Well, this figures, right?
Ubaldo Jimenez arrives here as a would-be ace with so much wanted and expected from him. And for the better part of two calendar years, he stinks, quite frankly.
In the 2011 playoff chase, when the Indians are desperately trying to keep pace with the Tigers, Ubaldo posts a 6.35 ERA against the Tigers. In 2012, he loses 17 games just two years after winning 19 (in another uniform, naturally). Nine starts into 2013, he has an ERA over 6.00. By the All-Star break, that number is whittled down to 4.56, but the improved effectiveness comes with such alarming inefficiency that Ubaldo is routinely done after five innings and Terry Francona puts him in the back-end of the rotation.
And then, something truly magical happens. Ubaldo gets right. Under the guidance of pitching coach Mickey Callaway, he rediscovers that tomahawk chop delivery that once made him a wunderkind. He begins breezing through opposing lineups, posting a 1.77 ERA after the break and a ridiculous 0.64 ERA in his first four September starts and going deeper into games.
Just in time to propel the Indians into Wild Card positioning.
And just in time to price himself out of Cleveland.
You can’t help but sense that’s where this story is going, no? When Ubaldo was traded, the Rockies’ $8 option on him for 2014 became a mutual option, one Jimenez will most assuredly reject come November. In a free-agent market highlighted by Ervin Santana and Matt Garza, Ubaldo is going to be such a high-priced commodity that it’s hard to envision the Indians, having already taken advantage of a broadcast boost and having had trouble luring fans to the seats in 2013, being able to afford him. And after all the emotional swings and sways provided by the Jimenez era, it’s hard to say to what extent they’d even want to commit to him for the long, long haul.
So Ubaldo’s brief but memorable Tribe tenure, to date, has been something of a tease. But the good news is that there is finally value to it.
The value, of course, lies in the here and now, in a playoff chase that has continued sans Justin Masterson, thanks to Jimenez, who gets the start at home Tuesday night against the White Sox, stepping into the ace assignment.
“I love the challenge,” Jimenez said. “There is so much expectation that you have to do good for the team.”
Such expectation accompanied Jimenez to Cleveland in July 2011, but either mentally, mechanically or some combination of the two, he wasn’t fit to handle it.
Actually, Ubaldo will tell you he wasn’t physically fit to handle it. We know about the thumb injury that hampered him with the Rockies at the start of ’11. What we don’t know nearly as much about are the injuries that emanated out of that initial issue.
“When I hurt my finger, that affected everything,” Jimenez said. “I hurt my finger, and then I tried to change my grip of the ball, and then I hurt my lower body, my shoulder, everything. I had to change my mechanics. That’s why everything got messed up, and it was hard to get back.”
It was hard to watch, too. Ubaldo’s delivery is so unique and so complex that when he’s not right and it’s not right, the command trouble that ensues can be exhausting, even on the comforts of the couch. His injuries, he’ll tell you, were minor enough for him to avoid the DL but major enough to mess with the mechanics.
“Coming to a new team where people are expecting you to help them out, you have to go out there and compete with whatever you have,” he said. “And I did. I had a tough year last year, but I never said no. I took the ball and I pitched with whatever I had.”
Maybe that makes for an easier narrative, but nothing is all that easy when evaluating Ubaldo. Not even the trade itself. What looked like a wash suddenly feels like a win, especially given that Drew Pomeranz has had nothing but trouble in Colorado (5.24 ERA in 33 appearances since 2011) and Alex White wound up a minor piece in a minor trade with the Astros before blowing out his elbow.
The Indians always felt White would wind up in a bullpen role. Pomeranz was the guy they thought would be a stud, and so did the Rox. He’s been a bust, though, and he’s been relegated to relief after spending much of this season rehabbing a biceps injury. We’ll never know if Pomeranz’s breaking ball-heavy repertoire would have fared better in Cleveland than it has at Coors (his career ERA is more than a full point lower outside of Coors), but Ubaldo’s sudden surge has completely silenced any remaining critics of the trade (and I was definitely among them) and eliminated the concerns of whatever small percentage of the Tribe fan base that was still fixated on the former first-rounder.
