Here’s a grounded young man with a growing family, a genuinely pleasant disposition and a wealth of talent who finally, in a brilliant 10-start stretch at the end of last season, put it all together and became the dominant starter the Indians long expected him to be. Off the field, a heart condition that required non-invasive offseason surgery and steady medication reminded him of his own mortality and inspired him to take the money on the table – a four-year, $22 million contract that certainly seems team-friendly – and the security it affords him.
But no medicine and no contract could shield Carrasco from that Melky Cabrera comebacker, which appeared to nick Carrasco’s hand and glove before connecting with his left cheek, knocking him to the dirt, flat on his face.
The moment was awful enough on its own, an all-too-vivid depiction of every pitcher’s worst fear in a dangerous game.
That it doubled as the latest in a series of adverse developments impacting an Indians team expected to contend only made the scene harder to stomach.
Hours later, there would be good news – or, at least, as good as could be expected. Carrasco had no signs of a concussion or head injury and was being treated for a jaw bruise.
“Obviously, we’ve got to check him in the morning and see how he’s doing,” manager Terry Francona told reporters. “But I think in the big picture, we dodged a really big bullet.”
Ultimately, Carrasco’s health and well-being were all that mattered. Sports can sweep us up in silly storylines and manufactured drama (witness the breathless coverage of the Browns’ uniform unveiling elsewhere in this city Tuesday night), but sometimes real matters of life and death present themselves. Thankfully, Carrasco was OK, on the whole.
But that’s the way it’s been with the Indians thus far this year. The “good news” has only been relative in nature.
Sure, it was good news that an MRI turned up no structural damage in Michael Brantley’s ailing back. But the back is still ailing, all the same, and the 2014 MVP finalist has played just 28.6 percent of the season schedule, to date. The Indians are hoping Brantley can return to the lineup Friday in Minnesota, but, even if that’s the case, the situation will merit continued monitoring even when he does come back.
It was good news that Yan Gomes’ right knee injury – suffered on an awkward play at the plate on Saturday against the Tigers – was a sprain of the medial collateral ligament and not a tear, which would have been a season-ender. But Gomes is still going to miss a minimum of six weeks, robbing the Tribe not just of an impact defender and game-caller behind the plate but also a legit No. 5 hitter.
And, yes, it’s good news that we’re only 4.3 percent of the way through a long season, which means the early injuries and the 2-5 record are surmountable obstacles.
But even if the season is still wearing temporary tags, it has already asked an awful lot of a short-staffed club that can ill-afford a slow start in a deep division.
The Indians, losers of four straight, already had their anticipated issues with left-handed pitching (the White Sox’s Jose Quintana became the latest to tie them up in knots Tuesday night), yet that somehow now seems a back-burner concern at a time when the roster is in such relative disarray.
The Tribe finds itself in the unexpected position of hoping Jerry Sands’ would-be weekend star turn is sustainable enough to provide some needed lineup balance and that de facto starting catcher Roberto Perez, a strong defender who earned the trust of the pitching staff in his first exposure to the bigs last summer, can also carry his weight offensively in an everyday role. The back of the rotation had a rough first turn, and so the depth acquisition of Jhoulys Chacin, coming off a shoulder-injury-shortened ’14 in Colorado, is not to be totally ignored.
Would that the early injuries and adversity could be ignored and dismissed as April aberrations. But knowing how fickle backs can be, knowing how much the knees play a part in the life of a catcher and knowing how much a liner to the face can impact a pitcher’s psyche, we have no choice but to take a wait-and-see approach.
What we’ve seen in recent days from these Indians has not been easy on the eyes. And nothing was harder to watch than Carrasco taking a liner to the cheek. Eventually, encouragingly, he was able to rise to his feet.
We’ll see if the Indians can do the same.
By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince
This Opening Day entry is coming to you live from Marlins Park in a little town called Miami, where, some of you Indians fans may recall, the Tribe last appeared in a World Series game. That game, a majority of those people will probably remember, did not end well for the Indians, but we’re not here to dwell on that. We’re here to dwell on the fact that these 2015 Cleveland Indians have suddenly become a sexy – or, as my Sports on Earth colleague Will Leitch recently dubbed it, a “hipster” – World Series pick. Or at least, in the minds of a few prominent prognosticators, an American League Central favorite.
Indeed, it has been a stunning rise in standing considering the Indians were very recently viewed as more sleeper than Sports Illustrated cover material, but preseason chatter is always a bit of a strange beast. And in that vein, one last time (before we have our first official swing in anger tonight), here are 15 random thoughts on the Indians going into this ’15 season of high hopes.
