Terry Francona makes his return to Fenway Park tonight in a spirit of triumph. The former Red Sox manager, now with the Cleveland Indians, will bring a first-place club to town for a four-game series. The Tribe is 26-19, and a half-game up on Detroit in the American League Central. Today’s MLB coverage will break down how the Indians are doing it, and ask whether Francona’s triumphant return is just a May thing.
The Cleveland Indians summarized, are as follows…
- The offense is excellent and it’s realistic to think it will keep on being so
- The bullpen is pretty good and can do even better
- The starting pitching situation might tempt Francona to call ESPN and see if Curt Schilling will come out of the pregame studios and pitch again.
OFFENSIVE FIREWORKS ON LAKE ERIE
Cleveland is tied for third in the American League in runs scored, and it’s thanks to power. The team ranks first in the AL in slugging percentage, while placing a solid third in on-base percentage. Carlos Santana has turned into the hitter all the scouts thought he could be. The catcher has a stat line of .405 OBP/.556 slugging, impressive for anyone and even more valuable at a position where offense is at a premium. His .296 batting average is sustainable, and the fact he can add a 100-plus points on to his OBP with walks tells you something good about his plate discipline.
Michael Bourn was a late free-agent pickup to play centerfield and his play in Cleveland has not answered the mystery of why so many teams let him sit on the market. Bourn’s .357 OBP is par for the course, and with a .451 slugging, he’s contributing respectable power. Nick Swisher is another player who was not nearly valued enough by the market given his consistent contributions on both facets of offensive production. Swisher has a .382/.493 stat line.
The long-term concern with this offense is the number of players who have high slugging percentages, but are not as effective at getting on base. We would look at second baseman Jason Kipnis, third baseman Mike Aviles, and designated hitter Mark Reynolds as the examples. Hitting for power is more fickle than anything in baseball, and this trio will need to show they won’t be a drag on the lineup with the ball isn’t going out of the park or into the alleys. Hence, why I’m more concerned about these three players than with Michael Brantley, whose OBP is high, but slugging is slow. I think the latter is likely to sustain itself.
Even allowing for that concern, there are counterbalancing factors that can make up for a slump. The biggest one is Asdrubal Cabrera. Normally one of the better hitting shortstops in the American League, Cabrera is struggling at .313/.435. His fourteen doubles have kept the slugging at least respectable, but he can do better in all facets of his offensive game and the track record suggests he will. It’s also reasonable to expect Kipnis’ OBP to improve.
Whether the Indians will continue to be third in the American League in scoring runs, I don’t know, but it’s not overly optimistic to think they will at least be in the league’s upper crust all year.
PITCHING MORE PROBLEMATIC
We’ll start with the good news and that’s Justin Masterson. The kid who came into the majors under Francona in Boston during the 2008-09 seasons before being traded, is coming into his own under his old skipper. Masterson is 7-2 with a 2.83 ERA and averaging seven innings a start. He was named to the May edition of TheSportsNotebook’s American League All-Star team, something I’m sure constitutes career fulfillment for any player.
Masterson has gotten help from Zach McAllister, who’s posted a 2.65 ERA in eight starts. But he’s where the good news, at least in the starting rotation, stops.
Ubaldo Jiminez is struggling with a 6.04 ERA in eight starts. At what point does everyone just acknowledge that Jiminez was insanely good for the first half of the 2010 season and has done nothing since? And that maybe the ’10 first half was the anomaly, not all the mediocrity that’s followed? Francona is trying to fill out the rest of his rotation by recycling Scott Kazmir, and turning to young Corey Kluber. It isn’t working.
The hope is that when Brett Myers gets back from the disabled list soon, he’ll be able to help. We should note though, that Myers had an 8.02 ERA in his first three starts. And while he obviously won’t be that bad, it’s not like he can be expected to remind anyone in Cleveland of a young C.C. Sabathia or Cliff Lee. Maybe he’ll become another version of Paul Byrd. That would help, but it still leaves two spots that are a disaster area.
If the rotation can get Francona to the sixth inning, this team can win games. The bullpen has pitched well, ranking 6th in the American League, and they’ve seen the emergence of Bryan Shaw, who’s doing great work in setup, as is Cody Allen. These two join an already stable pen that has Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith also in setup and Chris Perez closing.
What it adds up to is a formula that relies on scoring a lot of runs and surviving five or six innings, and letting the relief corps take over. When you have a good manager, as Cleveland does, you can milk that for all it’s worth. But in the end, starting pitching is what drives success in this sport and I just don’t see Cleveland having enough. As a Red Sox fan whose grateful to Francona, I’m glad his making his return now where the spirit of triumph can reign. Because I’ll be shocked if Cleveland, without making some kind of significant deal for starting pitching, is over .500 in September.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
Baltimore stopped a slump by taking two of three from New York, and the AL East remains a four-team logjam, with the Yankees still in first place, but the Red Sox, Orioles and Rays all within four games of the lead. Significant pitching injuries are hitting this division though. Andy Pettite has missed a start in New York, Wei-Yin Chen is doing a brief DL stint for the Birds, and no injury is bigger than the one that put David Price on the disabled list for Tampa. Last year’s Cy Young winner is expected out until June and Tampa’s entire season hangs on his healthy return.
Texas continues to lead the AL West comfortably, though Oakland grabbed two of three from the Rangers to start the week and keep the deficit at a manageable 5 ½ games. Texas has seen Alexi Ogando go the disabled list, continuing the unbelievable run of quality pitching go on the shelf. I sang the praises of this organization recently for their ability to plug the holes and consider it one of baseball’s underappreciated success stories this year.