The Cleveland Indians’ win streak hit 18 games on Sunday. After a year in which the focus has been on either the Astros or the Los Angeles Dodgers, are Terry Francona’s Indians the team to beat as we head toward the postseason?
Las Vegas has a split verdict. The Dodgers are still THE team to beat in spite of their recent skid, an 11-4 favorite to win the World Series. But Cleveland has moved past Houston as the favorite in the American League and are a short 9-2 price to break what is now major league baseball’s longest championship drought.
The Indians have the bats. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are a potent offensive duo on the left side of the infield. Lonnie Chisenhall hits for power and average. The acquisition of Jay Bruce gave the Tribe more power. Austin Jackson is enjoying a terrific offensive year. Carlos Santana is one of the game’s most discerning hitters and Edwin Encarcion’s 34-homer season at DH is exactly what the Indians had in mind when they signed him away from Toronto.
Cleveland’s lineup is so good that they’re fourth in the American League in runs scored in spite of a poor year from Jason Kipnis. If the second baseman can get healthy and back in the lineup later this month, that’s just one more reason to like the Tribe.
In Corey Kluber, the Indians have the kind of dominant starting pitcher that looms large in a postseason series. Kluber won Games 1 & 4 of the World Series. The team has bullpen depth. Andrew Miller, a playoff hero last year, is currently on the DL, but expected to be healthy in plenty of time. There’s little doubt that Francona will again go to the well early and often with Miller in the playoffs. And there’s plenty of help in a relief corps that finishes with closer Cody Allen.
If postseason baseball is about hitting, having a great #1 starter, a quality bullpen with one signature arm and a manager that knows what he’s doing, then there is no one better suited to win the 2017 World Series than Cleveland. That’s why, if you think, the Indians are the team to beat, I won’t put up a fuss.
I would offer a cautionary note. Depth in the starting rotation matters, and it’s what caused Cleveland to ultimately come up short last year. It was when they held the 3-1 series lead on the Chicago Cubs that the shortcoming seemed most obvious. The Cubs held decisive advantages in starting pitching in Games 5 & 6 and by the time Kluber & Miller pitched again in Game 7, it was obvious they were out of gas.
That brings us to Carlos Carrasco. An injured hand kept him out of last year’s playoffs, but with a 3.53 ERA in 28 starts this season, he’s exactly what Francona needs–someone to take the pressure off of Kluber and Miller.
Cleveland looks like the best team to me. Whether they deliver depends, first and foremost on Carrasco. Along with names like Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Josh Tomlin. Francona’s creative use of the bullpen took the Tribe a long way last year, but eventually you need more than one reliable starter to win it all .
The state of Ohio has enjoyed a good sports run recently. They won the national championship in college football with Ohio State, reached the NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers and both teams looked primed for a lot more in the seasons to come. Baseball hasn’t gone so well, with the Reds and Indians each sub-.500 as the second half gets set to start tonight. But with the second wild-card in play, both teams are on the radar. Is there any reason to have hope?
I’ll admit to an emotional stake in favor of both teams, which is why I’m including the Reds when, quite frankly, they probably shouldn’t be. Cincinnati is as close as I have to a favorite National League team. I say “as close as I have” because I am a Red Sox fan and I’m not into the whole secondary team thing. I feel like it’s keeping a backup wife and I’m not a sports Mormon.
Nonetheless, in practice, I do tend to cheer for the Reds as long as they’re alive, and my pedigree as a Red Sox fan gives me great affection for Terry Francona in Cleveland. Along with the fact that as a writer, my all-time favorite client lives in the Cleveland suburbs and likes the Tribe.
Let’s start with the Reds, because the answer is the easiest—the answer is that they have no shot and I doubt even the most partisan Cincy fan would disagree. They’re 7 ½ games back of the Cubs for the last wild-card, but there are five teams between Cincinnati and Chicago. Moreover, they appear almost certain to trade staff ace Johnny Cueto in the next two weeks leading up the July 31 non-waive trade deadline.
