Let’s do something completely bold and discuss why Terry Francona is such a big deal for the Cleveland Indians.
I know, I know. This is a topic nobody has had the courage to broach before, but I’m feeling frisky.
This is what Francona said in a video released by the Indians in conjunction with the announcement Tuesday that he has signed an extension through 2018 (with club options for ’19 and ’20, when we’ll all be wearing spacesuits and will be tended to by robot butlers):
“I really didn’t want to move on from here. .. You watch every manager in their first press conference, they say all these things — and they’re all true, they all feel them — but what’s really cool for me is, two years later, I’m getting to live them out. And I still feel the same way, two years [later], except maybe stronger, than the day I was hired. And for that, I’m very grateful.”
I know the Indians – from the guys in the front office to the players to the clubhouse staff – are grateful.
And I know fans ought to be grateful, because, two years later, it’s still pretty amazing that a manager of Francona’s caliber wanted to come here.
Now, I hate writing something like that, because it only propagates the notion of Cleveland as flyover territory, as small-market stepping stone. But it’s true. The Indians, after the 2012 season, were a project waiting to be tackled, desirable only by the default setting that there are only 30 Major League managerial gigs to go around.
I wrote at the time – and firmly believed – that Sandy Alomar Jr., who now functions as Francona’s first-base coach, was the man for the job, because, while I knew Francona and Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro were all close, it simply never seemed realistic to me that he would take less than his market worth to come to a situation with clear payroll restrictions and no real panache. Frankly, I didn’t know Francona well enough to appreciate how much he desired a situation purely about baseball, about development, about people. But when you look at the way things unraveled in a big market in Boston, with a Red Sox organization that admittedly strayed from some core development values in an effort to buy wins, it all makes sense. And here in Cleveland, Francona had the freedom to create a winning culture with people who respects and cares about. I suppose you can’t put a price on that (though I’m sure the Indians have tried).
Well, anyway, all of the above is empty talk if the Indians don’t win games. Under Francona, they’ve won more than they’ve lost, two years running – 92 wins in 2013, when they won the AL top Wild Card spot outright and lost the playoff game to the Rays (with Francona winning AL Manager of the Year honors), and 85 wins last year, with an injury depleted and defensively dreadful club.
We are groomed, in today’s game, to understand managers have only limited impact on what transpires on the field, but it’s hard to be around this club as much as I am and come away with the belief that either record would have been even remotely possible without somebody like Francona at the helm. I certainly don’t think a rookie skipper would have guided that 2013 club to the playoffs, and I’m doubly convinced that 85 wins, with a club playing multiple rookies down the stretch, would have been impossible had Francona not kept his clubhouse in order.
In terms of hiring practices, the manager role has largely been marginalized in today’s game. Teams aren’t afraid to entrust the inexperienced and unproven, so long as they have the respect of the guys on the roster. That’s why you see guys like Paul Molitor and Robin Ventura and Mike Matheny and Brad Ausmus and Walt Weiss (that one nearly went to Jason Giambi) getting jobs that used to go to veteran skippers or coaching lifers.
But we need look no deeper than October to see that managers still matter. Bruce Bochy cemented his Hall of Fame status with San Francisco’s third title in five years, and the consistency of that club’s key bullpen linchpins in each of those championship seasons is in no small part due to Bochy’s expertise in employing those arms. Buck Showalter completely changed the attitude of an Orioles team accustomed to losing, getting a guy like Adam Jones to buy into the “no man is bigger than the ballclub” mentality that would help propel the O’s to this year’s ALCS. Heck, even Ned Yost – for all the grief we’ve given him for some tactical decisions – deserves a big pat on the back. His young players praise him for sticking with them through their struggles. And let’s face it: The guy was right far more often than he was wrong on the postseason stage.
Again, managers matter. That’s why the Cubs showed no shame in dumping Rick Rentaria for Joe Maddon this past week. Maddon, Bochy, Showalter, Francona and Mike Scioscia are probably on the short list of guys who could claim any opening they desired, and the Cubs have become a desirable job.
The Indians after 2012? Not desirable. And with a static payroll and sagging attendance, perhaps it’s still not a desirable situation in the grand scheme. But whether it has put butts in the seats or not, the Indians have eked the most out of their talent with Tito. For one, they’ve exceeded their Pythagorean win expectancy both years. They’ve also been at the frontline of a couple trends — the aggressive bullpen usage patterns and the effective use of time-share situations to exploit matchups (and this stuff doesn’t work without proper ego-massaging by the skipper). Guys play hard for Francona, which sounds simple, until you remember the effort level (and results) in August 2012.
None of this means the Indians have it easy from here on out. Until further notice, I’m still not convinced this is going to be a dramatically better defensive team in 2015, even after Francisco Lindor gets promoted. That alone will pose a challenge to a team with a burgeoning, cost-controlled starting staff and some offensive upside if key guys stay healthy. But the window really could be wide open in the AL Central next season. The Tigers aren’t getting any younger, and the Royals will face the challenge all World Series clubs face in recovering from the October toll taken on their arms. On the strength of the rotation alone, the Indians have an opportunity here.
What they also have is a manager who is genuinely good at what he does and genuinely happy to be here, embracing every challenge that comes with this particular position. Two seasons later –with several more in store — that’s still a big deal for the Indians.
No, I can’t properly wrap my head around what I witnessed in the ALCS. Nobody can.
Sure, the Royals are hot. But this isn’t even about being hot anymore. This is about being in some impenetrable, inexplicable zone in which the legs churn a little faster, the glove feels a little bigger, the opponent seems a little shakier and every bloop and dribbler bounces or rolls your way. With their energy level, their clear chemistry, their enraptured fan base and their suddenly impeccable skipper, the Royals, in their ascension to this World Series stage against the Giants, have truly been an October delight.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. This is not intended to be disrespectful to the Royals. I’ve been on their bandwagon quite a while. I picked them to win the AL Central this season, when what Terry Francona told me in Spring Training (“They make me nervous”) was still fresh in my mind.
But with the way the season itself played out, I’d wager to guess there are members of that organization who are asking themselves that very same question. When the Royals got swept out of the All-Star break by Boston and fell below .500, for instance, I don’t recall many people inside or outside the Kansas City clubhouse asserting they were World Series-bound. And even at season’s end — less than three weeks ago — when they had reached the playoffs via the Wild Card, it was still fair to wonder whether supposed cornerstones Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas would every truly pan out.
Perceptions change quickly in this game.
On that note, it’s only natural for fans of an Indians team that played these Royals fairly well (10-9 record against) and stayed neck and neck with them much of the year (with the Royals eventually finishing four games ahead of the Tribe in the Central standings) to wonder if the gap between also-ran and October run is as wide as might have been previously presumed.
The Royals and Indians, after all, were both drastically outpaced by the Tigers in payroll this season, and, while the Tigers won their fourth straight division crown, the Royals have clearly been the better postseason ballclub.
Don’t get caught in the trap of drawing bold conclusions from that small sample, because the Tigers destroyed the Royals head-to-head this season, and Detroit’s staying power atop the Central speaks for itself. But if the $90 million Royals — a team whose primary pieces are all the result of in-house drafting and development, whether those drafted players stayed or were flipped for established talent — can get this far, then, yes, obviously, the Indians can, too.
No, it wouldn’t have happened this year, even if the Indians had somehow snuck into the Wild Card game. The Royals play D, the Indians didn’t. To me, it’s really that simple. Nothing separated the Royals from the O’s in this ALCS more than their ability to make it seem as if they routinely had 18 gloves in the field. So let’s not indulge in any undue fantasies. Stick to the Super Bowl beliefs borne out of a 3-2 start, or go watch LeBron and the boys stroll through the NBA’s plodding and predictable regular season.