Right now, it’s all about living in this moment, a moment in which Jimenez, stunningly, is one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half.
“It feels great,” he said, “to finally be able to help the team out. It’s been a couple years since I felt good physically. If you don’t feel good physically, mentally you’re going to wear down. Finally, I feel good.”
Good enough, we can only assume, to take full advantage of the market opportunities that await.
Ubaldo called Cleveland “heaven” upon his 2011 arrival, and even he admitted it became “a nightmare” in 2012. These are happier days all around, and Jimenez said he is too consumed with the playoff push to worry about the paycheck push. But the increase in velocity and vibrancy has been a timely one. It’s come just in time to raise the Indians’ playoff percentage odds and Jimenez’s own price tag.
Enjoy these days, Cleveland. You and “U” have been waiting for them. The Ubaldo era had a strange start and it may well be short-lived. But at least it could have a happy ending.
The Indians return home Thursday for the final homestand of 2013. They’ve got a remaining schedule – four against Houston, two against the White Sox and four in Minnesota – that couldn’t have been much better if it was hand-picked, as those three clubs rank 15th, 14th and 13th, respectively, in the American League in winning percentage.
A half-game back of a Wild Card spot, the Tribe has an honest-to-goodness shot at bringing some positive vibes, no matter how fleeting, to a town in which the local NFL’s club’s third-string quarterback is the Week 3 starter (UPDATE: and last year’s No. 1 pick is swapped for next year’s No. 1 pick).
And realistically, this was as good as it was going to get for an Indians club that lost 94 games and required an immense offseason overhaul last year. The Central Division title pursuit was earnest but ill-fated. Too much talent, too much experience on that Tigers team, and it showed in the games that, unsurprisingly, mattered most.
Well, whatever. There is no shame in the Wild Card for a small-market club that looked absolutely doomed and disoriented just 12 months ago. We thought the Indians would trade every loose piece and even a few that were nailed down, enter a rebuild on a top of a reload that had never resulted in anything other than regression.
And then, everything changed, starting with the Terry Francona hiring. And there’s your first and most obvious national narrative that will suffocate every scrawl about this Tribe team, should it advance to October.
Hey, nothing wrong with that. The narrative is enduringly accurate. Because whatever your feelings on a manager’s overall in-game impact, if the player holdovers buy into a belief that a culture shift has transpired and the new guys fall in line with the sometimes-shifting roles laid out for them and everybody is on board with a team-first concept without even the slightest sign of internal indigestion, then we don’t need to look at Pythagorean winning expectancies or anything of the sort. Something good is going down in the manager’s office.
But come on, there’s much more to this club — a club with the AL’s fifth-best run differential — than a mere managerial shift, right?
The starting pitching is better-than-advertised. There’s your next narrative. With a 4.01 ERA, this is the best starting staff the Indians have had since their 2007 AL Central championship squad.
Yet “better than advertised” doesn’t do enough to convey just how bizarre the road has been. The staff ace, Justin Masterson, has been on the shelf with an oblique strain since early September, and who knows if he’ll throw another healthy pitch this season? Weren’t the Indians supposed to be done when he went down?
The ace-in-training, Danny Salazar, essentially isn’t allowed to throw upwards of 90 pitches, and yet he’s playing a pivotal part in this playoff push, thanks to the wonders of the 15-man September ‘pen.
The replacement ace, Ubaldo Jimenez, had a 5.57 ERA at the end of May. The question at the time was not whether the Indians would exercise their end of his $8 million option for 2014 but whether they’d even stick with him for the length of the season.
Now, Jimenez has the AL’s best second-half ERA. His average fastball velocity has picked up two or three ticks. He is either the latest manifestation of contract-year motivation, the most prominent product of pitching coach Mickey Callaway’s handiwork or some combination of the two. Whatever the case, he starts Thursday night, and his starts have become the must-see entities they were with the Rockies in 2010 and not the emotionally exhausting endeavors they were for much of his Tribe tenure.