If the Reds kept Cueto, it would be out of a belief that they could sign him to a long-term deal and still put a respectable team around him. It’s highly unlikely, but if that happened, there would be reason for optimism in 2016. Cincinnati’s been hit hard by injuries—Homer Bailey has been out for the year and Tony Cingrani has been injured, effectively strip-mining the pitching staff. In the everyday lineup, Devin Mesoraco and Zack Cozart are hurt and Cozart, along with Billy Hamilton simply needs to learn to hit.
Ultimately, Cincinnati is paying the price for foolishly letting Dusty Baker go after the 2012 season. I said when it happened that the Reds would indeed “reach the next level”, which is the justification teams always use for firing successful managers, but it would be the next level down, not up. Which is exactly what’s happened.
Now let’s move on to Cleveland, where prospects are much brighter. To begin with, the Indians are a bit closer to the goal than are the Reds. The Tribe is 5 ½ back of the last wild-card with four teams to jump. There are no trade vultures circulating the team and they have a great manager in the dugout.
Cleveland also has good pitching. After a slow start, Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber has settled into a nice season. Kluber, Trevor Bauer and the promising young Danny Salazar all have ERAs in the 3s. Carlos Carrasco is at 4.07. The Indians are seventh in the AL in ERA even with Kluber’s bad start and I think that ranking is going to keep improving in the second half.
The bullpen could use some depth, but at the very least Bryan Shaw has stabilized the ninth inning, with 11 saves and a 1.71 ERA. This is another area of the team that is going to be stronger in the second half than in the first half.
It’s the bats that have to wake up. Cleveland is only 12th in the American League in runs scored. Jason Kipnis is the best second baseman in the American League, with a .401 on-base percentage/.487 slugging percentage and he deserved to start the All-Star Game over Houston’s Jose Altuve. Although after the Kansas City Machine nearly elected Omar Infante, I’m certainly not going to complain too much about Altuve.
When it comes to the major league baseball stretch drive, there’s no topic I’m more personally interested in than the Cleveland Indiansplayoff chances. With my own Boston Red Sox out of the picture and having been that way for a long time, I’m happy to root for Terry Francona.
Cleveland is currently 72-67, and has fallen six games back of the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central.The division title I predicted for the Indians at the start of the year and reaffirmed as recently as last week is pretty well off the table after a tough series against the Detroit Tigers.
But the Indians are still breathing in the wild-card discussion. They’re 4 ½ games back of the Seattle Mariners for the final playoff spot. Cleveland joins the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays as teams that are holding on by their fingernails, and all three also have to pass Detroit on the way to catching Seattle. Here’s nine points that are affecting the Tribe’s playoff chances—past, present and future and for better and for worse…
When we talk about for better and for worse, both descriptions aptly describe the Cleveland bullpen. Looked at collectively, the relief corps is a big reason the Indians are still alive. They rank third in the American League in ERA. They’re deep, with four regular pitchers having ERAs in the 2s. But they have been terrible at closing games. The team ranks 13th in save percentage in the AL. Before blaming it all on closer John Axford, who was terrible early, the Indians have been the league’s worst since the All-Star break, blowing 8 of 15 save chances.
The offense generally has also failed the team in its playoff push. Since the All-Star break, the Indians rank 10th in the AL in runs scored (compared to seventh for the season as a whole). There’s no bigger disaster area than the DH spot. Zach Walters, Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi get at-bats here and all are hitting below .200.
*Before we make this focus too negative, let’s start talking about Corey Kluber. He’s now the rotation’s #1 starter, and he needs to get more national attention. Kluber is 13-9 with a 2.58 ERA and has already logged 195 innings. He’s turning into the kind of arm that a manager can win a wild-card game with, or who looms large over a best-of-five Division Series.