1. 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 (and will always be in favor of covering games in Cleveland in October versus taking the5:55 a.m. flight to San Diego with the connections in Chicago and Denver) or if I’m not giving them enough credit because I see them so often and am so in-tune with them. I felt better about this team before the rotation depth started to take some major hits. Not that I expected Gavin Floyd to pitch 200 innings or anything, but I did expect him to buy some more developmental time for Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer before the Indians outright needed those guys to succeed in prominent roles. And not that I expected Josh Tomlin to log a significant number of starts for this squad, but he is/was a valuable insurance piece that is now absent early on. So that’s a concern. Obviously, you love a rotation that begins with Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, but you wonder if this club will end up having to look for a mid- or back-end upgrade in-season.
2. 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. Not that Kluber had any choice to go anywhere anytime soon, but his genuine feelings about wanting to finish his just-blossoming career in Cleveland say a lot about the sense of stability and camaraderie the Indians have built up just in the last three years.
3. 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, but that’s the worry with any pitcher you lock arms with.
4. 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. And though I know he despises the suggestion, I sincerely do hope Bauer doesn’t outthink himself at this level and finds a pattern in which he can trust his stuff in the zone.
5. The defense will be better, by default. It will not be great. All the Indians can reasonably hope is that it’s unnoticeable.
6. 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. Otherwise, this team doesn’t have a leadoff hitter, unless Terry Francona is going to suddenly go sabermetric crazy on us and bat Carlos Santana No. 1. In his time with the Indians, Bourn’s batting average on balls in play isn’t significantly different than what it was in his walk year with Atlanta, but he’s swung at more pitches outside the zone and seen his walk rate dip three percentage points. The thing you do have to love about Bourn, though, is the dedication to improve midway through the last major free-agent deal he’ll ever sign. He came back from the leg issues last year and made a headfirst slide into home plate on the final weekend of the season, when the Indians were already eliminated. The guy wants it. Sometimes that’s half the battle.
7. 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) demonstrated a more aggressive mentality at the plate, because it might be one of the few effective defenses against our ongoing pitching boom.
8. 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)?
9. Carlos Santana will hit north of 30 home runs, which, in today’s game, is no small thing.
10. Brandon Moss will fall shy of 30. Strikeouts, lefties, etc. But on the whole, he will make a positive impact on the offense.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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. It would be great if Anthony Swarzak establishes himself as the workhorse he’s been in past years, and it would be doubly great if the rotation stabilizes enough that the eight-man unit is more luxury than need. Whatever the case, Cody Allen appears primed to step into the role of elite closer, and the rest, as always with relievers, is a straight-up mystery.
14. Jason Kipnis might be the key to the whole damn thing. Jerry Kipnis, not so much.
15. 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.”
There’s plenty more to discuss. But we’ve been discussing this stuff for months. Let’s find out what’s real.
The Indians’ rotation fascinates me.
Not in a “BEST YOUNG ROTATION EVAH!” fanboy sort of way and not in a “people are giving these guys way too much credit” cynical sort of way. I guess I’m sort of caught in-between, generally leaning toward optimism but also remembering that, in Cleveland, pessimism wins more than it loses.
Gavin Floyd is no longer a member of this rotation. At least, not for the foreseeable future.
Sure, this is not what you’d label a terrible surprise, given Floyd’s past arm issues, but, given all the reports from the Tribe this winter and early spring about his condition, one would have thought Floyd would have at least eaten up some April innings before fracturing, tweaking, snapping or otherwise injuring some element of his throwing arm.
By and large, Tribe fans, as they are prone to do, are ripping the team for signing Floyd in the first place, and, sure, fire away at an easy target there. But the Indians did seemingly go into the offseason with five viable big-league starters, so a high-dollar investment in a veteran starting arm never registered as realistic. The organization went with its long-established practice of looking for buy-low bargains. If Floyd nets nothing, it was not a failure in approach but selection.
I would, however, like to present an advanced mathematical formula I’ve concocted after some deep calculations:
$4 million for 0 innings of 2015 Gavin Floyd > $7 million for 21 1/3 innings (and minus-0.6 WAR) of 2013 Brett Myers
So… that’s improvement. I guess.
Anyway, a Floyd-less Tribe rotation is a weakened one, if only because it puts even more onus on the still-unproven likes of Trevor Bauer and T.J. House and, especially, Danny Salazar.