But I do think the Royals are offering hope of a different sort here. In possibly the most difficult sport in which to repeat, the wear and tear they’re taking on by going deep into October is bound to have some lingering effect in 2015.
For starters, they’re either going to lose or drastically overpay James Shields. I’m not sure which scenario is worse, frankly. But the more likely one is that they lose him, and those 200-plus innings won’t be easy to replace on the cheap. The Royals are probably doing the right thing in limiting Danny Duffy’s innings right now, given the shoulder situation he endured late in the season and his importance to the future of this rotation. But Yordano Ventura has already exceeded his 2013 workload by more than 30 percent, and he’s on top to start Game 2 of the World Series. Jason Vargas and our old buddy Jeremy Guthrie are obviously more of the inning-eater variety, so it remains to be seen whether the Royals are able to patch together a rotation next season (here, Draft-pick-turned-instant-bullpen-piece Brandon Finnegan could loom large) that is as reliable as this one has been.
And as far as the bullpen is concerned, you know Wade Davis can’t possibly repeat what he’s done this year. Davis and Kelvin Herrera are exceeding the 80-innings mark this year, so there could be some regression there next year. The Royals might also be in a situation in which their best option is to dangle consistent closer Greg Holland, who is about to get awfully expensive in arbitration, in the trade market to offset needs elsewhere.
The Royals’ lineup is obviously stepping up big on this October stage, but it is less imposing in the grind of 162. Now, understand, it could get imposing in a hurry if what we’re seeing from Hosmer and Moustakas of late is real. Their confidence is soaring at the moment, and we can’t underestimate what that confidence will reap them in the future. But also remember the two guys who were probably most prominent in the Royals’ second-half surge into a Central dogfight with Detroit were Billy Butler (in August) and Nori Aoki – two pending free agents.
Anyway, one way or another, the Royals’ ultimate staying power will come into question. And the questions about the Tigers’ ability to repeat, given their aging and increasingly expensive roster, have already begun. Dave Dombrowski told me earlier this year that the one thing you have to worry about with a high-priced roster is that you have a club that becomes too old to compete almost overnight (I think that’s ultimately why he made the much-maligned Doug Fister trade). The Tigers have some nice young (or youngish) pieces in J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos, and maybe Robbie Ray develops into the front-line arm they envision (early returns don’t point to that, but you never know). On the whole, though, that Tigers team, as currently constructed, is beginning to take on a bit of a Philadelphia Phillies vibe, and that could be encouraging for the rest of the Central, the Indians included.
Maybe, then, in the midst of watching the Tigers get bounced and the Royals exert themselves on the postseason stage, the Indians actually have reason for optimism that extends beyond their high-upside, contract-controllable starting staff. It’s still going to be all but impossible for the Indians to address their offense in a meaningful way unless they can get creative on the trade front with Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn. And unless every Indians position player is currently committing himself to those Tom Emanski defensive drill videos, it’s likely this will be a club that will have to continue to try to outhit its mistakes.
We’ll see what transpires winter on all fronts, but right now I see opportunity for the Indians in the Central next season. They won’t have the Tigers’ stash of former Cy Young winners (a stash that may or may not include Max Scherzer), and they won’t have the Royals’ newfound postseason prominence. But they’ll have a deep and rested pitching staff, with some obvious in-house potential for defensive (Francisco Lindor is looming) and offensive (is Swisher really going to turn in another .604 OPS? … OK, don’t answer that) improvement.
Yeah, I’d say 2015 is looking interesting for the Indians and potentially problematic for Detroit and K.C. And that can only mean one thing:
The White Sox are going to run away with the Central.
So now the season is over, and the reflection on an 85-win season will arouse all kinds of conversation.
The optimists will assert that 2014 was pretty encouraging, on the whole, because what business did the Tribe have being in the playoff conversation in the season’s final week, in a season in which they spent almost half their payroll on the collective dead weight of Nick Swisher, Justin Masterson, Asdrubal Cabrera and John Axford (collective WAR: minus-0.5)? By year’s end, the solidification of the rotation was enough to make them think 2015 looks promising, especially as the Tigers age and the Royals’ staying power is an open question.
These people are right.
The pessimists will say the Tribe took a step back in the standings and won’t do anything of significance with the offense or the defense this winter, because the Swisher contract and the positional conundrum he presents means there are really no empty lineup spots or, for that matter, enticing free agents who are going to dramatically improve the bottom line.
These people are right, too.
(I should add here that some optimists and some pessimists alike will throw around the phrase “big bat,” whatever that even means in this run-deprived day and age, and they will draw conclusions that if only the Indians could add a “big bat,” they’d have better attendance figures. These people have no idea what the heck they’re talking about.)
The Indians are a solid team in a league that doesn’t ask dramatically more than that. MLB has increasingly gravitated toward that NFL feel where the existence of truly great teams is very much in doubt. If you can guarantee me today that the Indians will keep all five of these starters (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and T.J. House) healthy next season and that none of them will implode statistically, then, yes, I’d guess this will once again be a contender for one of the American League’s five postseason spots next season. I believe that strongly in Terry Francona’s ability to piece things together and eke the most out of whatever lineup and bullpen concoction he has on his hands. But how strong and realistic a contender will ultimately depend on whether this club can improve largely from within offensively and defensively.
But you can’t guarantee me that, and I’m not asking you to. All I’m asking you to do is follow along here as we preview the offseason by means of reviewing the regular season. And perhaps optimists and pessimists alike will come together in their conclusions about this club.
EXCRUCIATING END-OF-SEASON MINUTIAE…
• Those of us who write about baseball for a living just had our annual end-of-season load-out with Chris Antonetti and Francona, and, even though it took place a couple days earlier than it did a year ago, Antonetti sounded more content going into this offseason than he did last year, when the free-agent candidacies of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir (to say nothing of the pending free agency of Masterson) was hanging over his head. “In the moment, we’re disappointed, because this time last year, we still had games in front of us,” Antonetti said. “But as we transition to the offseason, we have basically the entirety of our roster in place for next year. There’s no complacency. We want to improve on that. But that’s a great source of strength going into the offseason.”
• All right, so where, exactly, do the Indians improve? The simple fact is that much of that improvement is going to have to be internal. That means health and production for Swisher, and God only knows if a 34-year-old coming off dual knee surgeries can provide that. What we do know is that Swisher has been dispatched from first base by Carlos Santana, so he’s a man without a position. He’ll be three years removed from his most recent season as a primary outfielder. A
nd because he’s simply stopped hitting lefties (.481 OPS in 117 plate appearances this season) EDIT: As reader Nick points out, Swisher had a .918 OPS against lefties just a year ago, so let’s not completely rule out this possibility. I just don’t know that you can actively plan on it, it’s not like he’s a right-field platoon fit with David Murphy (though the Indians would be wise to look for one, as Ryan Raburn isn’t looking like the answer there anymore). As of now, it looks like the Indians have a designated bro on their hands, and they’ll be paying at least another $30 million over the next two seasons for the privilege.
• That right there is reason enough not to entertain any dreams of a Victor Martinez return, to the extent that any of you did so anyway. Amazing that Vic, at this stage of his career, stands to be arguably the best bat available in the open market, but I don’t think the Tigers will let him reach that point anyway. I do think he’ll end his career with the Indians at some point, somehow, because that’s something he wants to do. But it’s not going to be with a long-term contract signed with Cleveland. It’s more likely to be the Jim Thome-type waiver claim at some point down the road.