*If Kluber is going to get that chance, either this year or next, the rest of the rotation has to be more consistent. The Indians rank 9th in the AL in starters’ ERA, but the positive signs are there. Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and T.J. House have all been effective and that negative ranking was more about the first half of the season than the second.
*Carlos Santana has emerged as an effective offensive player, with a .365 on-base percentage and hitting 24 home runs. He’s plate discipline is fantastic, having already drawn 98 walks. But you would like to see Santana hit more—the batting average is only .228 and with his ability to drive the ball, it seems like the slugging percentage should be more in the .500 range, rather than .431. He’s effective, but could be better.
*The breakout years have come from Michael Brantley (.370 OBP/.494 slugging) in left field and third baseman Lonny Chisenhall (.358/.459). The breakout of Chisenhall was especially big. While Brantley had always been at least respectable, Chisenhall had been awful and he was starting to look like Cleveland’s version of Mike Moustakas in Kansas City—the so-called “top prospect”, that we kept hearing about and seeing in the lineup, but never produced. Apparently, Francona and GM Mark Shapiro were also getting a little impatient prior to this season, so it was good to see Chisenhall answer the bell.
*I like what we’re seeing from Yan Gomes behind the plate, with his 17 home runs and .480 slugging percentage. It would be nice to see the OBP higher than .326, but in this year of offense being down across the league, even that’s manageable from your catcher, especially if he hits for power and plays good defense, as Gomes does.
*If you’re looking for reasons why this year just wasn’t meant to be for Cleveland, I would suggest starting with second baseman Jason Kipnis. You can usually make a credible argument for Kipnis being in the elite of American League second baseman, along with the more heralded Robinson Cano in Seattle (and formerly New York) and Dustin Pedroia in Boston. This year, Kipnis got injured early and has never gotten it going. The OBP is .316, the slugging is .339.
*And that underscores the deeper doubts about the Indians in 2014—maybe, after a magic turnaround year in 2013, this just isn’t their year. While I’m rooting otherwise, the standings and the limited time left say that’s probably the case. I would just like to point out two examples of why Cleveland fans can still feel good.
In 2009, after a magical run to the 2008 World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays slipped to 84-78. In 2013, after a magical run to the 2012 playoffs, the Baltimore Orioles slipped to 85 wins. Both years seemed disappointing on the surface. But both were examples of a turnaround team seeing the tide turn against them, but still having a winning season. It was the kind of year that quietly solidified the foundation.Tampa Bay went on to become a consistent contender. Baltimore has gone on to lead the AL East by a commanding margin this year.
I think the worst-case scenario for Cleveland this September—so long as they close reasonably well and finish over .500—is that their own foundation as a steady contender in the years ahead is being put more firmly in place.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
The 2007 Cleveland Indians were a team that came into the season leaving fans wondering how far they had come. Two years earlier the Indians won 93 games and contended for a playoff berth to the final weekend of the season, before losing out only to a Chicago White Sox team that thundered to a World Series title, and couldn’t edge out the Red Sox team, with the core of its 2004 World Series team still intact, for the wild-card spot.
For a city that hadn’t been to the playoffs since the halcyon days of 1995-2001, when Jacobs Field was packed every night to watch a team that won six AL Central titles and two American League pennants, the ’05 team was a sign of hope. Hope that was given away the next season when they slipped to 78-84 and 2005 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee seemed to come completely apart.
Lee would continue to struggle this year, but his rotation mates, C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona (who later changed his name to Roberto Hernandez) were set to pick up the slack. Sabathia was primed to emerge from having potential to being one of the game’s best and 2007 saw him make the leap, as he won 19 games and the Cy Young Award. Carmona also won 19.
Offensively, Cleveland was anchored two elite players in leadoff hitter and centerfielder Grady Sizemore. Able to set the table, hit for pretty good power and play a brilliant centerfield, Sizemore was one of the best players in baseball. Designated hitter Travis Hafner hit 24 home runs and was consistently on base.
