“Beauty walks a razor’s edge”
It was a picturesque, 75-degree day in downtown Cleveland on Tuesday, but the threat of incoming rain was persistent. The would-be weathermen at Progressive Field speculated that the Indians and Royals would avoid the rain on this night, but would likely get hammered by it Wednesday.
So it is, in a literal sense, with April weather in these parts. And so it is, in a figurative sense, when a couple of small-market teams surprise the baseball world in the season’s nascent weeks. The Tribe and Royals are two of the game’s great feel-good stories in the early going, but many watching them wonder when the storms will hit.
As was the case at Kauffman Stadium last week, these two clubs find themselves staging an unlikely battle for first place in the American League Central. Notably, the series opener was attended by representatives from multiple national media outlets. Their course was clear: Tribe-Royals. Get ’em while they’re relevant.
“It’s good for both cities and fan bases,” Indians manager Manny Acta said of that early relevance. “Despite how early it is, we’re happy about it.”
On this night, the rain held off, and Acta’s Indians strengthened their grip on the Central’s top spot by belting five homers and snapping a three-game slide in a 9-4 victory. The Royals, meanwhile, extended what is now a four-game losing streak that some are portending to be their rendezvous with reality.
Undoubtedly — and as the K.C.’s current skid shows — the ride for the Indians (14-8) and Royals (12-11) won’t remain as smooth all summer as it was in the season’s first three weeks. At the same time, though, it’s no stretch to say the early play on both sides has certainly contained elements that are factual, not fantasy. The Indians have been aggressive in the strike zone, the Royals aggressive on the basepaths. Both have turned in a defensive effort that is drastically improved over what we saw in 2010, and it’s made a major impact.
“I told these kids all along, and I’m sure Manny’s told his kids, ‘Don’t listen to what people say outside,'” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “People get a little too wrapped up in the paper side of it.”
That’s a common complaint. Not to mention a valid one. But predictions are often built on valid rationale, too.
What is ultimately unpredictable is youth, and the Royals and Indians both possess plenty of it. In fact, the Royals have the lowest average age in MLB, at 26.7, while the Indians are tied with the Marlins for second-lowest, at 27.8. It is never easy to forecast when tenderfoot talent will reach its potential, nor is it safe to assume that the inconsistencies of youth won’t be revealed over the course of 162 games.
So while the Indians are riding the high of the splendid early showings from Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco (whose clean MRI after a Sunday start shortened by elbow trouble was a major bullet dodged), among others, in the rotation, and the Royals aren’t getting burned by the presence of five rookies in the bullpen, neither club would be shocked to see some regression in those areas.
It is also too soon to tell if the early results from the veterans are mere mirages.
For the Indians, Travis Hafner has looked a great deal more like the Pronk of old than the sore-shouldered version of 2008, ’09 and ’10, and Orlando Cabrera and Jack Hannahan have stabilized the infield defense while adding some unanticipated bonuses to the offensive production. For the Royals, Bruce Chen and Jeff Francis have offset the general unreliability provided by Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies, while Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera have made an immediate impact on both sides of the ball.
But while the kids could waver and the vets could fade, there are core pieces in play here that can’t be overlooked.
You see it in the way Justin Masterson maintains his delivery and further rewards the Indians’ patience with him; in the way Billy Butler steadily produces in the middle of a Royals’ offense that been one of the most effective in the league; in the way Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Brantley and a newly healthy Grady Sizemore form one of the game’s more athletic, dynamic outfields; in the way Alex Gordon finally comes into his own with a new plate approach; in the way Asdrubal Cabrera and Alcides Escobar both play like All-Star shortstops in the making.
And you also note that the Tribe and Royals each possess that coveted commodity that is a reliable ninth-inning arm, with Chris Perez and Joakim Soria both locked up through at least 2013.
Maybe some of the above pieces will eventually be moving ones, but the building blocks are here, and more help is on the horizon. By year’s end, the Indians should have Alex White impacting their rotation (with another recent No. 1 Draft pick, Drew Pomeranz, not far behind), and the Royals should have two promising prospects, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, anchoring their corner infield.
Add this up, and consider the age issues that could catch up (and, in some cases, already are catching up) with the division’s big dogs, and it’s not impossible to imagine the Royals and Indians maintaining a steady presence atop the Central standings in the not-too-distant future.
But what matters most, of course, is the here and now. And with their early play, the Indians and Royals have made their present a lot more relevant than most imagined.
It’s up to them, not Mother Nature, to determine how long the rain holds off.
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