• Anyway, back to the 2015 offense. The outfield doesn’t have much wiggle room. Michael Brantley will be coming off an MVP-type season, obviously, while Michael Bourn’s contract is probably unmovable, unless you trade it for a similarly sunk cost. Francona said he wants to see Bourn arrive to camp not only healthy but confident in the condition of his hamstring so that he can be “a disrupter” and “more arrogant” on the basepaths. Bourn, of course, will be 32 next season, and every year he’ll find it a little more challenging to change games with his speed. The Indians need more from him. What more can be said?
• As I said, maybe you find a more suitable platoon partner for Murphy, or maybe you find a way to upgrade right field altogether. The Indians do feel their farm system has improved enough to make them a player in the trade market. But what assets can be expected to be available at a time when teams are scrambling for offense any way they can get it? The lesson from the Yoenis Cespedes trade (and, for that matter, Houston’s J.D. Martinez snafu) has to be taken into account by teams this winter.
• I certainly don’t see an infield shakeup. You’ve got Santana, who, with a 127 OPS+, had as impactful a season as you can have as a .231 hitter, at first. At some point, you might entertain the idea of moving Jason Kipnis back to the outfield, but that point won’t be this winter. You’ve just got to hope and pray he comes to camp healthy and in shape and ready to distance himself from all that transpired this summer. You’ve got Jose Ramirez at short, with Frankie Lindor knocking on the door. And although he turned in perhaps the most remarkable of season splits (.915 OPS in the first half, .591 in the second) and his defensive aplomb is in doubt, Lonnie Chisenhall still appears to be the Indians’ guy at third. “I think Lonnie did more than we could have asked,” Antonetti said. “There was some inconsistency along the way to get there, but if you would have asked us to sign up for what we saw this year, we’d say absolutely… Lonnie’s development as a teammate, the way he improved as a baserunner, how important the little things were to him and how hard he worked on those things was one of the developmental highlights of the year for us.”
• Toss in the $3.5 million option the Indians are probably going to exercise on Mike Aviles, and the infield looks set. And Yan Gomes is obviously locked in behind the plate. Francona made the point (and it’s a good one) that with an OPS nearly 100 points higher than that of Salvador Perez and 51 caught stealings to Perez’s 50 (in 72 fewer games) over the last two years, Gomes is the best catcher in the American League.
• The Indians scored 3.71 runs per game in the second half. They were the worst team in baseball defensively. These are two trends that need to change, clearly. The defense was a bit better in the second half, and much of that is attributable to better range at short. But with Chisenhall at third and Kipnis at second, don’t expect the Indians to suddenly, dramatically elevate themselves from a defensive standpoint. They desperately need both of those guys (and Swisher) to outhit their limited defensive contributions.
• I expect the Indians to add another starter (or starters) before they add the so-called “big bat,” and this will be the usual search for undervalued assets that we’ve come to expect out of this club. They could always deal from their obvious area of strength in the rotation, but, more likely, they’ll line up depth options for the inevitable attrition that will occur from what currently looks like a spectacular starting staff under long-term contractual control. Don’t kid yourself. It’s not entirely smooth sailing from here, especially as Salazar and Bauer are far from finished products and the sample size on House is so small. Just view the rotation as a position of strength, a bearer of upside and an area that will be all the better if Antonetti can find some pieces to be at the ready if/when it springs a leak.
• I freely admit I don’t know how to assess a bullpen outlook, especially four and a half months before Spring Training starts. The Indians will probably put together an effective bullpen, and it will have (at least) eight guys and Francona will use them like crazy. That’s all you really need to know at this point.
• Two final thoughts on awards, now that the BBWAA members have handed in their ballots: Put me in the pessimistic realm, but I just don’t know that Kluber will have enough support to overtake Felix Hernandez in the Cy Young. As I wrote in my awards piece for Sports on Earth, he’d have my vote, if the BBWAA granted us MLB.com kids such a privilege, and he’d have it largely based on his sparkling second half (1.73 ERA, even with that erroneous hit given to Miguel Cabrera on Labor Day). But Felix finished strong Sunday after his Toronto flub last week, won the ERA title, and I just think that ridiculous stretch of 17 straight starts allowing two runs or less is what’s going to stick in voters’ minds. If I’m wrong, I’ll be surprised. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised all the same.
• I’ll also be surprised if Brantley finishes in the top three of the AL MVP voting. I had him at No. 4, for whatever that’s worth (not much), but not because I don’t think there’s an argument for him as high as No. 2 (I’d give the award to Trout, as most reasonable-minded individuals would). I really can’t say enough good things about Dr. Smooth. It’s just too bad a season such as his and Kluber’s won’t be celebrated on the October stage.
The small but appreciative Progressive Field crowd stood and applauded for Corey Kluber as he came off the mound Thursday afternoon, a common sight in his nearly Cy Young-worthy season.
Equally common, of course, was the lack of reaction from Kluber himself. Head down, eyes unflinching, mind still processing all that was and will be, Kluber didn’t acknowledge a single soul. If you didn’t know him better — and the truth is that his matter-of-fact manner dictates that we don’t know him well at all — you’d assume he’s either hard of hearing or hard-hearted, though he insists that’s not the case.
Kluber’s entitled to his habits, no matter how much seemingly unrequited love they engender. He is, after all, putting a final flourish in his season of ascent, and the Tribe has its barely breathing postseason hopes to thank for his efforts.
When Kluber nearly went the distance in Game 1 of a doubleheader with the Twins on Thursday – the latest “Most Important Day of the Season” for the Indians, immediately replaced the following morning – he set the stage for a sweep of the low-rung division rivals, a sweep that allows the Indians to enter the weekend in Detroit with a difficult but not entirely undoable deficit of four games in the Central (technically three, if their ninth-inning lead in a suspended game holds true) and 3 ½ in the Wild Card.
“Until we’re eliminated,” Kluber said, “we’ve got a chance.”
Impenetrable truth, that.
In the 8-2 win, Kluber fell two outs shy of his second consecutive complete game, and he turned in his fifth start of the season in which he worked eight innings or more. What separated this latest start from many of the rest, however, was the rare bit of run support he received from an Indians offense that has struggled not just down the stretch but almost every time he takes the mound.
This actually might be the most impressive attribute of Kluber’s breakout campaign. It’s not necessarily the fact that he’s gone 15-9 with a 2.45 ERA, struck out 230 in 212 2/3 innings and now turned in a Major League-best 30 straight consecutive starts allowing four earned runs or fewer. It might be that he’s seen 13 of the 31 games he’s started decided by two runs or less — and seven more decided by three runs — and always kept his composure.
“I think that’s been vastly overlooked,” Terry Francona said. “It seems like every game he pitches, he doesn’t have that wiggle room where you can make a mistake. And he just continues to go out and grind through it. His innings have been – when I say stressful, I don’t mean so much physically — but it seems like every inning there’s no margin for error.”
The Indians, as an organization, don’t have much margin for error, either, which is why an unexpected success story like Kluber’s is so vital for their ultimate survival in the standings.
Don’t get me wrong. They liked Kluber when they acquired him from the Padres in the three-team trade that sent Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals in 2010. After all, he had a 10.0 strikeouts-per-nine mark in Double-A at the time of the trade, and that’s an eye-catching rate at any level.
What they could not have imagined, however, was that Kluber would almost totally revamp his arsenal within their system and become the every-fifth-day force he now is. The two pitches he uses most frequently are a two-seam fastball and a cutter. Combined, they account for more than three-quarters of his repertoire. But he didn’t throw either pitch until 2011. In 2012, he was given a late-season opportunity at the big-league level, nearly decapitated Derek Jeter one night and generally had his ups and downs. Last season, he showed flashes of brilliance, flirting with consistency. This year, he’s been the total package.
And the benefit of Kluber’s late bloom is that he’s under the Indians’ contractual control through 2018, by which point he’ll be 33 years old.
