Sox Drawer: Look out for the Indians

Sox Drawer: Look out for the Indians
April 18, 2011, 8:52 pm
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Monday, April 18, 2011
Posted: 3:16 p.m.

By Chuck Garfien
CSNChicago.com

We interrupt the White Sox recent slide, and current panic on the South Side, to examine a rare phenomenon taking place in the Central Division.

It involves the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals, two teams normally buried in the basement of the division along with dust, termites, mothballs, and Perry Como records, that have suddenly sprung into orbit in April, breathing the fresh spring air at the mountain top, looking down on everyone else, sitting in first and second place.

Considering the elevation, weve been waiting for both teams to suffer from altitude sickness. Three weeks into the season, were still waiting.

And in the case of Cleveland, Im afraid its not going to happen. Yes, I said it:

The Cleveland Indians are for real.

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I realize this is the same team the White Sox outscored 14-0 in the first four innings of the season, but look where both teams have gone since.

Sunday, the Tribe, who finished 69-93 last year, beat the Baltimore Orioles to run their record to 11-4. Its their best start since 2002. A win Monday, and itll tie the 1999 squad that began 12-4 and won 97 games.

Cleveland is playing well, Ozzie Guillen observed Sunday. I said that in Cleveland when we left. People laughed at mewhen I say something, people think it's a bunch of crap.

This isnt.

So how and why are the Indians winning?

I can talk about their pitching staff, the youngest in baseball, that is heeding the advice of pitching coach Tim Belcher, by throwing lots and lots of strikes.

Is it that easy?

I can talk about their lights-out bullpen, the comebacks of Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore (who homered and doubled in his first game on Sunday), the defense of new third baseman and Joe Crede look-a-like Jack Hannahan, and the emergence of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

But the real reason for the Indians sudden rise can be traced to another Cabrera, a single player who has the personality of a porcupine, and once upon a time called Chicago home for one brief, but memorable season.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me re-introduce you to Orlando Cabrera.

Say what you will about the former White Sox shortstop, but if there is one thing that Cabrera has proven he can do, and quite possibly better than anyone in the game right now, it is this:

He can win.

Everywhere and anywhere.

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Its a remarkable run that cannot be overlooked.

Lets start with the classic case of 2004. Cabrera gets traded from the Montreal Expos to the Boston Red Sox on July 31. The Red Sox were 56-46 and 8.5 games out of first place. Cabrera arrives, he hits a home run in his very first at-bat, the Red Sox go 42-19, finish the regular season 98-64, and snatch the AL Wildcard.

We all know what happens next. The Red Sox win the World Series, Bostons first in 86 years. History is made.

At the time, it probably seemed like an isolated incident. But the Curious Case of Orlando Cabrera was just beginning.

The next season Cabrera signs as a free agent with the Angels. They win 95 games plus the AL West, but lose to the White Sox in the ALCS.

I guess you cant mess with destiny.

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The Angels average 92 wins in the three years that Cabrera plays there. Theyre competitive every year. Orlando wouldnt have it any other way.

In 2008, Cabrera is traded to the White Sox, who just finished that utterly forgettable season of 2007, when they went 72-90. That White Sox team was just too nice. Had no edge. They needed some fire.

Bring in Cabrera.

He gives the Sox a dependable leadoff hitter, rock solid defense, and a flood of competitive juices that had dried up since the World Series of 2005.

On the field, the Sox win 89 games and the AL Central. But in the clubhouse, Cabrera doesnt win many (or any) friends. He openly criticizes his teammates, calling some of them clowns. On at least two occasions he calls the press box to dispute an error. He rankles everyone along the way, including Ozzie Guillen.

Heres an interview I did with Cabrera in Tampa that season, while Orlando was in the middle of one of his controversies, complaining that Guillen and his teammates didnt have his back.

Long story short, Cabrera was not brought back. But you cant deny the results: the White Sox won with him, and didnt the season after he left.

So in 2009, Orlando signs with the As. Its the one blemish in Cabreras career. The As are a mess. They arent going anywhere. Even O.C. cant save them. But he would soon overcome it. At the trade deadline, Oakland trades him to Minnesota.

Guess what happens next?

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After being mired in mediocrity at 52-51, the Twins find their mojo. They go 35-25 the rest of the way, winning the division, beating the Tigers by a game.

What and who was the difference? Cabrera.

But just like the Red Sox, Angels, and White Sox, the Twins choose not to bring him back when his contract ran out. Cabrera would go through the entire winter unsigned. His reputation as a malcontent overshadowing what he and everyone is here to do: to win.

Finally, in February of 2010, just two weeks before spring training is set to begin, he signs with the Cincinnati Reds, a team without a winning record in a decade.

Hes a leader and a winner, said Reds GM Walt Jocketty at the Cabrera press conference. To me that says it all.

And true to form, what do the Reds do in 2010? They win.

They finish 91-71, capturing the NL Central, making their first trip to the post-season in 15 seasons. Cabrera doesnt know of such droughts. It was his 4th straight trip to the playoffs with his 4th different team. No small feat.

After the season, do the Reds decide to bring him back? Of course not. Cincinnati declines his 4 million option, choosing to go with the younger and cheaper Paul Janish instead.

So once again, Cabrera sits through another winter unsigned. Nobody wants him.

Finally on February 10, just nine days before theyre set to report for spring training, the Indians belly up to the bar and sign Cabrera to a one-year, 1 million contract with incentives, and they dont even guarantee him a starting position. Cabrera has to compete for the Indians second base job, a position he had played only 30 times in his major league career, compared with 1,791 games at shortstop.

No matter. Cabrera wins the job. No surprise.

The Indians lose the first two games of the season to the White Sox. They look completely overmatched. They seem destined to be destitute once again. But in the third game, with the Sox leading 1-0 in the 6th, Cabrera drills a two-run homer off John Danks, giving the Indians their first lead of the season.

The Tribe dugout explodes. Everyones jacked. They add two more runs in the 7th, three more in the 8th, they end up blowing out the Sox 7-1, and proceed to win seven more games in a row after that, including a sweep of the Red Sox.

The Orlando Cabrera factor strikes again.

He wont bat .300. He wont hit 20 home runs. Hell probably piss off half, if not all of his teammates along the way, but he will get the most out of himself and his team. And they will win. Its what he does.

I think we have what it takes, Cabrera said on Sunday.

To do what?

To win, he said. I dont like to compete. I like to win.

And so far, no team has won more games in the American League than the Indians.

Are they going to win 90 games and the division? I wont go that far. But theyre going to be there all season, being a pain in the rear for everyone, thanks to their maniacal leader.

Charlie Sheen says he knows all about winning. Forget about it. Hes a fraud. You want a winner? Its Orlando Cabrera. The Indians have him. By the end of the year, youre going to be sick of him. Maybe the Indians too.

But I promise you this: Theyll win. I guarantee it.

Chuck Garfien hosts White Sox Pregame and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet with former Sox Bill Melton. Follow Chuck @ChuckGarfien on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Sox news and views.