Some people would lump Carlos Carrasco into the still-unproven mix, because, after all, his brilliance last season was only a 10-start sample. But Carrasco’s been around long enough to have developed a genuine understanding of what kind of stuff and psyche he needs to bring to a start.
These other guys simply haven’t. Only because they haven’t been around long enough.
Salazar could be one of the league’s biggest breakout candidates. Or he could be on a Carrasco-like path, in terms of the time it takes him to figure it all out – a timetable that would not align with the Tribe’s win-now feel. I’m not focused on Salazar’s struggles thus far this spring season nearly as much on the overarching sense that he still registers as a kid with great stuff but wild tendencies. He dispelled some of that sense in the second half last season, but 25-year-olds with limited-yet-meaningful histories of slow starts need to prove they can do it in a six-month sample. PECOTA has Salazar down for a 3.71 ERA and 1.5 WAR in 159 2/3 innings… or in other words, just sort of, blah. ZiPS sees 145 innings with a 3.63 ERA and 2.4 WAR, so he’s improving already!
I could not even venture to guess what the Indians ought to expect from House in a full season. Truth is, the first five seasons of his Minor League career rated as average or below, which made his surprising emergence as a dependable lefty in ’14 such an awesome story. There were things we saw from House last season – specifically, his proclivity toward groundballs and his excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.64) — that were very real. While I would venture to guess big-league batters (primarily right-handers) will do a better job squaring up against House in ’15, I’m not married to the idea. PECOTA apparently is, marking House down for a 4.97 ERA and minus-0.5 WAR in 84 2/3 innings for House. Yikes. ZiPS says 139 innings, a 4.36 ERA and 1.0 WAR. If the latter is correct, House could and perhaps should at worst be a totally serviceable option in the back end, but, again, how the heck are we supposed to know?
And how are we supposed to know if Bauer has turned a corner? I freely admit to having reached the point of tuning out all the biomechanical essays or the rundowns of which pitching gurus or velocity training guidelines Bauer consulted over the winter. I just want to know if the dude can consistently throw strikes, and we really won’t know that until the lights come on. PECOTA doesn’t think much of Bauer for ’15, pegging him for a 4.37 ERA and 0.2 WAR in 153 2/3 innings. ZiPS is again more optimistic here, with a 4.38 ERA and 1.2 WAR in 180 innings.
ZiPS, for the record, thinks the Indians will have the third-most valuable rotation in baseball, on measure, led by a 5-WAR season from one Corey Kluber.
Maybe that happens.
Or maybe Kluber’s elbow blows out and Carrasco proves to be a fluke and Salazar and Bauer are walk-prone disasters.
Well, the injury thing is something you can apply to any team, so let’s not even harp on that. And again, I’m all-in on Carrasco. What fascinates me about this rotation is the potential for either extreme out of the Nos. 3-5 spots. What would not surprise me at all would be an end-of-spring demotion for Salazar and an early look at Shaun Marcum, who has an opt-out clause at the end of camp. Maybe Marcum ends up filling Floyd’s role as the oft-injured veteran done good.
I’ve seen the praise this Indians team has gotten from ESPN’s David Schoenfield and Jonah Keri, two guys I respect a lot. And that praise (posted, it should be noted, before the Floyd injury) is based primarily on the rotation. I love the enthusiasm about this unit, but, at the same time, I’m a Clevelander who knows how it so often goes, and I’ll admit to being a little more pessimistic about things, sans Floyd.
This rotation could amaze. It could completely unravel. Either possibility is 100 percent realistic. That’s what makes it one of the most fascinating rotations in baseball.
From the ice and snow-covered steps of the home dugout, Terry Francona could see the progress being made on the Progressive Field reconstruction – the bar being erected beyond the right-field corner, the new bullpen areas rising behind the center-field wall and the completely overhauled batter’s eye area, looking strangely naked sans bridge and background. An Indians staffer had to explain what was going where, because for now it was all girder and hard hats and unfinished business.
How all of this is going to come together in the midst of another cold local winter and be completed by April 9 is a question best left for the construction crew. But Francona has already seen how quickly things can evolve in the American League Central, so why should his home park be any different?
This division has been totally remade in recent years. Francona’s Indians and those upstart AL champion Royals threatened, without overcoming, the Detroit divisional domain in successive seasons, and then the Royals ran from the Wild Card round to the World Series. And now the White Sox are enlivened by a series of signings and swaps that – on paper, at least – make them as good a bet as any to claim the Central crown in ‘15. Even the Twins, while not a particularly good bet to contend, ought to be better, if the money thrown at Ervin Santana and Torii Hunter has anything to say about it.
