“Ready for the gridlock”

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

If I had to sum up the Indians’ 2015 season, to date, in one word, it would probably be…

wordBefore the season began, I used some other words to relay my thoughts on the Tribe. Let’s compare and contrast my Opening Day feelings with my feelings at the midway point.

CLEVELAND, OH -  JULY 12: Giovanny Urshela #39 walks to the plate as Yan Gomes #10 of the Cleveland Indians reacts after striking out during the eighth inning at Progressive Field on July 12, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)  *** Local Caption *** Giovanny Urshela; Yan Gomes

THEN: “I’m not picking the Indians to win this division. I’ve got them winning 87 games and settling for a second Wild Card. And even there, I don’t know if I’m giving them too much credit because I see them so often and am so in-tune with them or if I’m not giving them enough credit because I see them so often and am so in-tune with them.”

NOW: Survey says? Too much credit. The Indians are on pace to win 77 games (and not the Wild Card).

My biggest concern then was the middle- to back-end of the rotation, sans Gavin Floyd, because we didn’t know what Trevor Bauer or Danny Salazar would be. I worried the rotation simply wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as the Internet intelligentsia seemed to think, but obviously Bauer and Salazar have made strides in their development, and now Cody Anderson has seemingly solidified the back end. Other than the fact that there isn’t much in the way of reinforcement available at Triple-A Columbus, the rotation is not an issue.

What you couldn’t see coming was the Yan Gomes injury, which seems to have just made his year a lost cause, Carlos Santana’s severe regression on both sides of the ball and the continued back issues that have compromised Michael Brantley’s power. Those are three huge issues for a team that once seemed to have considerable upside in the middle of its lineup.

The Indians are still being given a 17-percent chance of making the playoffs by Baseball Prospectus, which is actually higher than I would have suspected.

THEN:  “Speaking of Kluber and Carrasco, memo to the Dolanz R Cheep crowd: When you lock up core players to affordable deals, that still counts as spending money.”

NOW: People in the Cleveland.com comments section still think the Dolanz R Cheep, and I’m sure they’ll go nuts when the Indians don’t do anything at this Trade Deadline. But this team hasn’t given any indication that it’s worth some major midseason splurge on a short-term solultion, and the market will be typically light on impact offensive options anyway. Barring some bad contract-for-bad contract swap, all the Indians can reasonably be expected to do is ride it out with the roster they have.

(Quick programming note: Have you subscribed to our Cleveland Indians PodCastro starring myself and Jordan Bastian? If not, why not?)

THEN: “Of course, now the worry is that Kluber or Carrasco (again) blow out their elbows at some point in the next few years and either of these deals becomes Jake Westbrook 2.0.”

NOW: Those signings still look great. But Kluber should have demanded a clause that guarantees him some run support.

THEN: “Bauer threw more strikes this spring, so color me encouraged. The fact that Salazar has supplanted Carrasco as the wayward youngster who can either dazzle or frazzle depending on the day only increases the onus on Bauer to be a positive X-factor for this club.”

NOW: Bauer’s strikeout rate has increased from 21.6 to 23.3, while his walk rate is 9.8 after a 9.1 mark last year. He’s generating fewer line drives and more groundballs and flyballs. For whatever reason, though, he’s been a totally different guy on the road (1.82 ERA, 0.957 WHIP, .517 OPS) than at home (5.82, 1.490, .782). I don’t claim to know what that’s all about, but, hey, at least he’s good somewhere. And his last start at home was really good.

Salazar did that season-opening time in Triple-A, and seemed to benefit from working with Carl Willis. But he’s still got a bit of a mid-game bugaboo, with a 13.19 ERA in the fifth inning and a .900 opponents’ OPS the third time through the order. That’s a young pitcher with great raw stuff who needs to prove he can stay consistent with his mechanics and make in-game adjustments in his approach. I’d say he’s very much on a Carrasco-like path thus far in his career, and even Carrasco hasn’t 100 percent tapped into his potential (and not just because he didn’t get Joey Butler out).

Again, though, you can win with this rotation, as currently constructed.

THEN: “The defense will be better, by default. It will not be great. All the Indians can reasonably hope is that it’s unnoticeable.”

NOW: Jose Ramirez went backward defensively. Carlos Santana went backward defensively. Lonnie Chisenhall was just kind of whatever, which was, for him, an improvement. But the Indians had no choice but to remake the left side of their infield, and, Santana aside, they profile much better defensively today than they did a couple months back. Alas, Brantley’s bum back has been a big deal, and so the outfield defense has suffered. The pitchers had some brutal defensive stretches.

So… it’s better, and it’s still getting better with the new-look left side of the infield. But on the whole, no, it has been neither good nor unnoticeable.

THEN: “Michael Bourn worked out with a gold medal-winning track coach, but he’s 32 and trying to outrun time. It’s really hard to envision Bourn suddenly emerging as the base-stealing weapon he once was, but that’s not the big issue anyway. The issue is that he needs to get on-base more.”

NOW: What can you say? Bourn rightly lost his leadoff spot, he’s getting on base less than 30 percent of the time and he’s got seven stolen bases. Great dude, hard worker, wants it. But his contract has been a nightmare.

THEN:Michael Brantley swung at more strikes last season and finished third in the MVP vote. Hope to see more hitters (not just on the Indians) demonstrate a more aggressive mentality at the plate, because it might be one of the few effective defenses against our ongoing pitching boom.”

NOW: It’s not for everybody, of course, but there are multiple instances this season of players flourishing with a Brantley-like change in approach. But for what it’s worth, the Indians as a team (and Brantley specifically) are actually taking a higher percentage of pitches (55.8 vs. 54.6) this season vs. last and swinging at slightly fewer first pitches (24 percent vs. 24.5 percent).

