We have not seen the Cleveland ball club in the World Series since 1997 (although I saw them there on Netflix just a few months ago), but this most recent
AL pennant is important for another reason aside from the relative rarity. The simple storyline that we can attach to the Cleveland side of the World
Series would be that Cleveland is now “Believeland”, a place where pro team franchises can succeed and reinvigorate a downtrodden blue-collar town. But I
would argue that it is a terrible injustice to the entire Cleveland baseball organization to suggest that what they are doing is impressive only in light
of what the Cavaliers have already done in the NBA. Specifically, the front office is continuing to prove to the baseball community that small market,
small budget MLB teams can build from within and go all the way.
One of the most familiar symptoms of a small market team is a reliance on homegrown talent. Fortunately for Cleveland, they have done this quite
successfully. Nine out of Cleveland’s top twelve players, by Baseball Reference’s wins above replacement model, made their MLB debut with the team, compared
to six of the Cub’s top twelve. In Chicago, only three of those twelve were drafted or signed as an amateur free agent by the Cubs, compared to six of
Cleveland’s top twelve. Both teams have struggled in the last decade or so, and have thus been rewarded with top draft picks. Specifically, Cleveland has been awarded seven top 20 overall draft picks since 2009, while Chicago came in just behind them with six*. So while it appears that the teams have been similarly lucky with draft picks in the last few years, Cleveland has done a better job of developing those guys and directly benefiting from them at major league level.
As a fan of a small market team, I can sympathize with Chris Antonetti and the baseball operations gang in Cleveland. I know that they are not drafting top prospects and painstakingly developing them all the way through the minor league system because they enjoy it as a pastime. Cleveland’s 2016 payroll is roughly half that of Chicago’s. Developing from within is really the only way that Cleveland can be successful. Cleveland certainly is not the first franchise to exploit this strategy to make it to the World Series, but it is inspirational to see another small market team go all the way. It really says a lot about our favorite sport that it is not just the New Yorks, the Los Angeleses, and the Chicagoes that are succeeding in October. However this next best-of-seven goes, we are guaranteed to have another great narrative when we have a champion. It just might even be another small market club that manages to beat the big boys.
*For the record, Cleveland actually had two of those guys on their roster in 2016, compared to three for the Chicago. But, to be fair, the third guy in Chicago is Kyle Schwarber, so do with that what you will.