“I just want to burn up hard and bright”
And those seven songs — “New York, New York,” “Firecracker,” “Answering Bell,” “La Cienega Just Smiled,” “The Rescue Blues,” “Somehow, Someday” and “When the Stars Go Blue,” in that order — happen to be the first seven songs of the album.
Perception, like possession, is nine-tenths of the law. Had these been the last seven songs of what is a 16-song album, I probably wouldn’t view “Gold” nearly the same way that I do. Of the album’s remaining nine songs, only two or three are listenable. The rest are pretty much horrendous. But they basically make up the latter half of the album, so they somehow don’t impact my overall opinion of the disc at large.
The same rationale might be applicable to the 2011 Cleveland Indians. People in these parts are actually buzzing — in understandably cautious tones, of course — about the Tribe. It’s a phenomenon brought on by the club’s unexpected 8-4 record.
With sound fundamentals (save for a few unsightly moments in an extra-innings loss to the Angels on Wednesday night), stellar starting pitching, a lockdown bullpen and timely hitting, the Indians are off to a “Gold”-like start to the season. Furthermore, the purported “big three” of the American League Central — the White Sox, Twins and Tigers — haven’t quite lived up to the hype.
All this has led to the Indians entering their weekend homestand against the Orioles on top of a division in which their preseason outlook was deemed by many (myself included) to be, as I wrote a few weeks back, “cloudy with a chance of fourth place.”
Of course, if the 2011 season were the “Gold” album, we’d only be about one verse into track two at this point. And the 2002 installment of the Indians, who notched 11 of their 74 wins in the season’s first 12 games, offer a somewhat recent cause for caution about reading too much into what we’ve seen in the early going.
Still, I offered the “Gold” comparison for a reason. In a city whose population declines and sporting sputters are well-documented, the 2011 Indians were in desperate need of a strong start to generate some interest from a fan base that virtually abandoned them last year. And while youth and depth issues might ultimately lead to this season going the way of “Gold,” with contention hopes tailing off over time, this club has placed itself in a position to leave fans with lasting fond feelings about the organization’s overall direction.
That’s the reasoned, realistic outlook for the remaining five and a half months of the regular season calendar.
But who are we to quash the cockeyed optimists in the crowd? What if what we’ve witnessed to this point is not a mirage but merely the early exploits of a playoff-bound club?
Both sides of the equation must be considered, because both have at least some semblance of a solid basis. There are elements of the 8-4 start that are real, and there are elements that still feel really far-fetched. So let’s do our best to separate one side from the other.
Through 12 games, the Indians are on pace to score 796.5 runs this season. How they’ll get that half a run, I have no idea, but, generally speaking, that’s the kind of pace befitting a playoff contender. The Tribe has done it largely because of some unanticipated pop from Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley’s on-base ability and Travis Hafner’s revitalized swing.
What’s more interesting, however, is what the Indians haven’t received. Namely, the numbers we’ve come to expect from Shin-Soo Choo, who’s batting .200, and Carlos Santana, who’s batting .205. While Choo is obviously the more proven commodity of the two, both are patient and potentially elite hitters who can be counted on to produce over the long haul of the season, so major upside awaits.
The Indians will also get Grady Sizemore back soon from knee surgery, but there’s no telling if they’ll get anything resembling the 2008 version of Sizemore or some hobbled shell of his former self. At worst, though, one has to figure the Indians will get more out of Sizemore than they’re currently getting from Austin Kearns and Travis Buck, who will be replaced in left when Brantley shifts from center. So that represents some upside, too.
On the flip side, all expectations for Hafner must be measured because of the continued monitoring of his shoulder and, therefore, his at-bats. And while Cabrera will remain a major threat near the top of the lineup, I think it’s fair to say he’s on an unsustainable power and run-production pace, at present.
Finally, while Matt LaPorta’s two early homers usher in some enthusiasm, he’s still yet to demonstrate he can consistently handle offspeed and breaking stuff.
Early verdict? Because of what Choo, Santana and Sizemore can and will contribute, it’s not at all unreasonable to expect the Indians to continue their run-production rate.
After allowing 23 runs to the White Sox over the season’s first two games, the Tribe pitching staff has basically turned in one inspired effort after another. In the last 10 games, the Indians’ arms have logged a 1.87 ERA, which goes a long way toward explaining the recently completed eight-game winning streak. In the just-completed road trip, Tribe starters had a 0.93 WHIP, limiting traffic and eating up innings to keep the bullpen roles settled and stable. Last year, Indians pitchers collectively had the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Majors. This year, with essentially the same cast, that ratio is 2:1.
Fausto Carmona and Carlos Carrasco have both rebounded from disastrous opening outings against the Sox, with Carrasco still representing the greatest potential upside of any member of this starting five. Justin Masterson has drastically improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio (though lefties are still hitting .300 off him, so that’s worth keeping an eye on). Josh Tomlin and Mitch Talbot have provided a major back-end boost. It will be difficult to sustain, because neither guy has overpowering stuff, but anything’s possible if they keep throwing strikes.
While bullpens are always unpredictable, there was valid reason for optimism about the Tribe’s relief corps going into the year, and the ‘pen has generally lived up to its promise. Tribe relievers have allowed just a .171 batting average against, the best such mark in the AL. Chris Perez has not disappointed in the ninth, and the Indians are making the most of the advantage that is having two reliable lefty relievers (Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez) and the matchup problems that creates for the opposition. Right-handed rookie Vinnie Pestano is looking like a real find.
The early verdict? Two and a half turns does not a rotation make. The starters will come back down to earth a bit, and that will further test the bats. But the bullpen is more than capable of locking down late leads.
The Indians have made just five errors, tied for fewest in the AL. That is, perhaps, the most encouraging aspect of this club’s early play. The eight-game winning streak wasn’t built on smoke and mirrors. It was built on stellar starting pitching backed up by finely tuned fundamentals.
This is an area that has been a burden to the Tribe in recent years, particularly with so many groundball-inducing sinkerballers in the rotation. When the pitchers know they can trust the gloves behind them, that adds a layer of confidence that simply wasn’t there in 2010, when the Indians made 110 errors.
What’s notable about the defensive outlook for the rest of the year, however, is how likely the cast is to change over time. Second baseman Orlando Cabrera, third baseman Jack Hannahan and utility man Adam Everett have already made a big impact on the defensive effort, but all three of those veterans could find their roles marginalized or eliminated altogether if and when the Indians promote the likes of Jason Donald, Lonnie Chisenhall, Cord Phelps and Jason Kipnis over the course of the season.
But if nothing else, the veterans have helped establish a standard — one that must continue to be met when the pitching staff’s inevitable ups and downs arrive.
The early verdict? A young team will get younger in the infield as the year progresses, and with youth, inevitably, comes inconsistency.
THE “GOLD” STANDARD
All told, I think the “Gold” standard could apply here — and that would be a huge step in the right direction for this franchise. A strong start can definitively change the tone and the tune of a town that’s always eager to embrace a winner, and, from an economics standpoint, the Indians have to hope the fans will get behind this team.
We’ve seen some early hiccups from the big dogs in this division, and that’s further afforded the Indians an opportunity to surprise some people. And with these early wins comes a confidence that this young team can capitalize on. That’s the kind of confidence that can’t be bought.
Yes, depth concerns will leave the Tribe vulnerable to some brutal stretches this season, but, on the whole (and if the early results are any indication whatsoever) there might be enough here to make 2011 a memorable year — just as “Gold” is, for me, a memorable album.
PS: Here are some recent columns I hope you’ll check out…