“I just think he’s been so amazingly consistent and at such a high level that he’s established himself as one of the better pitchers in the game,” Francona said. “Just knowing him like we do, I don’t see that going anywhere, except getting better.”
While Justin Masterson’s free-agent year went awry, Kluber became the backbone of a burgeoning starting staff on an Indians team that has demonstrated the benefits of patience with young pitchers.
It’s probably a bit presumptuous to start labeling Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar as the “Big Four,” as the esteemed Peter Gammons recently did. Carrasco, after all, is only seven starts into his return to the rotation, brilliant (0.70 ERA, .179 opponents’ average) though those seven starts have been. Bauer is still learning how to attack hitters early in counts and early in games. And Salazar, with an adjusted ERA below that of league average, is still unformed enough in his routine that he blamed his last outing, when he was roughed up for six runs over 4 2/3 innings against the Angels, on the matinee start time.
Still, these are relatively fresh arms here in the pennant push because of Francona’s famously aggressive use of the bullpen (the Indians are on track to break their own AL record for games in relief). And even if their 2014 efforts fall flat, their Major League-best 2.14 starters’ ERA dating back to Aug. 9 (with fifth starter T.J. House another factor in that feat) at least sets the Indians up for a more hopeful future.
That begins with Kluber. Odds are, he will not be your 2014 Cy Young winner, because King Felix Hernandez is on track to have him beat, ever so slightly, in innings and ERA and, to the extent that such a thing matters, prestige.
Clearly, though, Kluber has taken his place among the elite arms in the game. And he’s cemented that status here recently with some slight mechanical adjustments that have fended off all recent worries about fatigue in what is, essentially, his first full season (he missed some time last year with a finger injury).
“My direction was just off, I was getting too closed,” he said. “When it’s not a major overhaul and just a little tweak, it’s pretty easy to get it back to where you want it.”
The Indians aren’t quite where they want to be, but that they are relevant at all is a big credit to Kluber. His has been a season worthy of applause, whether he acknowledges it or not.
The Indians made their 95th error of the season Sunday, 23 more than the league average. Lonnie Chisenhall committed the infraction – his 16th in just 89 games at third base.
Were there some sort of bizarre award for defense this porous, the Indians would drop that, too.
While the errors themselves are quantifiable, what’s more difficult to determine is how much of an impact they’ve had on the Tribe’s still-present playoff hunt, which we’ll expound upon in a minute.
First, just know that the Indians have the worst defensive runs saved mark (minus-85) in baseball, and it’s not even close. The Twins are next on the list, at minus-45. Also know that the Indians’ are, per FanGraphs.com, on pace to post the second-worst Ultimate Zone Rating since 2002.
This is advanced analytical history in the making, folks. And it’s all the more amazing considering the Indians have a pitching staff posting one of the greatest strikeout rates (8.68 K’s per nine innings) in history and, ergo, limiting the number of balls put in play.
The Indians can’t be completely shocked by what’s transpired. Not in a season in which Carlos Santana was their Opening Day third baseman (and more on him in a minute, too). Not when the advanced defensive metrics have pooh-poohed their efforts every year since 2008.
But really, just as no metric can truly assess how this detrimental defense has altered the bottom line, none could have forecast this much frustration, either.
“With defense,” said general manager Chris Antonetti, “there’s still a lot more uncertainty with how you even evaluate it, let alone getting into projecting it. I think it’s come a long way. I think we’ve spent a lot of time internally getting our arms around it. But I think the case with us this year is that no matter how you evaluate it, it hasn’t been as good as we hoped or expected.”
Now, about that impact. Consider that third-inning Chisenhall error against the Orioles. Moments earlier, second baseman Jason Kipnis had made a heads-up play on a Nick Hundley liner to turn two for starter Danny Salazar. That brought up Jonathan Schoop with none on and two out, and Salazar got him to hit into what ought to have been the inning-ending groundball.
Alas, Chisenhall booted it, and Schoop advanced all the way to second. Salazar would expend another 12 pitches to walk Nick Markakis and get Steve Pearce to pop out to end the inning. Salazar would later show signs of fatigue in the sixth, when he left with two on and none out, and reliever Scott Atchison would give up the tying and go-ahead runs, and the Indians went on to lose, 4-1. Whether Salazar would have been any more fresh in that frame had he not needed that fourth out earlier is an open-ended question, and perhaps it’s a stretch to assume such an impact.
It is, however, no stretch to assume that the Indians have cost themselves some bullets, leads and, ultimately, wins. And now that they’re in a position in which literally every loss feels like a threat to their Wild Card livelihood, the sins of the gloves stand out all the more.
Again, the Indians knew they were taking on a defensive risk when they installed Santana as their starting third baseman at the outset of their season, but the irony there is that Santana has suddenly emerged as their most adept infield defender — albeit at first.
“He’s really good at first base,” Antonetti said. “His hands work well. His feet work well.”
Or as Terry Francona put it: “He doesn’t always look athletic. His pockets are hanging out, his shirt tail is out. But he is very athletic.”
As for the rest of the infield, well…
Chisenhall’s defensive lapses were forgivable when he was hitting .332 in the first half to seize the starting duties at the hot corner, less so now that he’s hitting a buck-sixty-five in the second half.
At short, Jose Ramirez is a definite improvement over Asdrubal Cabrera, who, by the time he was traded to the Nats, had about as much range as a dead moth. But it’s still too soon to tell if Ramirez is a staple at short, particularly with Francisco Lindor looming in Triple-A.
The defensive metrics, meanwhile, are not kind to Kipnis, though his plate power dip (.350 SLG) is still the greater source of concern.
In the outfield, Michael Brantley rates better in center field than his regular spot in left, and the Tribe’s regular center fielder – Michael Bourn – hasn’t been very regular at all because of the hamstring issues that have hamstrung his season and, it turns out, his defensive metrics. David Murphy, now out with an oblique injury, was acquired in part because of his glove in right, but his advanced numbers also went backward this year. Nick Swisher, who could be done for the year with a knee injury, played three positions in the field (first base, left and right), all of them poorly. Chris Dickerson has been serviceable. Ryan Raburn made an out-of-nowhere diving grab last week that defied his otherwise adventurous output.
Anyway, the only number that truly matters to the Indians at this juncture – 123 games into the season — is 4 1/2. That’s their deficit in the AL Wild Card hunt. Interestingly, the 2013 Indians, after 123 games, were also 4 ½ back. That Tribe club went on to go 21-6 in September to grab the Wild Card top spot, and a soft September schedule didn’t hurt. This year, the Indians have just 14 of their remaining 39 games against clubs with winning records, but they’ll also play 30 games in 30 days from Aug. 26 to Sept. 24 — no small test.
The Indians might yet have a run in them. By this point, they know what they’re getting every fifth day from Corey Kluber, who is stoically pitching his way into the Cy Young conversation. Behind him, Salazar, Trevor Bauer and now Carlos Carrasco are flashing power arms with plenty of potential.
None of it matters, though, if the gloves don’t cooperate. The Indians still have a slight opportunity to make a surge.
Will they seize it or drop it?
In the city of Trieste, a mid-sized seaport on the Adriatic, there is a statue of Italo Svevo. He was a native and largely unheralded writer who was born Aron Ettore Schmitz and gave himself a pen name that literally translated to “Italian Swabian,” reflecting his whereabouts on the border of Italy and the former southwestern Germany region of Swabia.
Svevo self-published a novel, Confessions of Zeno, that would have gone unnoticed, were it not for the persistence of Svevo’s mentor, James Joyce. And the book was influential enough that the people of Trieste honored its late author by establishing a life-sized tribute to him in the Piazza Hortis, where he used to take his daily strolls. It sits not on a dais but on flat ground, and “life-sized,” in this instance, is (and this is what I love about the Svevo statue) an unimposing 5-foot-6 or so.
