Why should everybody (well, everybody outside of Boston) be rooting for the Indians tonight? The short answer is this: They built their team the right way, amassing stars with a low payroll. The Indians give every low-payroll team hope that they can compete, with smart moves made in the front office.
Let's look at the 2001 Indians. Jim Thome had a monster year - he finished just 7th in the MVP voting, but posted a .416 OBP, .624 SLG, and a 170 OPS+, finishing third, second, and second in those respective categories (Giambi led all three with an outstanding year, though Ichiro took the MVP). Robbie Alomar at age 33 had one of the best years ever by a second baseman, putting up a .336/.415/.541 line with a 150 OPS+ and winning the Gold Glove for the 10th time. Juan Gonzalez, and Marty Cordova had career years in the outfield, and DH Ellis Burks slugged .542 at the age of 36. The pitching staff, while not the team's strength, was servicable, as ace Bartolo Colon and rookie C.C. Sabathia each struck out almost a batter per inning while posting above-average ERAs. Their bullpen was very strong, as Bob Wickman, Ricardo Rincon, Paul Shuey, and Danys Baez all had ERAs under three. The 2001 Indians won the division with a 91-71 record, and took the 116-win Seattle Mariners to five games in the ALDS before finally losing.
But 2001 is more notable for another reason. After the 2001 season, GM John Hart (who had built the Indians mini-dynasty that won six of the last seven AL Central titles) left the team and took over as general manager of the Rangers. Assistant GM Mark Shapiro was promoted to take his place. Shapiro (who, incidentally, is the brother-in-law of Eric Mangini) went on to build the Indians team that is one game away from the World Series today.
The 2001 Indians were a very good team filled with a lot of household names, but they were an old team as well. Of their nine starting position players, only catcher Einar Diaz (28) was under 30 years old. Realizing that the team he had would not remain competitive for long and that the Indians lacked the cash to reload when their older players stopped performing as well as they had, Shapiro started making moves while his players' value was still high.
Shapiro took over as GM on November 1st. Here are some of the most notable transactions since then:
Lets Juan Gonzalez, Marty Cordova walk - Shapiro could have easily re-signed his two most productive outfielders from 2001 and made another run at contention the next year, but he didn't. Cordova signed a 3 yr/$9 mill contract with the Orioles; he missed 31 games in 2002 while slugging just .434, played only 9 games in 2003 and was out of baseball the next year. Gonzalez signed a 2 yr/$21 mill contract with the Rangers (actually not that bad a deal at the time, given the market and Gonzalez's past six seasons), and played a total of 152 games over those years.
Trades Robbie Alomar, Mike Bacsik, and Danny Peoples to the Mets for Matt Lawton, Alex Escobar, Jerrod Riggan, Earl Snyder, and Billy Traber - Obviously, this deal doesn't look great on paper. But Lawton was regarded as a pretty good player at the time, and more importantly, Alomar was 34 years old and owed $16 mill over the next two seasons. In 2002, Alomar followed up his outstanding 2001 campagin with a .266/.331/.376 line; the next year, he did even worse (.258/.333/.349). In the middle of the 2003 season, Alomar was traded to the White Sox for a peanut vendor (peanuts not included).
Signs Rafael Perez as undrafted free agent - The Indians didn't really do a whole lot to build this team through the draft (other than Sabathia, back in 1998), but a lot of their signings of undrafted worked out extremely well. Perez threw 60.7 innings for this year's team in his first full season in the majors, with a 1.78 ERA and a .92 WHIP as Cleveland's top lefty reliever in a much-improved bullpen.