The point is that an AL Central once all-but-conceded to the Tigers in March is now easily as intriguing – and arguably as deep – as any in the game. And because the Tigers, even without Max Scherzer, still have their fair share of starpower and the Royals are coming off their October ride and the Sox have been the darlings of the Hot Stove season, it’s deceptively easy for Francona’s team – a team that has made more noise with the drills and hammers on East Ninth Street than it has on the transaction wire – to get overlooked.
The Indians, having finished five games back of the Tigers and four back of the Royals in ’14, made just two nationally noteworthy moves, both involving veterans coming off injuries — Brandon Moss (hip surgery) for the lineup, Gavin Floyd (broken funny bone) for the rotation. That’s not the stuff of Hot Stove sexiness, but the Tribe wasn’t exactly working with a blank canvas.
“We’re in a little bit of a unique situation where we have most of our team in place,” Francona said Tuesday. “We just need to find a way to play six or seven games better than last year.”
For that to happen, the Indians are going to have to get or stay ahead of the curve in three primary areas:
1. Bullpen usage
We know the Indians can – or should – have a solid, if not elite, rotation, given not just the tremendous ascendance of Cy Young winner Corey Kluber but also the second-half showing of Carlos Carrasco and the expected gains and growth of Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and lefty T.J. House. Floyd was an affordable insurance policy should the warts of youth reveal themselves, and his stuff and numbers with Atlanta before he was felled by another injury were encouraging.
Long story short, the Indians are right to feel they can get quality innings out of this group. But in today’s game, it is increasingly clear that the concept of quality innings from your starters has shifted. The mindset used to be to get your starter into the seventh or eighth, but now, if your ‘pen is up to the ever-impressive par, you settle for the sixth. Francona has been as proactive as anybody in this department in his two years in Cleveland, carrying eight relievers and breaking MLB records for overall reliever usage.
That trend won’t change in ’15, because as good as this group of starters is, Francona recognizes that the mid-inning matchups that can be capitalized upon with a well-built bullpen often outweigh the value of having your starter face a lineup a fourth or sometimes even a third time. So the Indians will only be as good as their bullpen, which means their unsung acquisitions of some non-roster guys – most notably veteran lefty Scott Downs and former Twin Anthony Swarzak – will go a long way toward bracing them against the burnout factor. Though the Indians are careful about monitoring pitches thrown and times up in the ‘pen, the simple fact is that this club had three guys (Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski and closer Cody Allen) in the top five in AL appearances last season and a fourth (Scott Atchison) in the top 20.
“[Swarzak] had like 100 innings out of the bullpen for a couple years [2011, ’12 and ‘13],” Francona said with a smile, “so he’ll fit right in. If he goes 10 minutes without pitching, he breaks out in hives.”
Most interesting of all, Francona is thinking proactively about when to bring out Allen. The sabermetrics community has been arguing for years about the value of using your best reliever in the biggest spots, but it’s not always easily applicable in a real, live Major League clubhouse, where relievers (especially veteran relievers) value the stability of their roles and closers, especially, like the impact the saves total has on their salaries.
Allen, though, is young enough, pliable enough and eager enough to affect the bottom line that he’s on board with Francona’s talk of occasionally using him in the eighth, should the situation call for it.
“Cody just wants to pitch when it’s exciting,” Francona said.
2. Positional flexibility
This is what separated the Indians in a lot of ways in their Wild Card-winning year in ’13. Francona rotated guys in and around his lineup at a variety of positions, taking advantage of three switch-hitters in the lineup and an upbeat attitude in the clubhouse to exploit matchups that looked best on paper.
Sometimes this concept can come back to bite you, as it did with Carlos Santana last year. The Indians tried to make him the first-ever hybrid third baseman/catcher, and somewhere between the foul tips behind the plate and the defensive adjustment to the hot corner, his bat sagged in the first half. He didn’t take off offensively until he finally settled in at first.
The Moss acquisition, though, is a much more modest approach, as we have documented proof that he can handle a right field, first base and DH rotation, assuming his hip cooperates as hoped. That Moss comes from an Oakland A’s organization that has prioritized platoons only adds to his allure.
“The more flexibility, the better,” Francona said. “It’s almost like you can create a 25-man roster that’s more like 26 or 27. [Mike] Aviles can move around and guys like that can allow you to sometimes carry an extra pitcher. One thing kind of coincides with the other.”