The rest of the lineup was filled with Victor Martinez, one of the game’s best offensive catchers, and 20-HR hitters like Ryan Garko and Jhonny Peralta. Then add in veterans like Casey Blake at third, and others with a championship pedigree in Trot Nixon and Kenny Lofton, and the Indians could certainly hope to compete in the AL Central and perhaps even beyond.
Cleveland’s start to the season met the promise, as they won 17 of 25 and had a two-game lead over Detroit. At a time when the NBA had the city’s attention, the Tigers-Indians promised a baseball corollary to the impending battle between the Cavaliers & Pistons, as well as the ever-present Ohio State-Michigan football rivalry.
But May saw the Tribe start to struggle and it set the tone for a mediocre June and July that left the team at 60-47 and a game back of Detroit when the month of August started. At this point, the wild card—only one per league at the time–was still a possibility for the runner-up, but the Yankees were in the midst of a scorching summer surge that would eventually result in both they and the Red Sox having separation from the pack in the wild-card fight.
Cleveland reached a crucial series with Detroit in the middle of the month and won two of three. What looked to be one little blow in a fight to the finish, turned out to be the punch that felled a wobbling fighter. Because the Tigers suddenly faded, the Indians surged and by Labor Day they were up six games.
To the surprise of the baseball community they would coast home in September, actually win more games than the wild-card New York Yankees (96-94) and tie with Boston for the best record in baseball. They were hot, they had two great pitchers at the top of their rotation and they had every reason to think they could win the World Series.
New York would be the opponent for the American League Division Series, and they brought in the loaded, high-priced offense that people have become accustomed to. Alex Rodriguez had one of the best years of his career, winning the MVP award with a .314 average, 54 home runs and 156 RBIs. Catcher Jorge Posada had an on-base percentage of a dazzling .426 and slugged .543.
Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui were productive in all facets of hitting and there was no easy out in the lineup. The pitching was suspect, but with Chien Ming-Wang’s 19 wins and 3.70 ERA at the top, and veterans Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens, with ERAs in the low 4s, the Yanks certainly seemed to have enough pitching to win a short series.
Sabathia took the ball against Wang for an early evening start on the first Thursday of October. It couldn’t have started worse for Cleveland, as Johnny Damon hit a leadoff home run. But it was only one run and the Tribe drew two walks and hit three singles in their own half of the first to quickly go up 3-1.
Later, second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, a late season call-up who’d swing the bat very well, hit a home run. It was answered by his Yankee counterpart Robinson Cano. Sabathia ground his way through five innings and left with a 4-3 lead. It was the bottom of the fifth where Wang fell apart, allowing a two-run shot to Martinez, a two-run double to Blake with two outs and five runs overall as Cleveland blew the game open and won 12-3.
Game 2 was played in the same timeslot—the Red Sox-Angels got the prime-time preference, so even in a year where the Indians were playing the Yankees, the local fans got jilted with bad late afternoon start times. They didn’t get jilted with bad games though. Carmona and Pettite hooked up in a duel that it looked the Yankee vet would win, as he left after seven with a 1-0 lead.
Then a bizarre circumstance took place. With rookie Joba Chamberlain on the mound, a swarm of bugs descended upon Jacobs Field. Obviously distracted, Chamberlain gave up a walk to Sizemore, a sacrifice bunt and two wild pitches to tie the game. Hafner then won it in extra innings with a big two-out hit. Yankee fans blame the bugs, along with the umpires for not stopping play.
In a rare display of sympathy with this fan base, I’m sympathetic to the gripe, but we also have to note that it was only the rookie Chamberlain—not Carmona, nor Mariano Rivera who also pitched amidst the plague—who allowed it to affect his pitching.
On Sunday night in the Bronx, the city of Cleveland tuned in hoping to see a sweep. The game got off to a good start, as the Indians got single runs in each of the first three innings and Clemens left with a hamstring injury, ending his career as a pitcher and beginning one as a player in federal court.
