The 9 greatest players in Cleveland baseball history
The list of players who had Hall of Fame-caliber peaks that began their careers in Cleveland but were ultimately traded or allowed to walk in free agency isn't a very fun one to look back on if you grew up watching games at what was once called Jacobs Field.
Manny Ramírez was a first-round pick by Cleveland in the 1993 MLB Draft, and proved to be one of the best selections in franchise history. While playing for Cleveland, Ramírez was a four-time All-Star who led baseball with a staggering 165 RBIs in 1999 and ultimately hit 236 home runs in parts of eight seasons in Cleveland.
However, Ramírez departed Cleveland for Boston after the 2000 season, agreeing to an eight-year $160 million free-agent deal with the Red Sox. The Red Sox hadn't won a World Series since 1918 when they signed Ramírez, but he helped Boston to capture two World Series titles (2004 & 2007) during seven-and-a-half seasons with the Red Sox. Most remember Ramírez as a Red Sox, which makes sense given that he played his most games (1,083) and hit the largest chunk (274) of his 555 career home runs with the franchise.
In the same year that Ramírez led the Red Sox to their second World Series title in four years, CC Sabathia captured the 2007 American League Cy Young Award. The workhorse lefty was a first-round pick (20th overall) by Cleveland in the 1998 MLB Draft. He finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2001, and made All-Star teams in 2003, 2004 and 2007 as a representative of Cleveland.
But with a looming historic payday, Cleveland traded Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers in July of 2008. Sabathia went 11-2 as a Brewer, posting a 1.65 ERA and seven complete games in 17 starts with the Crew. After helping the Brewers reach the postseason for the first time since 1982, Sabathia signed a seven-year/$161 million free-agent deal with the New York Yankees. Sabathia spent the final 11 seasons of his career with the Yankees, winning 134 regular season games and helping the franchise to capture the 2009 World Series.
Even as Sabathia dominated in Milwaukee, Cleveland fans were treated to special pitching during the second-half of the 2008 season, with Cliff Lee wrapping up a 22-3 season that would earn him the AL Cy Young Award. A summer later, Lee was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. He would put together a dominant postseason run of his own in 2009, going 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in four postseason starts. Heck, Lee tossed a complete game in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, outpitching his former teammate Sabathia at Yankee Stadium.
Lee spent parts of eight seasons in Cleveland, by far the largest chunk of his career. However, many remember him as a Phillie. Not only did he help the Phillies to win their second consecutive National League pennant in 2009, but he returned to the team in 2011 and was part of one of the greatest rotations in MLB history, along with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. In between his two stints with the Phillies, Lee was dominant in the 2010 AL playoffs as a member of the Texas Rangers, helping that franchise to reach their first World Series. Lee never pitched in the postseason while with Cleveland.
All three of Ramírez, Sabathia and Lee drew consideration for this list, but ultimately fell short, along with the likes of Bob Lemon, Larry Doby and the still-active José Ramírez. For a franchise that's existed since 1901, there were just a few players we deemed more worthy.
The Cleveland baseball franchise has previously used the nicknames "Blues," "Bronchos," "Naps," and "Indians." Ahead of their first season with the fifth nickname in team history, here are the nine greatest players in Cleveland Guardians history:
9. Stan Coveleski (1916-1924)
Best Season in Cleveland: 1920 - 24-14 with a 2.49 ERA, 154 ERA+, 2.86 FIP, 1.108 WHIP, 133 strikeouts, 26 complete games and a 6.8 fWAR
Career Stats With Cleveland: 172-123 with a 2.80 ERA, 129 ERA+, 3.04 FIP, 1.225 WHIP, 856 strikeouts, 193 complete games and 43.7 fWAR
During the nine seasons that Coveleski spent in Cleveland, the only pitchers who topped his 43.7 fWAR were Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander, two of the greatest pitchers in MLB history. Coveleski led the American League in ERA, ERA+, FIP, WHIP, complete-game shutouts and WHIP all in at least one season while pitching for Cleveland.
8. "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (1910-1915)
Best Season in Cleveland: 1911 - .408/.468/.590 with seven home runs, 83 RBIs, 56 walks, 1.058 OPS, 193 OPS+ and a 9.3 fWAR
Career Stats With Cleveland: .375/.441/.542 with 24 home runs, 353 RBIs, 267 walks, 937 hits, .983 OPS, 182 OPS+ and 33.8 fWAR
While Kevin Costner has educated the world about Jackson's time with the Chicago White Sox -- and eventual ban from baseball for his role in the 1919 "Blacksox" scandal -- he actually played his largest chunk of games (674) in Cleveland. In five-and-a-half seasons with Cleveland, Jackson led baseball in hits in both 1912 and 1913. The Chalmers Award was essentially the American League MVP when it was given out from 1911 to 1914. Over that period, Jackson finished in the top 10 in voting for the Chalmers Award all four years, peaking at second in 1913.
7. Kenny Lofton (1992-1996; 1998-2001; 2007)
Best Season in Cleveland: 1994 - .349/.412/.536 with 12 home runs, 57 RBIs, 52 walks, .948 OPS, 145 OPS+ and a 6.6 fWAR
Career Stats With Cleveland: .300/.375/.426 with 87 home runs, 518 RBIs, 611 walks, 1,512 hits, .800 OPS, 109 OPS+ and 43.2 fWAR
Across three stints in Cleveland, Lofton made five All-Star teams and won four Gold Glove Awards. Lofton led baseball in stolen bases every year from 1992-1996, and is Cleveland's franchise leader in stolen bases with 452. From here, Lofton didn't get a fair shake on the Hall of Fame ballot, falling off after just one year despite a slew of metrics that suggest that he was one of the 15 greatest center fielders in MLB history.