The mystery, of course, is whether Moss’ recovery timetable with coincide with the season schedule. Same goes for Nick Swisher, who is coming back from dual knee surgeries. The possibility exists that neither guy will be ready by Opening Day, in which case the Indians will temporarily utilize David Murphy and Ryan Raburn on a regular basis in right.
3. Improved defense
This is the big one. There’s no way the Indians bridge that Central gap unless they rise significantly from the bowels of the defensive runs saved standings, where they ranked dead last by a wide margin in ’14. And because none of the Indians’ offseason maneuverings revolved around the infield, the only way this is going to improve is via good, old-fashioned work ethic.
Well, that’s not totally true, as Jose Ramirez is now the incumbent shortstop after Asdrubal Cabrera was jettisoned last July, and defensive whiz Francisco Lindor looms in Triple-A. The Indians saw immediate defensive gains when Ramirez took over, and his bat, while not a game-changer, has come better than advertised at the big-league level. Santana was also surprisingly adept at first after he made the move.
So this one’s largely on second baseman Jason Kipnis, coming off a brutal year on both sides of the ball, and Lonnie Chisenhall. It’s also on a coaching staff that will drastically reshape the spring schedule and the way the work is completed.
“We’re going to take a lot more groundballs in our shifted defense,” Francona said. “It’s normal to take your groundballs in spring training straight up, but then the season starts and you’re rarely there. We need to be cognizant of that.”
Francona knows this stuff can be taken too far. When he was a rookie skipper in Philadelphia, he went into camp with an eye on conducting better pitchers’ fielding practices than any other club.
“And every one of our pitchers had a sore arm,” he said. “So it didn’t really help.”
But the Indians know, in personnel and approach, they have to improve significantly on the defensive end.
More than ever, this division demands it.
They’re announcing plans to close the Izod Center — the arena that sits on the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J. — and I am irrationally sad about this.
I really have no business being sad. My sadness, in fact, is purely selfish. The arena has long since outlived its usefulness. The New Jersey Devils and Nets and the Seton Hall University basketball team all moved out some time ago, and the building has only hosted the occasional concert or circus in recent years. It is outdated and unnecessary.
I think we have a societal tendency to be overly nostalgic, to want to preserve even that which need not be preserved, because, at heart, most of us just want things to remain as they stand in the more contented realms of our memories. So it is with me and the Izod Center, which, come to think of it, shall hereby referred to only as the Continental Airlines Arena, because that’s the name it holds in my memory.
In my memory, it’s the summer of 1999, and I’m 18 years old and fresh out of high school. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have just reunited and this, to me, is a previously inconceivable alignment of the stars.
You have to understand that I’m not just a Bruce Springsteen fan (like, uh, every other white American male sportswriter); I am — and was — an outright disciple. When I was a teenager, it wasn’t enough to read every book or magazine article, to hit the record button on the VHS every time VH-1 was airing one of his videos or to buy and absorb the entire extent of his official catalog.
No, I had to have more. I had to have those “Lost Masters” discs circulating in the bootleg community — the ones where he works on a dozen different versions of a still-unreleased song called “Don’t Back Down” (No. 7 is the best, for the record) in his Hollywood Hills garage (I even had to find that garage on a recent trip to L.A.). I had to find the out-of-print “Backstreets” book that chronicled every setlist from 1973-89. I had to track down every live recording, legal and otherwise, and this led to some wild goose chases. It all started at an Akron record show (do they still have those?) where I unwittingly uncovered two cassette tapes that said, “Springsteen Boston ‘77” and my 15-year-old ears were both sacrificed for and treated to a tinny, poorly recorded document in which, if you could listen past the distinct audio hiss of the cassette and ignore the drunken concert-goer who kept offering his commentary to the taper, revealed the undeniable power of a peak-level Springsteen performance. I was hooked. At a Lakewood record store, I found the three-LP “Live in the Promised Land” boot from the San Francisco Winterland in ’78. In an Akron record store, I found the “Another Side of Bruce Springsteen” disc that contained every hard-to-find B-side. But the mother lode was at Record Revolution in Coventry, where, for $75 per show, a young, impressionable and not-very-bright teenager could occasionally uncover the three-CD releases from a bootleg label named Crystal Cat. This was the place where a boy could blow all that money he made washing dishes at Back Alley Pizza. And blow it, he did.