While in Trieste a couple summers ago, we took a picture of my equally vertically challenged dad next to the statue and the plaque that bears the most famous line from that novel:
“Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, but it’s original!”
Here in Cleveland — specifically at Progressive nee Jacobs Field — we’re getting a new statue this weekend. It is statue of Jim Thome that, in true American form, is bigger than life. It will stand above us mere mortals, and it will showcase the Thome pose we know so well — the one where he points his booming bat in the direction of the pitcher, a la Roy Hobbs, while digging in and looking to launch one of his 612 career home runs.
This statue — symbolic, significant, persistent and permanent — is either a point of pride or a point of controversy, depending on who you ask.
Some people around here are outraged that a defector is being cast in bronze, forever hailed. They still can’t get over a guy claiming, “They’ll have to rip this jersey off of me” and then leaving for Philadelphia financial freedom.
More people, I would assume, have long ago forgiven Thome for leaving the Indians in the winter after the 2002 season, understanding the game’s economics and the Indians’ changing competitive state at the time he made his move. Thome mended many mental fences when came back briefly at the end of 2011, hit a movie-made home run on Jim Thome Appreciation Night and was largely well-received. To them, the statue sits just fine.
Then there is a third group — a group of which, I must say, I am a member.
This group recognizes that you can hold nothing against Thome the Man and still be conflicted about Thome the Statue. Because while Thome might, indeed, be the perfect subject to celebrate a unique (and this is one of the few instances in which the word “unique” is being applied appropriately) era of Indians baseball, I’m not sure the specific statue they’ve selected adequately addresses it.
Now, let’s expound upon that subject of celebration, first and foremost. Because within the chorus of complaints about the Thome statue, there is a small but vocal segment of the fan base that would prefer Larry Doby, the AL’s first black player, be immortalized before Thome.
In the grand scope of the Indians’ 114-season history, Doby is as good an option as any after Bob Feller, whose statue has rested outside Gate C ever since the Indians ended their long-term run as Municipal Stadium tenants and got a room of their own. Doby’s significance as the AL’s first black player does too often get lost in the grand shadow of Jackie Robinson. The Indians and the city of Cleveland renamed Eagle Avenue, the street that runs behind the left-field bleachers, “Larry Doby Way” two years ago… but, you know, that’s no statue.
This 114-season history, though, is not the target. The target is and ought to be Jacobs Field itself. What it meant to these people. What it meant to this city. What it meant to a long-suffering franchise. The impacts, both economic and emotional, that the ballpark had on Northeast Ohio in the mid-1990s cannot be overstated, and the 20th anniversary season serves as an appropriate time for some sort of salute steeped in relative modernity.
The Indians had long thought Thome to be a suitable point of emphasis. When they tried to woo him in that aforementioned winter of ’02, they could no longer sell themselves as the AL Central standard-bearers (his contract alone would have made it tough to maintain a consistent winner) but they could sell him on the allure of legacy. They promised him a statue. They harped on the benefits of continuity, of representing something bigger than yourself, of forever being remembered as the face of a franchise. These were things Feller himself capitalized on from the day he hung ‘em up in 1956 until the day he died in 2010, and Feller could attest that, yes, there was, indeed, monetary value in this association. It wasn’t nearly enough to bridge the financial gap between the Indians’ $62 million offer to Thome and Philadelphia’s $87 million guarantee, but it was real (LeBron James, who I’m sure will have a statue of his own here someday, will discover this, too).
I think, in an honest moment, Thome would tell you that he wishes he would have stayed, but that’s only easy to state in the retrospect of a career that never again reached the World Series stage after he left Cleveland. And by 2011, when the Indians did bring him back as August waiver wire fodder, Mark Shapiro was already waxing poetic about the value of 12 mostly standout seasons in an Indians uniform in today’s transient times. Certainly, it’s easy to understand the significance of being the franchise home run king and a homegrown product who, much like Feller, arrived like a gift from the Midwest corn fields and turned his country strength into Cooperstown-worthy production. Over time, the free-agent defection simply ceased to be all that big a deal to the Indians’ higher-ups.
So Thome gets his statue, after all. He didn’t ask for it, and he even admits he’s a little “uncomfortable” and a little embarrassed by it. This is not a surprising utterance out of the mouth of Jim Thome, whose humility and good nature are as worthy of celebration as his stats.
But here’s the problem with the Thome statue: It honors Thome and Thome alone.
I know that sounds ludicrous, because that is, unmistakably, the goal of most statues, isn’t it? But I think the Indians could have honored both the man and his time in a way that satisfies all sides.
Think about those teams, those runs to five straight AL Central titles (with a sixth title tacked on in ’01) and, most meaningfully, two AL pennants in ’95 and ’97. What is the first memory that comes to mind?
I’d venture to guess I could poll 10 of you and get 10 different answers.
Maybe it’s Tony Pena’s late-night homer heroics in Game 1 of the ’95 ALDS, or Albert Belle pointing to his bicep that same night. Maybe it’s Belle’s grand slam off Lee Smith. Maybe it’s Sandy Alomar going deep off Mariano Rivera in the ’97 ALDS. Maybe it’s Game 3 of the ’97 ALCS, Omar Vizquel botching a suicide squeeze and Marquis Grissom streaking home with the winning run on the passed ball. Maybe it’s Wayne Kirby’s game-winning hit in the ballpark’s opener. Or maybe it’s just the sight of those stands, filled night after night after night after night for 455 freaking games.
Hey, maybe you’re masochistic, and your first memory is the generous strike zone afforded the Braves in the ’95 Series or David Justice’s clinching Game 6 home run or — gulp — Jose Mesa in Game 7 in ’97.
Actually, what am I saying? This is Cleveland. Of course, your first memory is Jose Mesa in Game 7 in ’97.
But that’s not the point. The point is that there were too many magical moments, too many crazy characters, too many flowing emotions associated with those teams to narrow it all down to a single person.
I think that’s the issue with the Thome statue. You can’t look at Jim Thome’s pointed bat and see Omar’s golden glove or Albert’s menacing glare or Kenny Lofton’s swift feet. It doesn’t evoke memories of Carlos Baerga’s “Hello, Cleveland!” commercials or Manny Ramirez’s “Baby Bull” salad days or Alomar’s All-Star Game awesomeness. You don’t look at it and remember what Dick Jacobs and John Hart built and what Mike Hargrove tended. It doesn’t point the mind to a time when established stars like Eddie Murray and Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez actually wanted to be here, when Cleveland was an honest-to-goodness baseball destination.
You just see Thome. And I’m sure, to some, that’s acceptable.
But I’m probably in the minority of people whose most immediate memory of Thome has nothing to do with one of his mammoth taters. It has to do, oddly, with one of this defensive plays.
It is that pop-up off the bat of Jeff Huson, sailing high into the sky on Sept. 8, 1995, landing safely in Thome’s glove near third base and igniting a party that had not been seen in these parts for 41 years:
Yes, the moment was inevitable, because that ’95 club ran away with the Central in the strike-shortened season. But as Tom Hamilton (who uttered the great call, “And the season of dreams has become a reality”) told me recently, “It was almost like a city didn’t believe it was going to happen until it actually happened.” There were hugs and tears and wild shouts of unhindered ecstasy. There was, in the immediate aftermath, an airing of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” as a fitting tribute to Steve Olin and a reminder of how far this team, this family, had come in the wake of those awful Spring Training deaths of ’93. For hours after that out, you could hear the sound of blaring car horns in the parking lot and the city streets – a practice that would be repeated many times in October days ahead.
You could have made a statue out of that moment. Thome, left arm raised, ball in glove, triumphant. The productive product of a potent farm system completing the out a town had been thirsting for in the ballpark that, really, made it all possible.