6. Earl Averill (1929-1939)
Best Season in Cleveland: .378/.438/.627 with 28 home runs, 126 RBIs, 65 walks, 1.065 OPS, 157 OPS+ and a 6.9 fWAR
Career Stats With Cleveland: .322/.399/.542 with 226 home runs, 1,084 RBIs, 725 walks, 1,903 hits, .940 OPS, 136 OPS+ and 47.8 fWAR
The No. 3 is retired in Cleveland because Averill is one of the greatest players that the franchise has ever employed. Averill finished in the top five in American League MVP voting on three occasions, and was a six-time All-Star despite the midsummer classic not being played for the first time until his age-31 season. Averill spent parts of 11 seasons in Cleveland, and is still the franchise's all-time leader in runs scored (1,154), total bases (3,200), triples (121), extra-base hits (724) and RBIs (1,084). Averill was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, and his plaque features him wearing a Cleveland cap.
5. Lou Boudreau (1938-1950)
Best Season in Cleveland: 1948 - .355/.453/.534 with 18 home runs, 106 RBIs, 98 walks, .987 OPS, 166 OPS+ and a 10.9 fWAR
Career Stats With Cleveland: .297/.382/.416 with 63 home runs, 740 RBIs, 766 walks, 1,706 hits, .798 OPS, 122 OPS+ and 63.1 fWAR
Before inventing the defensive shift as a manger, Boudreau was an eight-time All-Star shortstop in Cleveland. Boudreau won the American League batting title by hitting .327 in 1944, four seasons before he'd win the American League MVP and help lead Cleveland to a World Series title. Boudreau finished 10th or better in AL MVP voting on eight occasions, propelling him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970. Boudreau's No. 5 is retired by the Guardians.
4. Jim Thome (1991-2002; 2011)
Best Season in Cleveland: 2002 - .304/.445/.677 with 52 home runs, 118 RBIs, 122 walks, 1.122 OPS, 197 OPS+ and a 7.3 fWAR
Career Stats With Cleveland: .287/.414/.566 with 337 home runs, 937 RBIs, 1,008 walks, 1,353 hits, .980 OPS, 152 OPS+ and 49.5 fWAR
Thome is eighth in MLB history with 612 career home runs, 337 of which came in Cleveland, a franchise record. Also the franchise leader in walks (1,008), intentional walks (87) and at-bats per home run (14.0), Thome was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2018 with a Cleveland cap. His No. 25 is retired by the Guardians.
3. Bob Feller (1936-1941; 1945-1956)
Best Season in Cleveland: 1946 - 26-15 with a 2.18 ERA, 151 ERA+, 1.82 FIP, 1.158 WHIP, 348 strikeouts, 36 complete games and a 10.0 fWAR
Best Season With Cleveland: 266-162 with a 3.25 ERA, 122 ERA+, 3.39 FIP, 1.316 WHIP, 2,581 strikeouts, 279 complete games and 62.6 fWAR
The greatest pitcher in franchise history, Feller tops all pitchers in Cleveland history in terms of fWAR (62.6), wins (266), innings pitched (3,827), strikeouts (2,581) and complete games (279). Feller was an eight-time All-Star who won the pitching triple crown in 1940. Eight years later, he helped pitch Cleveland to a World Series title. Despite losing his age-23 to 25 seasons because of service in World War II, Feller was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. Feller's No. 19 is retired in Cleveland.
2. Tris Speaker (1916-1926)
Best Season in Cleveland: 1923 - .380/.469/.610 with 17 home runs, 130 RBIs, 93 walks, 1.079 OPS, 182 OPS+ and an 8.7 fWAR
Career Stats With Cleveland: .354/.444/.520 with 73 home runs, 886 RBIs, 857 walks, 1,965 hits, .965 OPS, 158 OPS+ and 72.7 fWAR
Just a few years before selling Babe Ruth to the division-rival New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox traded Speaker to Cleveland when he refused to take a pay cut. As it turned out, Speaker was more than justified in his decision, and Cleveland ended up being the beneficiaries of one of the most short-sighted decisions in MLB history. In 1916 -- Speaker's first season in Cleveland -- he led the American League in batting average (.386), on-base percentage (.470), slugging percentage (.502), OPS (.970), OPS+ (186), hits (211) and doubles (41). It was the appetizer for 11 tremendous seasons in Cleveland, which ended with Speaker as the franchise's all-time leader in offensive WAR (71.0), on-base percentage (.444), doubles (.486) and runs created (1,269). "The Grey Eagle" was inducted into the Hall of Fame with a Cleveland cap in 1937.
1. Nap Lajoie (1902-1914)
Best Season in Cleveland: 1910 - .383/.444/.514 with four home runs, 76 RBIs, 60 walks, .958 OPS, 197 OPS+ and a 9.3 fWAR
Career Stats With Cleveland: .339/.389/.452 with 33 home runs, 919 RBIs, 408 walks, 2,047 hits, .840 OPS, 155 OPS+ and 74.9 fWAR
The third name in the history of the franchise was the "Naps," and you can take a wild guess where they got that name from. Yes, from 1903 to 1914, Cleveland's baseball team was named after arguably the greatest player in the history of their franchise. Lajoie -- who was a player-manager from 1905 to 1909 -- led the American League in batting average, hits, doubles, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+ and total bases on multiple occasions during his 13 years in Cleveland. Among all position players in franchise history, Lajoie leads Cleveland in fWAR (79.6) and hits (2,047). One of the greatest second basemen in MLB history, Lajoie was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.