But Cleveland sinkerballer Jake Westbrook couldn’t hold off the Pinstripes offense. After getting one run back, the Yanks broke through for four in the fifth, with Johnny Damon’s three-run jack being the big blow. Phil Hughes and Chamberlain came out of the pen to restore order and the Yanks cruised 8-4.
Most of us were expecting to see a Game 5 back in Cleveland. Indians’ manager Eric Wedge made a risky decision to pass on starting Sabathia on short rest, a circumstance that would have made the Yanks beat both his ace and his #2 in Carmona in succession. But at the same time, Wedge could make a reasonable conclusion that if someone had offered him at the beginning of the series that he could have a decisive game with a fully rested Sabathia, and Carmona in the bullpen, it would have been wise to take the deal.
Whatever you think, no one outside Cleveland gave veteran fourth starter Paul Byrd any chance of beating Wang in Yankee Stadium.
But Wang was hit hard from the outset, as Sizemore led the game off with a home run. Peralta hit another and New York was forced to bring in fourth starter Mike Mussina by the second inning. It didn’t stop Cleveland from extending the lead to 6-1. The Yankees would chip away, but even though they hit three home runs it never seemed like a game. There was no consistent rally, nothing that had you thinking ominous “here they come” thoughts. Just three solo home runs, the last of which came in the ninth inning and the Tribe closed out the 6-4 win that sent them to the American League Championship Series.
In the regular season, the Red Sox beat the Indians five of seven times. Normally a matter of no consequence in October, but since each team had gone 96-66, it meant that Fenway Park, rather than Jacobs Field, would open the series and potentially close it.
Boston still had the power tandem of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, now in their fifth year together, anchoring the lineup, but it was no longer the machine of a few years earlier. Ramirez’s slugging percentage was .493, good for anyone else, but low for the outfielder who’d left Cleveland for Boston following the 2001 season. The same went for Ortiz and his 35 home runs. What the Red Sox still did was get on base, with eight of nine starters doing so at a better than .350 clip.
And they had pitching—big-game pitching to be precise. Josh Beckett, the World Series MVP with the Marlins in 2003 was the ace of the staff, a 20-game winner and would end up second to Sabathia in the Cy Young voting. Curt Schilling had already made his legend with his role on the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and the bloody sock epic for the 2004 Red Sox, and he was healthy after a summer battling a shoulder problem. The bullpen was lights-out with Jonathan Papelbon closing and three top setup men in front of him.
Beckett and Sabathia got the series underway on a Friday night and the Cleveland ace did not have it. Even though Hafner staked him with a first-inning home run, the Red Sox quickly answered, then scored three in the third, then chased the ace in the fifth and won 10-3.
Game 2 took place on Saturday night and neither Carmona nor Schilling pitched well. Once again, the Tribe scored in the first and the Red Sox got three in the third. This time, Cleveland punched back, as Peralta hit a three-run bomb in the fourth, and Sizemore went solo in the fifth. But Carmona couldn’t hold the lead, as home runs by Ramirez and third baseman Mike Lowell put Boston back up 6-5. The Indians tied it in the sixth, and then the relievers got things settled down and the game went into extra innings.
In the 11th, after a single and walk, it would be the former Red Sox Nixon, who delivered the base hit that gave Cleveland the lead. And the Indians kept piling it on, scoring seven times in the inning and winning 13-6.
Cleveland now had homefield advantage and Games 3 & 4 went their way in front of a raucous crowd. Westbrook pitched brilliantly in Monday night’s Game 3. Lofton hit an early two-run homer and the Indians won 4-2. The following night it was Byrd and Red Sox vet Tim Wakefield, in the battle of the old guys, and after a scoreless four frames, the Indians busted it wide open in the fifth with seven runs, a three-run bomb by Peralta being the big blow. If a comeback can be loud and inconsequential, Boston managed, hitting three successive solo shots in the sixth, but the game ended 7-3.