Heck, you could even make it like the Italo Svevo statue and put it on flat ground, a reminder that the moment belonged to everybody in the building and in the city that supported it.
That, to me, would have been the more satisfying statue. It would have been a better representation of an era unlike any other around here. Those Indians teams didn’t win a championship, but they did stir something in people’s souls, and that out was the breakthrough — the moment when the travails of the past were forgiven and the door to the future sprung open.
It was neither ugly nor beautiful, but it was original.
Was that the alluring, tonal, British voice of Dido I heard coming out of Terry Francona just now?
“There will be no white flag above my door,” Francona said.
Well, no, he didn’t say or sing that specifically, but he came quite close.
“We will never raise the white flag,” Tito said after the Justin Masterson trade. “That’s not an option. We’re going to play.”
My guess is Francona will have to say something similar very soon, when the Indians do what some would say is the responsible thing and trade Asdrubal Cabrera.
Or maybe he’ll say it after the Indians acquire John Lackey.
But whether or not another move is made, Francona is right. This isn’t front-office fluff; this is the way business is done in baseball today. The notion of Trade Deadline “buyers and sellers” is far too black and white for the current competitive climate, as Chris Antonetti artfully explained.
“I think oftentimes people look at it as one or the other,” Antonetti said. “That you’re either buyers or sellers. I think teams may take a more nuanced approach to that. You may have different goals heading into the Deadline. It could be repositioning your roster, taking advantage of a position where you have some depth to supplement another area.”
Did you notice that, at the same time the Indians dealt their former ace pitcher and preached competitiveness, the last-place Cubs traded for Felix Doubront mere weeks after selling off other assets? The Deadline is free-flowing. It is a time for general managers to be opportunistic, because it is a prime time for evaluating rosters, scouting systems and, above all else, prompting action.
Realistically, the Indians’ already faint 2014 postseason hopes (12.7 percent, per Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds) aren’t much – if at all – worse without Masterson than they were with him. And they’re probably not much worse without Cabrera (whose lackluster performance in high-leverage situations I cited earlier) than they are with him.
Sure, that sounds purely pessimistic on a lot of fronts. For one, it’s pessimistic about Masterson, who, for all we know, might have two months of brilliance in him if he’s now mechanically and mentally right after his DL stay.
But the Indians would have paid a handsome price to find out the effects of that retooling period. They would have given up any opportunity to acquire young talent in exchange for Masterson (the qualifying offer wasn’t going to happen at this stage) and, oh by the way, paid the big right-hander another $3 million.
I love what the Indians did here. James Ramsey adds another outfield bat to a system suddenly teeming with them, and the offensive abyss of this era means you can never have enough bats on hand. MLB.com had Ramsey ranked as the Cards’ sixth-best prospect at the outset of the year, and he automatically becomes the Indians’ fifth-highest-rated prospect.
And as I wrote in analyzing Cabrera’s case earlier this week, the $3 million savings is not chump change. Not when 60 percent of your 2015 roster is tied up in seven guys. If they can save another $3 million in moving A-Cab, all the better.
The Indians don’t have a No. 2 starter behind Corey Kluber right now. They just don’t. They have Danny Salazar finally figuring out that he needs to flash his fastball from the very beginning of outings instead of trying to go all 2011-era Justin Verlander on the opposition and ease into things. They’ve got T.J. House, who has shown some flashes. They’ve got Trevor Bauer, who has made giant strides this season. This is, by no means, an overwhelming, overpowering group. But I’d rather keep running the kids out there on a regular basis than pine for something that might never come back again. Besides, no bridges have been burned with Masterson. He remains eminently signable, remains quite fond of the organization, and his price tag has dropped precipitously.
Maybe Masterson would have become that No. 2 (or No. 1) starter again. But he would have had to do it damn quickly to make it worth the Indians’ while, and walking six guys in Columbus the other night was not a great start.
The Indians are in a position where they have to take even the slightest shot at contending seriously. But at the same time, they’re in a spot where they can’t ignore opportunities to capitalize on value. This seller’s market has afforded them a big opportunity. The Cardinals actually bid pretty boldly on Masterson’s two-month potential. The long list of clubs in need of a middle-infield upgrade could lead to a bold bid for Asdrubal.
In this particular area, the Indians were and are in a good spot. They can pounce on those opportunities without waving the white flag.
Asdrubal Cabrera makes $10 million this year.
Somehow, this is a fact that floored me when somebody brought it up the other day. The hypocrisy of the hippocampus is such that a person might quickly recall the precise date of his last dental appointment but not his own social security number. There’s really no telling what the mind will deem important enough to remember, and somehow in the midst of more pressing matters – including, but not limited to, a brilliant Food Network game-show idea that I can’t reveal much about other than to say it involves the boiling of pasta, the racing of the clock and the pressure of instantaneous mental math – the particulars of Asdrubal Cabrera’s backloaded contract escaped me. My apologies.
But I do believe you’ll join me in opining that $10 million is (in the Cleveland market at least) a lot of money for Asdrubal Cabrera.
Now, this is all a relative discussion, because Cabrera has “only” made a little north of $24 million his career, to date, while providing substantially more on-field value to the Indians. And even at this stage in which his sum far exceeds far value, $10 million for roughly league-average production from your shortstop is certainly superior to, say, the $7 million spent on Brett Myers last year or the $5 million spent on Grady Sizemore in 2012 or the $28.5 million being paid to Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher in the present.
Sports salaries are often out-of-whack with reality, players are paid for past – not present – performance and the Food Network’s not returning my calls. That’s life.
All that said, as the Indians sit a game under .500 on their last off day before the Trade Deadline, dangling on that increasingly nebulous line between the “buy” and “sell” side of the equation, Cabrera’s contract has to count for something, doesn’t it?
You keep hearing things like Cabrera “has value” at this Deadline, given the sort of lackluster options in the middle infield that keep Dan Uggla employed. But it’s hard to say what this means, exactly. Chase Headley still had “value” in the trade market with a .651 OPS for the Padres, and that “value” translated to a 27-year-old journeyman named Yangervis Solarte and a 23-year-old Class A pitcher named Rafael De Paula, <i>minus</i> $1 million.
For the Padres, it was a trade weighed against the value of literally doing nothing and reaping nothing, and they acted accordingly.
For the Indians, it might amount to a different sort of equation. The value, as it were, might lie most meaningfully in the value of dumping the prorated portion (roughly $3.3 million) of that $10 million sum. That’s not a lot, but, to a club that has already committed probably 60 percent of its 2015 payroll to seven guys (one of whom is named Ryan Raburn), it’s not nothing, either.
The Indians, therefore, would be remiss not to at least explore all options with Cabrera. No, they have no immediate plans to promote Francisco Lindor, and, in fact, the odds, at present, are probably against him coming up earlier than a month or so into 2015, given the arbitration issues at stake there. But a Cabrera trade could change that equation come September, if (and only if) the Indians are still in it, and their market size and payroll realities do demand capitalizing on situations such as these.
In this trade market, Cabrera’s value might be at its height at second base, not short. The Giants, owners of the aforementioned Uggla, have a need, as do the Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles and A’s. With Ryan Zimmerman out with a severely injured hamstring (and Anthony Rendon, therefore, back at third), the Nats might play in that market, too.
All of this lends itself to an internal examination of what Cabrera is currently worth to the Indians. Would a combo of Mike Aviles (.626 OPS) and Jose Ramirez be satisfactory enough at short if the Indians still hope to contend? Hmm. Obviously, the status quo ain’t cutting it, as the 52-53 record and sometimes-stagnant offense demonstrate, and Cabrera’s .157 average and .517 OPS in what Baseball Reference describes as “high leverage” situations (versus a .744 OPS in low leverage spots) are telling.
