June 2013

“Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

Back in Spring Training, Terry Francona was quick to tell people he truthfully did not know how good this Indians team would be in 2013. And nearing the halfway point, it remains a downright difficult club to get a firm read on.

santanaavilesThat’s because the Indians vacillate so seamlessly between the awesome stretches and the abysmal ones. They’ve had three win streaks of four games or more and three losing streaks of five games or more. And were it not for a botched pop-up and an untimely wild pitch, they’d be riding an eight-game winning streak right now, directly on the heels of an eight-game losing streak.

What a ride.

The Indians’ home-run reliance made for fireworks in the season’s first six weeks or so, but the power pace has cooled considerably of late, and losing Asdrubal Cabrera to a quadriceps strain (and, ergo, depleting the bench) hasn’t helped. A back-end bullpen that once thrived on health and dependability now has neither, as questions linger not just about when Chris Perez (shoulder) will return but what the Indians will be getting when he comes back, particularly given the off-the-field issues that hang over him and his wife and dog.

Of course, bullpens are prone to flukiness and flakiness, so it doesn’t take much for a good situation to become uncomfortable. And the Indians’ starting staff, no matter the specifics (such as the surprisingly captivating improvement of Corey Kluber), has been neither remarkably better nor worse than anticipated, on the whole.

It’s the lineup that seems most responsible for the Tribe’s decidedly streaky side, and to this, I think, a great deal of credit must be given to the lack of a true No. 3 or No. 4 hitter.

Nick Swisher was brought in to be that focal point type of guy, but he hasn’t really produced like that guy. Doesn’t mean he won’t, doesn’t mean he can’t. Just means that he hasn’t, and his recent shoulder woes undoubtedly contribute to that bottom line, which is that Swisher’s .739 OPS is below the MLB average for first basemen (.776). His struggle to produce like the so-called “traditional” cleanup man was one fear when the Indians gave four years and $56 million to a guy who was at his best batting fifth or sixth in a loaded Yankee lineup.

Mark Reynolds <i>can</i> be that kind of hitter, but only when he’s on the good side of the hot-and-cold streaks you get with a guy whose 162-game average is 34 homers and 212 strikeouts. You take the bad with the good, and, lately, it’s been mostly bad. Tribe fans are discovering that when Reynolds gets lost, it’s the no cell phone service/GPS broke/no gas station in sight kinda lost. We’re talking lost.

Cabrera is the Tribe’s usual No. 3 hitter when he’s healthy, but the trouble you run into with Asdrubal is when he actively tries to put together another 25-homer season. That was, after all, the primary problem with Cabrera in the season’s first month, when he was largely invisible. If he focuses on contact, he’s a .300 hitter, but not the dynamic hitter he was in that first half of 2011. In an ideal world, he’s probably a No. 2 hitter, and the same goes for Jason Kipnis.

You know who has the second-most plate appearances in the cleanup spot for the Tribe this year? Michael Brantley. Nothing against the man they call “Dr. Smooth,” but that’s not ideal casting (although I write this just after he doubled his season home run total in a single night).

What would be ideal for the Indians is to have Carlos Santana raking in that No. 4 spot. But Santana’s position simply gets in the way, and — let’s be honest — his positioning is increasingly difficult to defend.

The Indians, dating back to the Victor Martinez days, have long been hung up on the idea of having a premium offensive presence behind the plate. With Martinez, it made sense, as, even in his prime, he didn’t have the power potential to truly be an elite-hitting first baseman.

With Santana, though, the so-called premium is particularly costly. Not just because the abuse Santana takes behind the dish can affect his power production at the plate, but because Santana seems to be regressing as a catcher. Even if the recent spate of wild pitches can be shaken off as a slump, of sorts, the 13-percent success rate at throwing out opposing baserunners is a defensive liability that is tough to tolerate.

The Indians have wrestled with the question of what’s best for Santana in the past, and the Swisher, Bourn and Reynolds signings essentially served to cement his catcher status for the time being, given their effect on first base. Then Yan Gomes’ surge complicated matters, in a good way, and right now it’s hard not to argue that the Indians are a better team — at least defensively — with Gomes behind the plate and Santana elsewhere (preferably DH).

It’s not that Santana isn’t putting up elite offensive numbers for a catcher. He is.

“If he were a position player,” Francona said, “he’d still be really good. But the fact that he’s a catcher makes him great.”

Very true. But the mental and physical grind of catching does take a toll and does distract from the adjustments in approach Santana could stand to make at the plate. Teams started to put the shift on Santana when he bats from the left-hand side because he struggles to drive the ball the other way, and he also tends to get a little mechanically hyper with his swing. And even if those issues have absolutely nothing to do with catching, Santana’s defensive role does lead Francona to believe his best bet is to bat him lower in the order.

“When our lineup is going good, we can hit him lower, so he’s not coming in after the first inning and getting the shin guards off with the responsibility of hitting cleanup,” Francona said. “So that’s kind of on me. And at some point, we’ll probably remedy that when we get Swish back and everything. I think that can help.”

chizSo, again, the Indians have a complicated cleanup situation. And the No. 3 spot isn’t any clearer. If Lonnie Chisenhall starts hitting like he did in Triple-A, well, hey, that’s a viable option for the three-hole. But obviously that’s easier said than done.

Besides, Chisenhall has his own potential positional identity crisis. The Indians weren’t really happy with what they saw from him defensively during his Columbus stay (for obvious reasons, as Chisenhall made eight errors in 27 games), and there is some question as to whether the hot corner is really a long-term fit (remember, Chisenhall was already moved from short to third after he was drafted to address concerns about his range at short).

Maybe Chisenhall will have to pull an Alex Gordon and move to a corner outfield spot before he reaches his true big-league potential. Though Chisenhall is quick to note he’s not looking to move, he’s equally quick to admit his defense has been a slow process.

“In Triple-A, you’ve got a lot of the left field/first-base types who play different positions every night,” Chisenhall said. “It’s a little more comfortable knowing what position you’re playing, but if something like that does occur, I don’t think it would be an issue, athletically, getting there.”

In the meantime, in Santana, Swisher, Bourn, Cabrera, Kipnis, Reynolds, et al., the Indians have a great deal of offensive talent, when healthy. But they don’t have those true No. 3 and 4 types, and that makes a big difference in a 162-game schedule.

This team seems intent on making those 162 games as much of an adventure as possible.

~AC

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