Three ex-Indians reunited with Mariners

Three ex-Indians reunited with Mariners

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ryan Garko hadn't been gone long. But even he had trouble keeping up with the new faces on the Indians' roster at the tail end of the 2009 season.

"I saw an Indians game on TV in September," Garko said, "and I didn't know anybody who was playing."

Garko doesn't have to look far to see where some of his old buddies went. They're right alongside him in the Mariners' clubhouse.

The Indians made the short trip to the Peoria Sports Complex on Tuesday to face the Mariners, and Garko and Franklin Gutierrez, two regular position players on the '07 Tribe team that fell a win shy of the World Series, were both in the opposing lineup.

Cliff Lee, who won 22 games and a Cy Young Award for the Indians in '08, joins Garko and Gutierrez on the Seattle roster, having been dealt from the Phillies club that acquired him from the Tribe last July. Even former Tribe pitching coach Carl Willis has landed with the Mariners as a Minor League pitching coordinator.

"It was only [three years ago] that all those guys were there [in Cleveland]," said Garko, who was dealt to the Giants last July and signed with the Mariners over the winter. "We thought we would be together a long time. We were all young, and the team controlled all of us for at least a couple more years."

But what's happened with the Indians in the time since is illustrative of a larger trend in the game. A small-market team has a very limited window to contend with a young core before the dollars and cents that come with arbitration and free-agent eligibility begin to lead to some difficult decisions. For the Indians, the decision was made, piece by piece, to trade talent nearing the next big pay day for younger players with more contractual control.

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These developments still stick in the collective craw of a large chunk of the Tribe fan base, as the impression of seeing consecutive Cy Young winners in CC Sabathia and Lee dealt in consecutive years tends to be a lasting one.

"It's hard to continue to win when you trade back-to-back Cy Young winners," Lee said with a shrug.

But the bottom line, of course, is that the Indians weren't winning the past two years, despite entering both seasons with a roster predicted by many to have the depth of talent to contend. When the losses piled up, the trade trigger was pulled.

When it was pulled on Lee and Victor Martinez last July, the Indians officially instituted a new period that might not qualify as a rebuild but certainly qualifies as a shift in strategy.

"That's just the way it is, I guess," said Lee, who will make his Mariners debut in a Cactus League game on Wednesday. "That started being more and more obvious, it seemed like. They were moving in a different direction. I kind of saw it coming when they traded CC and Casey [Blake] and Paul Byrd the year before. I could see where they were going."

Where the Indians go from here will largely depend on what the young trade acquisitions from the past two years -- the guys Garko didn't recognize -- bring to the table.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.