I guess a part of me misses those experiences, those expeditions, because everything is so easily accessible these days. It is both satisfactory and intellectually stunting to know I can pull a freaking phone out of my pocket, go to YouTube and call up just about any audio or video item ever recorded.
Obviously, you couldn’t do this when I was in high school. Because Springsteen’s live video release was essentially limited to just the iconic “Rosalita” and “Born to Run” videos, my thought of what it must be like to see the E Street Band in concert was almost totally concocted in my head. On that Winterland boot, he’d do this little bit where he’d say, “When me and the Big Man do this, you’re in trouble!” And I had no idea what the hell he and the Big Man were doing. None whatsoever. Did they do a little dance? Did they embrace? Did they whip out their… tax returns? What where they doing? It drove me nuts.
There was one time when Record Revolution had a two-VHS boot of a full “River”-era E Street Band show from Largo, Md. This one was available for the low, low price of $50, so of course I bought it. And this was my first real taste of the energy, the effort level, the precision and the unmitigated madness of an E Street show. Amazing. I watched that thing until the tape wore out (which sounds impressive, except that it was, as I mentioned, VHS, so it really didn’t take very long).
All of which long-windedly leads me to 1999, when Bruce got the band back together. The first leg of the U.S. tour was to be in Jersey, the motherland, at the Continental Airlines Arena. Fifteen shows! I knew I had to be there for one of them. This was where I was going to lose my Springsteen virginity (as opposed to that other virginity, still intact).
Speaking of which, I didn’t go to prom. And the very reason I didn’t go to prom was because I knew what little remained of my savings account was better-invested in the Jersey jaunt, which was to branch off a trip my dad and I were taking to New York City. Tickets, of course, sold out instantly (I believe face value was like $67.50), and so I sought out alternative means to obtain at least one. I found the phone number of some off-site broker, called it up and some goomba answered (in my head, I picture Paulie Walnuts). I told him I was looking for a ticket for July 27 — the seventh night of the stand.
As in, dollars? Three hundred dollars?!
Well, of course, I said yes. You might have noticed overpaying for things of or related to Bruce Springsteen was sort of a habit at the time.
So I had my ticket. Section 125. An OK seat. Not a $300 seat, by any stretch of the imagination. But a seat. And my dad, who was at that point only the most casual of Springsteen fans, and I went to New York and had a great time. And the morning of the show, he rented a car and took me on the New Jersey Turnpike pilgrimage. He took me to Asbury Park, where Springsteen first made his musical mark. He took me to Freehold, where Bruce grew up (and where I found a record shop that contained more of those damn $75 bootlegs than I could have ever dreamed, emptying my wallet all the more). And then he took me to my musical Mecca, the Continental Airlines Arena.
Ticketless, my dad dropped me off the moment the doors first opened to the public, then drove off to go find a bar. I went inside, and I’ll never forget that first sight of the stage setup. There it was – Max Weinberg’s drum kit! There they were – Clarence Clemons’ saxophones! There was Roy Bittan’s piano, Danny Federici’s organ, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Logren’s guitars. And yes, Springsteen’s mic stand. Could it be that The Boss would soon be standing right there. Yes, this was real. This was happening.
I was, naturally, the first person actually seated for the show. I remember this clearly. And I didn’t leave that seat for the rest of the night. I sat there alone, mesmerized by the empty stage, waiting the two hours or so until the house lights came down. I struck up a brief conversation with the couple next to me, native New Jerseyans who had seen Springsteen and the band dozens of times.
“You’ve never seen them?” the woman asked incredulously.
“Well, no, I’m 18, I live in Cleveland, and they haven’t toured together in 10 years, dumbass,” was probably not my verbal response but it was my internal one.
“Eh, last night’s show was OK,” said the guy. “Hopefully they’ll be better tonight.”
I hated these people.
What was odd, through this whole time, was the fact that the aisle seat to my immediate right was empty. The show was sold out, so this was a mathematical improbability. And it was one that worked out forever in my favor. Because just as the house lights dimmed and the band was getting ready to come on, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was my dad. Unbeknownst to either of us, there was something called a “drop line” where people would occasionally score last-minute tickets released by the Springsteen camp. After he dropped me off, he got in that line on a whim and scored a single, face-value ticket that was four sections closer to the stage than my $300 scalp job. Thankfully, I had told my dad which section I’d be sitting in, and he found me. And miraculously, that seat next to me was still empty.