That said, it is hard to trade your starting shortstop without sending a message to your clubhouse that you’re conceding defeat. And you saw how well the Indians fared when he missed most of the past week with back spasms.
It will all come down to that value equation. What Cabrera is worth to other teams, in terms of prospect or big-league-ready chips, is hard to say. It was a different market and a different time, but (courtesy of Baseball Reference) look at Cabrera’s current numbers compared to those of Jhonny Peralta (who was playing third base but essentially dealt to the Tigers as a shortstop exactly four years ago today) in 2010 with the Tribe:
Cabrera: 95 games, .249 AVG, .309 OBP, .392 SLG, 9 HR, 40 RBI, 99 OPS+, minus-0.1 defensive WAR
Peralta: 91 games, .246 AVG, .308 OBP, .389 SLG, 7 HR, 43 RBI, 94 OPS+, 0.6 dWAR
Again, all markets are different, but it is worth remembering that the Indians also sent the Tigers the remainder of Peralta’s $4.85 million salary in exchange for Giovanni Soto, a wiry teenage left-hander who is currently in Double-A and, to date, has not yet distinguished himself as the most successful player to bear his own name (Geovany Soto can still rest comfortably).
So eating Cabrera’s contract might be the only way for the Indians to get even a warm body back for Cabrera at this stage. While it would be interesting to see the Indians pull off a big-leaguer for big-leaguer swap and land some back-end starting or relief help in exchange for Asdrubal, I don’t know if that’s especially realistic.
Honestly, it could be that their best option — if they do move Cabrera — is to just try to recoup some cash. But try putting that in a press release.
Another option, of course, is to keep Cabrera and see where this thing goes. On the heels of a bizarre road trip that saw the Tribe take three of four from the Tigers only to drop 5 of 7 to the Twins and Royals, it’s hard to be overwhelmingly encouraged by the playoff odds. But the league at large remains remarkably forgiving. The Indians are sub-.500 yet still just 3 ½ games back of a Wild Card spot.
You could say the Indians’ 2014 season has at least successfully sorted out that which needed sorting out on the infield front. And what I mean by that is the Tribe no longer entertains visions of carrying baseball’s first-ever third baseman/catcher/cleanup hitter hybrid in Carlos Santana, no longer wonders when or if Lonnie Chisenhall will emerge, no longer has much rational reason to believe the $56 million investment in Swisher was all that much better than the $57 million investment in Travis Hafner (though it still remains to be seen if “Brohio” enjoys longer staying power as a marketing mechanism than did “Pronkville”).
Chisenhall’s your third baseman, Santana’s your first baseman and Swisher is your switch-hitting designated hitter who should probably be a bit more restricted from the right-hand side.
Shortstop, meanwhile, is the same as it ever was – Lindor in the long frame, Cabrera in the meantime.
How much more meantime will be determined in the next few days.
There is always this hyper-awareness of roster construction among media members and fans during Spring Training, when teams are making seemingly gut-wrenching but, usually, somewhat frivolous decisions about the nether reaches of their roster.
It’s a six- or seven-week dance in which all involved pretend to believe that the last guy on the bench will determine whether or not a team has any shot at October, and, come Opening Day, it gives way to the reality that 25-man inventories are living, breathing organisms subject to change, especially as a club searches to find its footing.
Through it all, front-office or managerial or coaching types preach the same gospel:
The players will make the decisions for us.
Or the alternative:
Things have a way of working out.
Which brings us to Lonnie Chisenhall.
He’s been here, on the Indians’ active roster, from day one this season on the simple premise that the Indians didn’t know what else to do with him. He had a really nice offensive spring in Arizona, a place that lends itself to really nice offensive springs. But the Indians were committed, from the get-go, to giving Carlos Santana every opportunity at third base, provided, of course, he didn’t spontaneously combust the first time a sharp in-game grounder was sent his way.
They wanted to make that experiment work, because they valued flexibility with their DH spot. Chisenhall, though, just kept hitting, kept providing reason not to dispatch him to yet another round of Triple-A time-wasting. And Jason Giambi was hurt anyway, so, well, what the heck? They gave Chisenhall a roster spot, even as Terry Francona admitted he had no earthly idea how many at-bats he’d get.
“To be honest with you, I don’t have a crystal ball,” Francona had said. “I’m not sure you really need to have one. Things happen.”
Exactly. Things happen. The players make the decisions for you.
Chisenhall got some limited opportunity against right-handers, banged out 17 hits in his 47 April at-bats and made things interesting. That’s probably as far as the Indians wanted to go in their evaluation of the 25-year-old Chisenhall at that point: He was interesting again.
They had seen him flounder at the big-league level before, and there had been distinct danger of him being relegated to the dreaded Quad-A status in which the skills that flourish at one level simply don’t translate at the highest level.
A year ago, Chisenhall looked pretty lost, batting .213 through the season’s first six weeks after being handed the third base gig and earning another demotion to Columbus. There was a point last year in which he was so desperate to get his bat going that he grew a terrible mustache, a small and unsightly concession to the gods of non-shaving superstition.
“Then I was just an ugly .200 hitter,” he would remember later.
It got worse: Chisenhall hit .145 in August. And by that point, Francona had basically made him a persona non grata against southpaws. He did, however, see something in the Chiz in that season’s final month, when he had a .920 OPS in 40 plate appearances (not to mention three hits in the Wild Card game), and, really, only in retrospect can we appreciate that as both the start of something special and as a reminder that some top prospects simply require a little more patience.
So, yeah, to see Chisenhall raking at the outset of the season — and the raking continued on into May — was interesting. A tad on the hollow side for a third base/DH type, as 24 of his first 34 hits were singles, the rest doubles. But when your regular third baseman is batting like .140, who could reasonably call Chisenhall’s production hollow?
Clearly, this was evolving into another case of a player making the decisions for his club. Chisenhall was morphing from merely interesting to purely intriguing. He was asserting himself as deserving of everyday opportunities, and – this is the most important point – he was starting to hit for more power. The first homer came in that season-shifting series sweep of the Tigers a few weeks back. Since then, he’s posted an .809 slugging percentage in 75 trips to the plate, numbers of course augmented by Monday night’s historic 5-for-5, three-homer, nine-RBI breakout in Arlington (the place where, incidentally, the Indians were playing the day Chisenhall was drafted by the club six years ago). He’s shown the ultimate sign of hitting maturity, knowing when to be aggressive in the zone and squaring up the ball with authority and consistency.
And now the Indians are not only just two games back of a Tigers team that once looked capable of running away with the Central, they’re also faced with the dilemma that all teams hope to face – actual, earnest, non-Spring-Training-concocted lineup decisions.
Nick Swisher could be back Thursday, and he’ll create a roster crunch for Tito and Co. The easy decision – the one Chisenhall has made for the higher-ups – is to give Chisenhall the everyday opportunities at third and be done with it. Hopefully, there is still ample opportunity to keep Mike Aviles active in the mix on the days Chisenhall, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis get a breather, but at this point is there really any reason to deny Chisenhall the stability of a regular position? He’s no longer merely interesting or purely intriguing. He’s just plain real (and he’s hitting .520 with a 1.236 OPS in 28 plate appearances against lefties, for the record).
This naturally proves problematic in the first base, DH and catching departments, where Carlos Santana has finally shown some signs of life (1.168 OPS in his last eight games, sandwiched around a concussion), where George Kottaras, surprisingly, has looked like more than just roster fodder, and where Swisher and Giambi hold veteran sway.
I don’t suspect the Indians will make major roster modifications based on Kottaras’ small sample, but I am generally beginning to wonder how long the Indians can afford the luxury of a player-coach. The simple truth is that they’re not going to sit Santana, and they’re not going to put the $56 million bro on the bench, either. Ryan Raburn has a .537 OPS, but he also has a two-year contract. The roster, in short, is getting increasingly squeezed.
