Among American League contenders the Cleveland Indians are the one that doesn’t belong. The Indians don’t have 100-plus wins like the Boston Red Sox do or the Houston Astros are on pace to get. Cleveland isn’t playing .600-plus ball like the New York Yankees and Oakland A’s. In fact, the Indians aren’t even clearly the fifth-best team in the league—they’re just a game and a half ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays and only a terrible AL Central has made the Indians a postseason lock. But Cleveland just might be the team to fear in October.
The reason is simple—the Indians lineup that will take the field in the playoffs is much different than the one that’s been good, but not great during the regular season. Cleveland has had only one weakness this year and that’s been the work of the bullpen. They rank 13th in the American League in relievers’ ERA, while their starting pitching is second and the offense is third in runs scored. But the combination of trade deadline moves and good health at the right time are poised to change that.
Cody Allen, the closer of recent years, had an inconsistent season and the Indians acquired Brad Hand at the deadline. Hand has closed 8/9 of save opportunities with a 2.38 ERA and solidified the ninth inning. Even more important, Andrew Miller is healthy. The lanky lefthander whose presence looms large over any playoff series, given his ability to throw multiple innings, has been hurt much of this year. Miller has only pitched 26 innings and his absence is the single biggest reason the Tribe pen has struggled so much. But he’s healthy now.
The arrival of Hand and the return to health of Miller would, by themselves, enough to expect Cleveland to be a different team in October. But there’s still more…
*The Indians added third baseman Josh Donaldson at the end of August, as the one-time MVP surprisingly made it through waivers. Donaldson had his MVP run in Toronto in 2015, and had similarly productive years in 2016-17. Injuries have slowed him this year, but like Miller, he’s gotten healthy at the right time.
*Picking up Donaldson enabled incumbent third baseman Jose Ramirez to move to second, which in turn enabled Jason Kipnis to move to centerfield. This is a brilliant move by manager Terry Francona, along with the front office. It fixes the Indians’ biggest offensive weakness.
*Kipnis is another one of those players who is better than his season-long production looks. The numbers of .315 on-base percentage and .376 slugging are poor, but that was due to a horrid start. Over the last 30 games, those stats have been a respectable .356/.436 and that’s much more in line with the 31-year-old’s career norms.
That’s a significant amount of improvement the Tribe can reasonably expect. And it’s added to a lineup that already includes players like Ramirez (38 home runs, 99 RBI) and shortstop Francisco Lindor (34 home runs, 85 RBI) having big years. It’s added to a rotation that has the outstanding Corey Kluber (18 wins, 2.91 ERA). You may recall that it was Kluber, along with Miller, who basically pitched the Indians to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016.
And the rotation behind Kluber is better than it was in that 2016 run. Carlos Carrasco has a 3.43 ERA in 28 starts. Mike Clevinger has emerged as a consistent starter, with a 3.16 ERA in 29 starts. Trevor Bauer has taken the ball 25 times and posted a dazzling 2.22 ERA. In 2016, the Indians formula had to be push Kluber to the wall and drain the bullpen every other night. That doesn’t have to be the case in 2018.
The biggest problem Cleveland has is how the playoff bracket is shaping up. They’re virtually certain to play the AL West champ and that’s likely to be Houston. An Indians-Astros matchup in the Division Series would be a titanic fight between the last two pennant winners and I believe the survivor will go to the World Series and win it. If I had to pick right now, I’d say Houston in a series that goes the full five games.
But the more important takeaway is that these Indians are anything but the team that doesn’t belong, or the “odd sock” in the American League playoffs, to borrow the phrase of fictional detective Nikki Heat. Their personnel moves, improving health and strong core make them every bit the heavyweight that Boston, New York or Houston is.