only one of the three who made an All-Star team for Cleveland, which he did three times. Plus, he had a really cool mustache.
Jones’s path to the majors was a long one. He threw two and 2/3 innings for the Brewers in 1982 but didn’t make it back to the Show until 1986 with Cleveland. By this time, Jones was 29 years old, and time was running out for him. He pitched well that season, though, and also had a strong 1987 for the team. It was in 1988 that Jones really broke out. He made his first of five All-Star teams (three with Cleveland) and saved 37 games with a 2.27 ERA. Jones repeated his ’88 production the following two seasons, but 1991 was not kind to him. He pitched poorly that year, lost his job as the closer, and was not offered a free agent contract by the team after the season.
Jones was far from finished, though, and pitched for another nine seasons with various clubs and degrees of success. He finally called it quits after the 2000 season, a few months before his 44th birthday.
In two weeks, we’ll review one of the more recent franchises – the Colorado Rockies. It should be fun identifying the pitchers from this hitter-friendly franchise! If you love baseball as much as we do, check out the We Love Baseball section for more great content!
Featured Image Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)