THEN: “Big question might be who is playing third base by season’s end. Does Lonnie Chisenhall put it all together offensively (we know he’s not going to draw any Adrian Beltre or Josh Donaldson comparisons in the field) and stick? Does Jose Ramirez move to his right to make room for Francisco Lindor? Does Giovanny Urshela rise up another level? Does the Tribe have to go outside (as I’m in Miami, I’ll throw out St. Ignatius product Derek Dietrich as a realistic trade possibility)?”

NOW: No on Chiz, no on Ramirez, yes on Urshela and no on the trade front (Dietrich, by the way, is playing very well in a limited role for the Fish). Just a remarkably frustrating Major League career for Chisenhall, but we’ll always have June 9, 2014, I suppose. Urshela obviously isn’t setting the world aflame, but he hasn’t looked overwhelmed or overmatched at this level so far, and that’s a satisfying start, especially when it comes in conjunction with the defensive improvement he provides.

THEN: “Carlos Santana will hit north of 30 home runs, which, in today’s game, is no small thing.”

NOW: [Gulp]

Santana has 10 homers, none from the right side of the plate. His slugging percentage has nose-dived, and even his OBP has suffered. You’d be more certain he’s due for some better BABIP luck if he were driving the ball with any consistency, but he’s just not. He showed some flashes just before the break. The Indians need more than flashes from him. Much more.

THEN: “Brandon Moss will fall shy of 30. Strikeouts, lefties, etc. But on the whole, he will make a positive impact on the offense.”

NOW: 14 homers, 0.6 offensive WAR. I was wrong to make mention of the lefties (apparently his 2013 season was still burned in my brain), as Moss has actually been very productive (.831 OPS) against them (and the Indians have been better against lefties than people give them credit for). It’s right-handers against whom he has been almost totally invisible, and that’s a surprise.

Strikeouts? Oh yeah. Furthermore, eight of the homers have been solo shots. Moss, like this team in general, has done hardly anything with RISP. His OPS+ is league average. He’s just a guy, not a game-changer. But was the Tribe’s trade for him worth the gamble? I’d still say so. Joey Wendle has had a disappointing season for Triple-A Nashville in the A’s system, and it’s worth taking risks for power bats in today’s game. Perhaps Moss has got a few big swings in him in the second half, but this is obviously a very streaky player, and it’s hard to see him outright carrying this club in the second half.

THEN: “Got a bad feeling the Nick Swisher Story (‘Brohood’?) might get worse before it gets better. Dual knee surgeries are no joke, and he’ll have to adjust to a diminished role, to boot.”

NOW: Yep.

THEN: “Because we entered the winter with the Indians seemingly resigned to Zach McAllister as a bullpen guy, and because he only claimed a rotation job because of the injury to Floyd and Salazar’s spring struggles, it only stands to reason that Zach McAllister is going to have a dominant, breakout season. Because baseball is weird like that.”

NOW: Baseball is weird. But not that weird.

THEN: “Bullpens. As Francona would say, “Oh boy.” I don’t know. The risk of regression from overwork is real. We know that. But Francona has been so tactical with usage patterns that perhaps it won’t be much of an issue at all.”

NOW: Cody Allen had an awful start to the season, but he’s rebounded nicely. Bryan Shaw has had a terrific year. McAllister seems to be finding his right place in the ‘pen. Clearly, there is a need for more help from the left-hand side, but the ‘pen has one of the better WHIPs in the AL, and it’s been about league-average in stranding inherited runners. You’re not going to confuse this bullpen with the one in Kansas City, but it hasn’t been a season-killer or even a big talking point. So that’s good.

THEN: “Jason Kipnis might be the key to the whole damn thing. Jerry Kipnis, not so much.”

NOW: What a year for Jason Kipnis. I don’t know what happened to Jerry Kipnis.

THEN: “Looking forward to the home opener and the new-look Progressive Field on Friday. I might just start setting up my laptop in The Corner.”

NOW: The Corner is the Tribe’s Rookie of the Year.

~AC

One last thing, if you’ll indulge me: I covered the Indians for MLB.com from 2006 through 2010. I was the young guy, by a mile. Paul Hoynes, Sheldon Ocker and Jim Ingraham had all been on the beat for like 30 years. It would have been an odd or even intimidating dynamic if they weren’t all so amazing to me, each in their own way. Hoynes was (is) one of the more tireless reporters I’ve been around. Competing with him made me better, and having a laugh with Hoynes is still one of the great joys in my job. Ocker and Ingraham? They were like Statler and Waldorf from “The Muppets,” and I mean that in a good way. It was hilarious listening to those guys swap sarcastic jokes in the press box, and their humor extended into their always lively writing. They were a constant reminder that as serious as we make this stuff sometimes, baseball writing, at its heart, should be fun.

Ocker retired last year, and Ingraham was let go by the News-Herald* last week. Hoynes is still at it, God bless him.

*The News-Herald was the first paper I ever worked for, as a stringer in high school. On winter breaks in college, I’d cover high school basketball for them. Jeff Passan, another Cleveland guy, was doing the same thing at that time. That’s funny to think about now.

I’m upset Ingraham wasn’t able to go out on his own terms. But I can’t say I’m surprised by anything that happens in this business anymore. I know he’ll still find ways to stay active in the press box, and I just hope he finds some comfort in the fact that so many people, myself included, enjoyed his work for so long. All the years I was on the beat, Jim never flew. He used to cover a baseball game, drive all night to the next city and be right back at it the next day. One year he drove from Winter Haven to Minneapolis for Opening Day. He never missed games. If the Indians had guys driving in runs as reliably as Jim Ingraham drove a car, they would not be 5 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot.

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