It was now back to Sabathia and Beckett. While the Indian ace gave up a first-inning home run to Kevin Youkilis, his team got him the run back and both hurlers settled in. Boston nudged out to a 2-1 lead, but in the seventh, Sabathia cracked and the Red Sox added two runs. Beckett was something close to unhittable and the game ended 4-1.
Cleveland was still ahead in the series, but the momentum had shifted. They needed to beat Schilling for a second time in Fenway Park—or failing that, play a Game 7 on the road that no team, least of all one who was up 3-1 and had the Cy Young winner on the mound at home, wants to face.
As a Red Sox fan, I recall e-mailing friends prior to Game 5 and saying that was the game to decide the pennant. One reason for my belief, was thinking the collective weight of the city’s past failures would weigh on this team if the pressure built.
Whether that had anything to do with it or not, the Indians played Game 6 like a collapsing team. Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew hit a grand slam off Carmona in the first inning with two outs and the rout was quickly on, 13-2. Boston then came out blazing in Game 7, grabbing runs in each of the first three innings to lead 3-0.
But something happened on the way to an epic collapse and it’s that Cleveland fought back. Westbrook had gamely gotten some key outs in the early innings that kept the game manageable and it was back to 3-2 by the fifth inning and held that way into the fateful seventh.
With one out, Lofton hit a harmless pop down the left field line. Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo gave chase. He was looking over his shoulder, so it wasn’t a can of corn, but it was a ball any major league shortstop would be expected to catch. Lugo dropped it. The speedy Lofton was on second base with the tying run. The next batter, Franklin Guiterrez slapped a single down the left field line that was set to the tie the game.
But the ball hit the part of the stands in Fenway that juts out a bit on the third-base side. Lofton would have scored easily, but apparently the strange path of the ball, led him to be held up. It was rightly considered a huge break for the Red Sox, but the Indians still had first and third with one out. A simple sac fly or a grounder to the right side could render it all moot. Instead, Casey Blake slapped a room service grounder to third, which was quickly turned into a 5-4-3 double play that ended the inning.
Blake compounded that by making an error in the bottom of the inning, and then Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia hit a two-run homer to make it 5-2. We might think this all but ended the game, but it did not.
Sizemore bunted his way on to lead off the eight, and another hit followed. The middle of the Tribe lineup would get successive cracks as the tying run against Papelbon. Hafner, Martinez and Garko were all retired. Now, if there was any doubt the game was over, it was removed in the bottom of the inning, when the Red Sox scored six more times. The season was over, 11-2.
The end result of the Red Sox winning in seven games couldn’t be considered a shock, but the way it unfolded made it all worse. But if nothing else, this was still a team with good pitching, good young every day talent that surely had better days ahead.
At least that’s how it seemed. It turned out that by the next time the Tribe made the postseason it would be Terry Francona—the manager of the 2007 Red Sox, in the dugout in Cleveland for the 2013 season. The fans would have to make the good memories of the 2007 Cleveland Indians last for a while.
Terry Francona brought the Cleveland Indians rolling back into relevance in his first year on the managerial job in 2013. The Tribe, which hadn’t been a serious factor since their 2007 run to the American League Championship Series, won 92 games and made the playoffs. Now we have to see if Tito can do it all over again with a team that’s let some key veterans go. TheSportsNotebook offers its Notebook Nine, our focal points on this year’s Cleveland Indians…
*The betting markets are not bullish on Cleveland this time around. The Over/Under on the win props is 81.5. Think about that—a team could go 82-80, marking a ten-game decline from the previous year and moving from a playoff year to one that presumably would miss by seven or eight games and still go Over. That’s pessimism. Cleveland is considered a 60-1 shot to win their first World Series since 1948 and end the long suffering by the sports fans of this city.
