AL Weekly Report: The Cleveland Indians Join The Wild-Card Fray

The American League Central is starting to become where the action is as we hit the last day of baseball prior to the All-Star break. The Cleveland Indians have ripped through three successive series against contenders, playing good baseball. Not only are the Tribe keeping pace with the red-hot Chicago White Sox, with only a three-game margin coming into Sunday, but Cleveland is squarely in the middle of the wild-card race and could be even with Baltimore by day’s end.

Cleveland’s gotten a welcome resurgence from starting pitcher Ubaldo Jiminez. The Indians’ starting pitching overall has not been a positive this year with Jiminez, Derek Lowe and Justin Masterson all having ERAs in the mid-4s, but Jiminez has started to put together a string of good outings. He hit his low point back on May 27 when the White Sox shelled him off the mound. Since then, the man Cleveland traded for at last year’s deadline has gone to the mound seven times. Five of his starts meet the generic rating of being “really good” (I know, don’ t hit you with all the sabermetric stuff on a relaxing Sunday afternoon) and the other two have at least been tolerable. To put some numbers behind that, the aggregate shows him working 46 innings in those starts and posting a 2.93 ERA.

Offensively, Cleveland’s gotten terrific seasons from the middle infield. Jason Kipnis at second and Asdrubal Cabrera at short have uncommon power, each hitting 11 home runs. Each get on base consistently and Cabrera in particular is having a dazzling season and has been the American League’s best shortstop in the first half.

But just as the pitching has been aided by a resurgent Jiminez, the biggest boost to the offense has been the revival of rightfielder Shin Soo-Choo. From 2008-10 he was the best rightfielder in the league. Injuries ruined his ’11, and after a slow start it looked like his career had been derailed. Now the numbers are sharp, with a .384 on-base percentage and .484 slugging. Last year Cleveland’s push for the AL Central title failed in part because of Jiminez and Choo were playing well below what was expected (well that, and Justin Verlander in Detroit become an unstoppable freight train). We’ll see if this year’s push succeeds, but it doesn’t look like Choo and Jiminez will be a problem.

What Cleveland does have problems with is power, as they rank 10th in the American League in slugging percentage. They can hope for a little bit of an upgrade from Travis Hafner, who’s slugging .441. But the designated hitter is long removed from his halcyon days of 2007 when he was a top DH in a league that was, at the time, stacked at the position. Cleveland might get a 30-40 point increase out of him in the second half, but there’s nothing in his record of the last five years that would lead us to expect anything more. And that’s about the internal improvement that you can really hope for. Casey Kotchman and first and Jack Hannahan at third are big liabilities. I thought the Indians might get more seriously involved in the Kevin Youkilis sweepstakes when he was traded out of Boston, given Youkilis’ ability to play both spots. And I have to think adding a bat at one of the corner infield spots is going to be a priority in the 23 days between now and the trade deadline.

The Indians have played themselves into wild-card contention and hung on in the face of the White Sox surge by beating contenders. Back on June 27 they were on a five-game losing streak, having just been swept in the Bronx. Cleveland promptly went to Baltimore and took three of four. They won two of three at home against Los Angeles and having taken two of the first three against Tampa, with the finale being played as this goes online. Beating those teams is a good way to move up the ladder, and now the Tribe just need to add some offense and make sure they can stay in the hunt the rest of the way.

Around the rest of the American League…

*No one in the AL East is really playing well, a circumstance that will suit New York just fine. The Yanks hold a six-game lead as they get set to finish the first half in Boston tonight. The second-place Orioles are casting about for pitching help, the Blue Jays just want starters to stay healthy and the Rays & Red Sox are each hoping notable disabled list returns—Evan Longoria and Jacoby Ellsbury—will spur offensive production. But Longoria’s return keeps being delayed, while the Red Sox seem to add a new injury with each passing day (Dustin Pedroia being the latest). It’s looking less and less likely that Tampa or Boston can make a run, which means it likely falls to Baltimore to make the AL East a race. Which means unless they can swing a deal for some significant pitching help—they’re rumored to be in the mix for Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke—the second half in this division will just be the Yankees playing for seeding position and everyone else playing for  wild-cards.

*Detroit has joined Cleveland in hanging in there behind Chicago and looking set to join the wild-card fray. The Tigers have nudged over .500 and are 4.5 back of the White Sox, and 2.5 back in the wild-card race.

*And is anything more stunning that looking at your wild-card standings and seeing the Oakland A’s lurking, just 3.5 games back? I don’t think this can last, but then again who thought they’d even be doing this well—or that Baltimore would be the team they’re trying to catch?