CC Sabathia, Cleveland Indian.
Just as a wildebeest will inevitably be eaten by a lion, or a hyena, or a leopard, or a cheetah, it is an almost incontrovertible rule of the baseball food chain that great players today are destined to be known and remembered as a player for the team they signed a large free agent contract with. Alex Rodriguez, Mariner? Surely you jest. Mark Teixeira, Ranger? Just a prelude to his real career. Manny Ramirez, Indian? Ancient history. The only people who will remember are the fans that watched that player break in, struggle, and finally show those first signs of greatness. And while only memories remain of CC Sabathia, Indian, those memories merit your fondness.
CC Sabathia started the 2001 season a 20-year-old raw specimen, but still good enough to throw 180 innings, and fortunate enough to have a good offense supporting him. But Sabathia's arrival coincided with the last gasp of a dynasty that had begun in 1994, and most of his development at the major-league level would have to come while pitching for bad teams. After the Indians traded Bartolo Colon in June 2002, Sabathia was the ace, but in name only. His arm was still among the best in baseball, but still had to learn to pitch, lessons normally learned by young pitchers in AA or AAA. So Sabathia, despite avoiding the major pitfall of young pitchers - injury - spent several seasons flailing about for his potential.
While he was an All-Star in both 2003 and 2004, Sabathia didn't really become a great pitcher until July 25, 2005. This was his worst start of the season, coming at the end of a string of poor performances. I can't explain why exactly this embarrassing performance in Oakland, his hometown, was the springboard into a great career, but it was after this game that Sabathia seemed to change his approach, take a couple notches off his fastball, and set up hitters in ways he hadn't done before. This approach carried over to 2006, though he missed a month early in the season. In his last start of the season, against Chicago, he shut out the White Sox on four hits, striking out 11. It was a prelude for his Cy Young season, his last full season with the Indians.
2007 was the culmination of the rebuilding process started when Colon was traded, and now the young but talented pitcher who reluctantly took Bartolo's spot at the front of the rotation was now a confident and polished young star. There were no relapses or injuries this season. Sabathia started 34 games, pitched 241.0 innings, struck out 209, and walked just 39. He became the first Indian to win a Cy Young Award in almost 30 years. The Indians made the playoffs for the first time since 2001, and came within a game of the World Series.
A summit had been reached, but instead of a level high plain, the Indians' summit was a sheer jagged peak. The team collapsed around Sabathia, and now the Indians, just having nurtured him into a star, had to figure out how to get something for him before he left. From the Indians' perspective those years of Sabathia developing into a top pitcher used up more than chronological time; it consumed precious service time, and although they had extended their allotted six seasons of control over him by two years when they signed a pre-free agent Sabathia to an extension, there would be no more extensions now. It was time for Sabathia to move on to bigger things.
Sabathia was unquestionably the pitcher of the Aughts for the Indians, leading the team in innings pitched (1528.2 IP), Games Started (237), Strikeouts (1265), and Complete Games (19). To me, he is also the representative player of the decade, in that he was the only player to bridge the gap between the 2001 and 2007 teams.* He was a starting player in seven full seasons in the decade, something no other player on this list did. Because this list is our list, subject to our whims and fancies in addition to cold statistics, Sabathia's departure, and especially who he eventually departed to, are major emotional hurdles to clear when there's Grady Sizemore, a player with just as much production and still an Indian beckoning at the top of the list. To be honest, if I was posting this a year ago, after Sabathia had just signed with the Evil Empire, I would probably have penalized him a lot more, to the point where I'd give the edge to Sizemore or even to Victor. But time and its companion perspective have done their work, and so all those starts, all those innings, and that fleeting but overwhelming success again have significance enough to place him just ahead of Grady Sizemore as my best Indian of the decade.
*Yes, Kenny Lofton played key roles on both the 2001 and 2007 teams, but he left and came back. CC pitched through those intervening years.