The primary problem right now is that Santana’s history with concussion limits his usefulness behind the plate, and that could detract from his viability as a plug-and-play option at three (four, if you count DH) positions. It is that positional flexibility on Santana’s part that provides the Indians with the opportunity to carry the 43-year-old Giambi as a DH option against right-handed pitching. That’s an option the Indians clearly hope to retain.
Frankly, I’m not sure how this all shakes out for Giambi and Swisher and Santana – who starts where and on what days. All I know is that the gospel is truth: The players do, ultimately, make these decisions with their performance.
Chisenhall is shining proof.
UPDATE: This Hardball Talk headline (“Lonnie Chisenhall’s brilliance could spell the end of Jason Giambi’s career”) states it a bit stronger than I did. My hunch is that, when Swisher returns, the Indians will return to the scenario in which Santana serves as the backup catcher, which would leave Kottaras as the odd man out. As I wrote, the Indians value Giambi in his current role, and they’ve gone to significant lengths the last two years to retain that luxury. But I do think Santana’s concussion history (not to mention “Babe” Kottaras’ surprising offensive contributions, to date) complicate that issue a bit moving forward. So we shall see.
UPDATE 2: The other option, of course, is going back to a seven-man bullpen, which may very well happen. But here, too, is another piece of flexibility that Francona has demonstrated a fondness for, and eight-man ‘pens are becoming increasingly common in today’s game, given the general lack of multi-inning relievers. Plus, the Indians have doled out a lot of work to the back end guys, so that flexibility might prove important.
ALSO: Please check out my column on Michael Brantley… and the strange stipulation that allowed the Indians to land him in the first place.
Right now, the Indians are bad.
That’s the best word to describe a team six games under .500 with a minus-25 run differential, a 9-19 road record, the fourth-highest starters’ ERA and the most errors (by far) in the Majors.
The bright side is that it’s a good year to be bad. And “bad” — as illustrated when they swept the Tigers last week — is not necessarily binding.
Stepping away from the particulars of the AL Central, where the Tigers have cooled considerably and yet still hold a four-game edge on the White Sox and a 7 ½-game lead on the Tribe, the Indians are deeply indebted to the mediocrity of the league in which they reside. It’s a league in which only one club (the A’s) has a winning percentage of .600 or better and the current second Wild Card holder is a Yankees team just four games over .500.
That puts the Indians, in spite of their uninspiring 24-30 record, just five back in the Wild Card chase. A year ago, a White Sox team that started out 24-30 was already 6 ½ back of the second Wild Card by that point.
That 1 ½-game difference might not sound like much now, but it could mean everything in a crowded late-season field.
Point is, while the Indians currently rate as bad, they’ve got company in the category. Five AL teams have a positive run differential right now. That’s it. Five.
But at some point — perhaps soon — relying upon the mediocrity of the rest of the league won’t be enough. Just as it’s not enough to say that the Indians’ slow start is attributable only to injuries or poor luck or weather or whatever.
Now, there is hope in the re-tooling the rotation received at the end of April, when Carlos Carrasco was sent to the ‘pen (and he’s looked good there), in mid-May, when Danny Salazar was shipped to Columbus to iron out his issues, and this past week, when Zach McAllister went on a well-timed DL trip.
Trevor Bauer has shown he can command a Major League game when he establishes his fastball, Josh Tomlin has served his purpose of providing strike-throwing efficacy, and T.J. House was terrific Wednesday night against the White Sox, so that provides potential (and is it possible House is actually the younger sibling of Mickey Callaway, because they look like bearded brothers reunited?).
But on a strategic or structural level, the rotation is what it is, from the standpoint that the Indians’ decision-makers, who I doubt will enter into the tangled trade market, have already made the most major revisions they had up their sleeves. They can’t will Justin Masterson’s velocity back, and they can’t go back in time and reclaim Scott Kazmir, either. All they can do is hope the rotation, which has a 4.57 ERA in May, stabilizes and Salazar puts on the pressure for a promotion.
As far as the defense is concerned, well, I don’t know what to tell you. The Indians have done early work to increase aptitude and they’ve backed off early work to decrease fatigue. They’re definitely aware of the errs, and they’ve addressed them as best they can from a work standpoint, but it’s not like there are major personnel moves to be made here.
Everybody fretted about Carlos Santana’s defense at third, ignoring the obvious fact that Lonnie Chisenhall has his own issues at the position, as evidenced Memorial Day. Nick Swisher, before he went on the DL, looked like he could barely bend over at first base. Asdrubal Cabrera has range limitations (and maybe, at some point soon, you move him and push Francisco Lindor through the pipeline). Etc., etc. The defense has impacted the pitching, and sometimes that, alone, is enough to sink a squad. Here, again, they just have to hope it gets better.
What, though, can be done about a lineup that has scored three runs or fewer in 52 percent of the Indians’ games and two or less in 37 percent of games?
Well, in one sense, the answers are obvious. Santana, once no longer concussed, needs to stop batting .159, Swisher, once his knee’s done barking, needs to stop OPS’ing (is that a usable verb now?) at .631, Cabrera needs to make more of his contract year and it would help if Michael Bourn at least outpaced the league-average OBP for leadoff men or Michael Brantley could just bat every inning.
Clearly, there are many individual issues at play here, and all of them play into Terry Francona’s evolving batting-order concoctions, none of which have yielded consistent fruit just yet.
I do wonder, though, if there is an adjustment to overall approach that might help here.
The Indians have espoused the plate discipline upon which many clubs rely on in this era of OBP awareness, but are they doing so to an extreme degree?
Opposing starters are averaging just 5.03 innings per outing against the Indians, much lower than the AL average of 5.85 innings. Maybe that sounds good, until you remember that today’s specialized bullpens, loaded with high-velocity hurlers, are no picnic. Last year’s league-wide relief ERA (3.58) was the best in 21 years, and this year’s relief mark (3.59) is substantially better than the starters’ mark (3.88). Starters are giving up hits at a .256 clip; relievers are giving them up at a .242 clip. “Getting into their bullpen” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This is reflected in the Indians’ team OPS: .738 in innings one through six, .670 from the seventh inning on.
The Indians see more pitches per plate appearance (3.99) than all but two AL teams (the Twins and Red Sox, who rank 10th and 11th, respectively, in the AL in runs per game). The Tribe is disciplined, taking 56.3 percent of the time (the AL average is 55.1) and swinging and missing just 20 percent of the time (the AL average is 21.4).
Our basis of belief is that this overall discipline is a good thing, but here’s the stat that makes me question whether the Indians’ passivity is an absolute positive: The AL, as a whole, is slugging at a .572 clip on first pitches. The Indians are slugging .457 on first pitches. It could be a “if you don’t play, you can’t win” scenario, because the Indians swing at the first pitch just 24 percent of the time (league average: 25.6).
While pitching coaches are espousing the value of first-pitch strikes, the Indians are going to the plate with the mindset of taking them. Their entire offensive philosophy seems to revolve around going deep into the count (where they do, indeed, have the best two-strike OPS (.577) in the AL).
But are they missing opportunities to be more aggressive, more assertive early?
I’m just throwing that out there, and maybe it’s a wild pitch. But an evaluation of offensive approach seems worthwhile, given that the Indians have basically done all they can do to address the rotation, from a personnel standpoint, and the defense, from a work standpoint.
Granted, it could just be that the parts don’t add up, and the Tribe stays bad. That happens, you know.
But for now, the Indians are in a good position relative to their badness, which means they still have a chance to resuscitate their season.
Maybe they should take a swing at it.