Trades Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew to the Expos for Lee Stevens, Brandon Philips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore - Arguably Shapiro's best move. Colon owned a 2.55 ERA at this point in the season in 2002 in his best year as a starter, but was going to get much more expensive after the season due to arbitration (he ended up getting more than $8 million the next year) and was due for free agency after 2003, when he signed a huge contract with the Angels. Colon was solid for the rest of the year, with a 3.31 ERA in his stint with Les Expos, and posted a 3.87 ERA the following year with the White Sox, although he's had much less success with the Angels. But more important for the Indians was the package they received in return. Phillips has turned into a very good player, unfortunately not for the Indians; the second baseman hit 30 homers and stole 32 bags this year for the Reds (he was traded across the state for reliever Jeff Stevens, still in the minors). Lee's 6.29 ERA sent him to the minors this season, but he threw over 200 innings in 2005 and 06 with a 3.79 and 4.40 ERA, respectively. He's still a 28-year-old lefthander, so there's still time for him to figure things out. And Sizemore...if you don't know about him by now, you obviously don't follow baseball. Sizemore's averaged a .285/.371/.493 line over the past three years, he's a pretty good centerfielder...and the best part is that he's only 24 years old. If he isn't already, he should be one of the 10 best players in baseball very soon.
Trades Chuck Finley to the Cardinals for Coco Crisp and Luis Garcia - Finley was a very respected pitcher who had been a very solid starter in the AL for years, but by this point, he was 39 years old and had already thrown more than 3000 innings. Finley posted a 3.80 ERA for the rest of the year to help lead the Redbirds to the ALCS, but retired at the end of the year. Crisp, meanwhile, became a good centerfielder for the Indians; in 2005, he hit .300/.345/.465 at the age of 25. He was traded to the Red Sox for a package featuring highly touted prospect Andy Marte (who unfortunately looks like a bust), but has struggled some since then.
Trades Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese to the Rangers for Travis Hafner and Aaron Myetter - Diaz was coming off a terrible year (.206/.258/.284, 47 OPS+), but Shaprio still managed to get something for him from the Rangers. Diaz "rebounded" somewhat (61 OPS+) the next year with the Rangers, but not enough to justify this trade. Obviously, the star in this deal is Hafner. Pronk was "down" to the tune of a 118 OPS+ this year, but was amazing over the last three years; he posted an OPS+ above 160 each year, including an outstanding .308/.439/.659 campaign last year, when was the best hitter in the AL.
Signs Casey Blake as a cheap free agent - Blake was a journeyman backup third basemen, having played in only 49 games before the signing. But at the age of 29, he finally got regular playing time with the Indians, and has evolved into a capable third baseman. He hasn't been outstanding, but his OPS+ as an Indian has been 105. His .270/.339/.437 line this year won't get him any MVP votes, but average players are hard to find in today's game and are a necessary part of a great team.
Signs Rafael Betancourt as a minor-league free agent - Betancourt had been a reliever in the Red Sox system until 2001, when the Sox finally got rid of him. The Indians signed him before the 2003 season, and he was a solid reliever until this year, when he was spectacular. Betancourt pitched 80 innings with a 1.47 ERA and a .756 WHIP, another key part of the Indians' outstanding bullpen.
Trades Eduardo Perez to the Mariners for Asdrubal Cabrera - Cabrera's certainly not a star at second base (even though he should be playing SS), and he's been no more than an average hitter this season. But he's only 21, so although I don't believe he's projected to be a superstar, there's still room for improvement. Perez was a 36-year-old journeyman first baseman who put together 100 good at-bats with the Tribe in 06; after the trade, he hit .195/.304/.241, and could not find a team to play with this year.
Before Shapiro took over, the Indians also signed Victor Martinez, Fransisco Carmona, and Jhonny Peralta as undrafted FAs, and also acquired Jake Westbrook for then-34-year-old David Justice.
The Indians are a perfect model for how a mid-market team needs to compete. The Tribe's payroll is just $61 million, 23rd out of 30 teams in baseball, but they are one game away from the World Series and look as good as anybody for the next three or four years. They had a great team in the late 90's, traded away their stars before they lost value, and used a tremendous scouting department to find bargains in trades and in minor league free agents. The Indians' front office - including Shapiro - is possibly the most underrated in the game, and is the reason they're where they are today.