For the next three hours, magic. I don’t know how else to describe it. In my mind (because the pictures I took with my disposable camera are so terrible…. the one to the left, of Bruce’s guitar on the big screen, is, pathetically, the best of the bunch), Springsteen’s wearing a burgundy-colored shirt, he’s whipping the audience into a frenzy, he’s opening with “I Wanna Be With You” (thanks, Bruce), tearing into “Candy’s Room” and “Because the Night,” jumping atop Bittan’s piano for the intro to “Tenth-Avenue Freeze-out,” demonstrating, in word and deed, the enlivening power of faith and friendship and communal experience. Even that couple next to me was eating it up.
At the end of the main set, as they did every night on that tour, the band tore into an extended version of “Light of Day,” and midway through Bruce went in full preacher persona:
“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve seen people lost in the wilderness! I’ve seen people lost in confusion! I’ve seen people lost in faithlessness! In hopelessless! But tonight, we’re on a search and rescue mission! If you’re down-hearted, if you’re disgusted, if you’re dispossessed, if you’re downsized, analyzed, stigmatized, retro-psychadelicized! If your heart’s running on empty, if your soul’s bankrupt, if your spirit’s got bad credit… we’re here tonight to reeducate, to resuscitate, to regenerate, to re-confiscate, to re-indoctrinate, to re-illustrate, to re-sexualate, to rededicate, to re-liberate you with the power and the glory, with the majesty, with the mystery, WITH THE MINISTRY OF ROCK ‘N ROLL!”
And this was the moment I remember most vividly, because this is the moment when my dad threw his arms in the air and testified with a mighty, “Yeah!!!!”
It was official. Springsteen had another disciple.
There would, of course, be many more incredible Springsteen shows, E Street Band and otherwise, from that point on (my total tally, as of this writing, is 44, and my dad’s been along for many of those). And there would be another great experience at Continental Airlines Arena – the time I was a 23-year-old beat writer in town to cover Reds-Mets and somehow snuck into a sold-out U2 show when I didn’t have enough money for the going scalper rate (maybe if I hadn’t bought all those Crystal Cat bootlegs back in the day, this wouldn’t have been an issue).
But I’ll always consider what happened in that building on July 27, 1999, as a singular experience in my life. By that point, Bruce’s songs had already taught me so much about those commonly cited themes of perseverance and endurance and big dreams but also about the importance of awareness and empathy and having a social conscience, themes that continue to resonate in his work and my life to this day.
The live experience, though, gave me something else. It wasn’t just being surrounded by people as enlivened by and invested in that music as me (though that was awesome, particularly given Springsteen’s obvious lack of resonance and relevance with people my age at the time). It was seeing, in vivid and living color, a man doing what he loves and loving the impact it can have on those around him and the lifelong bonds it had created in his life. And for an 18-year-old who, at that point in life, would have gone wherever Bruce Springsteen chose to lead him, this was an unmistakably valuable lesson that is appreciated all the more in retrospect.
It’s all retrospect now, because Continental Airlines Arena is no more. And I’m probably waxing on poetically and dorkily about all of this because this news came at a point where I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the passage and fleetingness of time. Our daughter was born a month ago, and I’m sure my experience is like that of all first-time fathers in that I’m fruitlessly begging time to slow to a crawl. So you snap a bajillion pictures or try to capture video of every facial expression, every leg kick and arm punch and even every cry, shriek and wail. You try to hold on to every moment, knowing full well, as they say in that Wilco song, that “every moment’s a little bit later” and that someday, all too soon, all of this will just be memory. So, hey, maybe this wasn’t a particularly good week to watch that “Boyhood” movie or to read that an arena that opened the year you were born and housed one of your seminal moments is closing down.
Then again, that’s life, and nostalgia, I’ve found, is best dispensed in small doses (if you consider this screed “small).
So as they close down the Izod, I’ll just express my gratitude to Bruce and his band, to my dad, to that empty seat in Section 125, to the Paulie Walnuts-soundalike who bilked me out of my would-be prom money, to the lax security guard who merely shrugged when I asked if I could ascend up the elevator and into the concourse to sneak into the U2 show and to all the buildings, intact or otherwise, that house my vanished youth.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to my July 27, 1999, bootleg.
Hey, you, out there braving the bone-chilling cold and the slow-moving traffic, out there bemoaning an injury to an age-30 LeBron or tossing drinks at Johnny Manziel or hoping to party with J.R. Smith. Have you forgotten about your Cleveland Indians? Have you been paying attention to their winter activity and the fact that they are very realistic contenders for the American League Central title in 2015?