*Starting pitching was crucial to Cleveland’s success last year, but the Indians have let two members of last year’s rotation go. Ubaldo Jiminez is now in Baltimore while Scott Kazmir is in Oakland. The moves not only weaken Cleveland, but strengthen two teams the Tribe could feasibly be competing with for a wild-card spot. We should note though, that both pitchers had struggled in recent years—notably Kazmir who all but fallen off the edge of the earth—before Francona got a hold of them, so it’s a question mark if they pick up where they left off.
*And the Indians do have four solid young arms to go into 2013 with. Justin Masterson won 14 games with a 3.45 ERA, his second good year in the past three seasons. Corey Kluber came on the scene last year with an 11-5 record and 3.86 ERA in 25 starts. Zach McAllister posted a 3.75 ERA in 25 starts. Danny Salazar came up late and made just ten starts, but had a 3.12 ERA. All of these kids are young. The upside is obvious. The question mark is that only Masterson has even had one season of making at least thirty starts, so they need to prove success can be sustained as hitters grow in familiarity.
*Chris Perez is gone from the bullpen, and that means it’s time to find a new closer. This is a move that was probably time—Perez had a good run in Cleveland, but really struggled last season and his team bailed him out and won a couple games where saves were blown. Otherwise, Perez might have worn goats’ horns. But is John Axford the answer, after two years of erratic pitching? The people of Milwaukee are undoubtedly guffawing over the notion that Axford is the right response to a position where the incumbent was known for inconsistency.
*Cleveland had turned out pretty deep bullpens even when their teams stunk in recent years, so it’s not surprising they look good with the setup options. Cody Allen, Marc Rzepczynski and Bryan Shaw provide Francona good choices. If Vinnie Pestano rebounds from a bad 2013 year and finds his 2011–12 form that marked him one of the game’s more underrated middle relievers, the Indians will again have big-time depth.
*The big news in the everyday lineup is that Carlos Santana is moving from behind the plate, where he often struggled defensively, to third base. Or at least Santana is trying. The fallback is to have him DH. 26-year-old Yan Gomes is a well-regarded young catcher who is penciled in the Opening Day lineup. A replacement at third would be welcome, as Lonny Chisenhall has been a disaster at the plate for the last three years. Chisenhall says the team is better off with him at third base. A player saying that about himself is understandable. If an objective observer were to say it, there should be drug tests ordered.
*There’s several everyday players who really need to bounce back. Cleveland had a surprising number of players deliver subpar seasons, which is the opposite of what you would expect for a team that had a big turnaround campaign. But Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, Michael Bourn in center and Michael Brantley in left were all anemic at the plate. David Murphy was brought in to play right, but he had a bad year in Texas.
*Then we have another player who slipped, but who deserves a category all his own and it’s Nick Swisher. There are three reasons Swisher is different. The first one is positive, and it’s that with a .341 OBP, it’s not like Swisher was dead weight. He was just lower than has been the case in recent seasons. The next two are more concerning. Because Swisher is 33-years-old, it’s fair to wonder if he’s even capable of picking it up. And 2013 was his worst year since 2008. This is significant because 2009-12 saw him play in Yankee Stadium, perhaps the most hitter-friendly park in baseball. Did the cozy confines of the Bronx obscure a decline that had already set in?
*Let’s conclude on a positive note and it’s with underrated second baseman Jason Kipnis. With a stat line of .366 on-base percentage/.452 slugging percentage, Kipnis is one of the most productive in the game at his position and he’s now well-established. Kipnis and Santana (.377/.455 stat line last year) are the steady forces in the lineup.
I picked against Cleveland last year, projecting them to lose 97 games. As much as I respected Francona, I thought the pitching would be too bad to overcome. This year, I see where the pessimism comes from, as I outlined the issues in the everyday lineup and at closer. The rotation has to prove itself, and even at that, there’s no true ace.
Nonetheless, the electric potential of these four young arms and the quality of the middle relief and setup crew, combined with Francona’s leadership make at least a winning season a fair bet. And that’s they all they need to go Over 81.5
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 shortstopin 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?