Well, first, I advise you to listen to the latest podcast myself and Jordan Bastian recorded at the dawn of a new year. And then, let’s test your Tribe intelligence with this little quiz:
1. Terry Francona signed an extension through 2018, with club options for 2019 and ’20. He did this because:
A. He values his relationships with Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro.
B. He has been invigorated by the success and organizational strides made in his two years at the helm.
C. He values managing in a market that doesn’t have the drama and distractions he endured in Boston.
D. He has vowed to finish every piece of bubble gum in that gigantic tub in the dugout, and it’s going to take a few years.
2. The Indians’ big acquisition this winter was Brandon Moss. The average Cleveland sports fan’s response was:
A. “Sweet! Dude can mash!”
B. “Despite concerns about adding yet another left-handed bat to the lineup, his proclivity for pull-side power should play even better in Progressive Field than it did in Oakland Coliseum, and his positional flexibility should be an asset given Terry Francona’s day-to-day strategizing.”
C. “He had a bad second half, but he should be healthier in 2015. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
D. “Moss… isn’t he that dude who watches movies for Channel 8?”
3. The Indians clearly need to improve defensively in 2015. A big key will be:
A. Jose Ramirez starting the season at shortstop.
B. Francisco Lindor’s eventual promotion.
C. Jason Kipnis’ improved conditioning.
D. The trade for Iman Shumpert.
4. Veteran Gavin Floyd was signed as rotation depth. You’ll know this was a successful deal if:
A. Floyd delivers, say, 150 league-average-or-better innings.
B. Floyd serves as a helpful clubhouse presence to an otherwise youthful starting unit.
C. Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and/or T.J. House regress and Floyd picks up the slack.
D. Floyd’s arm does not physically detach from his body.
5. Corey Kluber won the AL Cy Young Award. Regular readers of MLB.com noted:
A. “I’m pleasantly surprised the voters gave him the slight edge over the equally deserving Felix Hernandez.”
B. “Kudos. Kluber is an impressive guy who has put in the time and work to mold himself into an elite pitcher.”
C. “The Indians have now developed three Cy Young winners in the last decade, and this one is under long-term contractual control.”
D. “I wonder if Castrovince will finally concede he’s better than Cory Snyder.”
6. Michael Brantley finished third in the AL MVP voting, behind Mike Trout and Victor Martinez. The consensus reaction among fans was:
A. “That is a tremendous accomplishment and proper recognition of a terrific season.”
B. “Actually, his rate stats were comparable – and in some cases better – than those of Trout, so you could argue he got snubbed.”
C. “Brantley sure has come a long, long way from being the player to be named later in the CC Sabathia trade.”
D. “We haven’t had a left fielder this good since the Dellichaels platoon!”
7. Moss is coming off hip surgery, and Nick Swisher is coming off dual knee surgeries. The outlook on this is:
A. Hopefully Moss doesn’t lose any of his power.
B. This obviously nullifies Swisher’s trade value.
C. This could mean more time for David Murphy and/or Ryan Raburn in right field.
D. Hey, better to have two DHs than zero quarterbacks.
8. Kipnis detailed his troubles with food poisoning on Twitter. A proper response was:
A. “Oh man… I hope he feels better soon.”
D. “I know he vowed to report to camp leaner, but this is a bit extreme.”
9. Plain Dealer and Northeast Ohio Media Group beat writer Paul Hoynes got some national attention when he admitted he didn’t vote for Pedro Martinez for the Hall of Fame. Hoynes’ reasoning was:
A. Pedro was a “punk.”
B. Pedro irritated him.
C. He lost his ballot.
D. He had him confused with Carlos Martinez.
10. Former Tribe third baseman Aaron Boone received two Hall of Fame votes. A rational explanation for this is:
A. It’s an homage to the great Boone family and all they accomplished in baseball.
B. It’s a tip of the cap to a great guy.
C. Everybody remembers his Game 7 walk-off in the 2003 ALCS.
D. It took future Hall of Famer Andy Marte to bump him out of the Tribe lineup in 2006, so you know he was good.
11. There has been a ton of activity in the AL Central, and it’s shaping up to be baseball’s best division race. The most shocking development so far was:
A. The Tigers adding Yoenis Cespedes.
B. The White Sox adding Jeff Samardzija.
C. The Twins signing Ervin Santana.
D. Kluber wearing this.
12. In 2015, the Indians will…
A. Make the playoffs.
B. Miss the playoffs.
C. Hopefully be more entertaining than this quiz.
ANSWERS: Blowing in the wind. And it’s freaking cold out there.
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.