Masterson and Jimenez both have adjusted ERAs better than the league average.
Pop quiz: How many Tribe starters fit that description in 2012?
The answer: None. As in, zero. In fact, Zach McAllister was the only one who came within 21 percent of the league average.
Now you’ve got four: Masterson, Jimenez, Corey Kluber and Scott Kazmir.
Maybe the nerds among you thought Kluber was in line to make some strides this season, if given the opportunity (the opportunity only arose when Carlos Carrasco earned that early April ejection and suspension for plunking Robinson Cano), by virtue of his 2012 xFIP of 3.99, much better than his season ERA of 5.14. I somehow doubt it, though.
Maybe the Sugarland Skeeter season-ticket holders among you thought Kazmir was a serious comeback candidate by virtue of his… no, sorry, I’m not buying it.
The Indians used eight different starting pitchers (counting Brett Myers, who, for the record, still ranks sixth on the club in homers allowed) in April. On no planet did they resemble a club with the makings of a stable rotation, and rare finger injuries to Kluber and McAllister later in the year certainly threatened the instability.
So, “better than advertised” doesn’t seem to cut it as an applicable narrative. It seems “better than any ordinary human being could have realistically envisioned” is more apt, if a bit wordy.
And it’s needed to be better than any ordinary human being could have realistically envisioned, because the offense has been, uh, complicated.
It’s not often, after all, that a contending team’s April MVP is now in the daily lineup of another contending team, but so goes the strange 2013 tale of Mark Reynolds.
It’s not often that the guy you can argue is the season MVP spent much of the year labeled a backup catcher, but so it goes with Yan Gomes (and the story of how Chris Antonetti stole him and Mike Aviles from Toronto is worthy of its own narrative).
It’s not often that a guy with the fourth-most homers and sixth-most RBI on a particular club is not even a regular in the lineup, but so go the bench heroics of Ryan Raburn.
It’s not often that a guy with a .181 average is viewed as a key contributor, but so it is with Jason Giambi.
We could say the continued developmental gains of Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana went a long way, but Kipnis has a .677 OPS in the second half and Santana is now essentially relegated to DH because of his catching regression, so it’s not all gravy. We could say Michael Brantley aka “Dr. Smooth” has been the club’s most consistent hitter, but the .704 OPS is still below league standard.
So none of the positives completely overwhelm you, but, then again, neither do the negatives. Maybe Nick Swisher has been a bit of a bust, but he’s a bust with a .902 OPS in September and a team-high 20 homers. Maybe Michael Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera have mired their way through miserable offensive seasons, but you wouldn’t know it from their late-inning exploits in a huge comeback win over the Royals on Tuesday night.
Indeed, the offensive narrative is complicated. It’s been a strange season for the bats, and for the bullpen, too. Many a paisan has shared the frustration over the WBC-aided regression of Vinnie Pestano, which could have been a killer if not for the understated excellence of Joe Smith or the chicken alfredo-aided weaponry of Cody Allen. In Chris Perez’s life, this was the year of the Boston meltdown, the Detroit disaster and, of course, Brody Baum. Yet he’s still afloat, and so is the bullpen and so is the Tribe.
Ah, Perez, famous fault-finder with the fan base. He’d be the perfect partaker in the attendance narrative, were he not currently shunning the scribes. No worries, though, because plenty of others do the talking for him these days, as a contending club drawing four-figure crowds for meaningful games tends to attract its share of attention.
With any luck, that particular narrative will be spoiled by the efforts of a civic booster group. Or by sheer common sense. Because while it’s hard to swiftly explain how, exactly, the Indians got to this point or why the locals haven’t completely bought into the idea, the only thing that really matters right now is that the Indians have a genuine shot at advancing to October.
And when you think about where they were a year ago, that’s a pretty impressive plot point, no matter how you arrive at it.
Yan Gomes walked by, and an Indians official said, “There goes our starting catcher.”
Indeed, the transition is complete. Gomes has started at catcher in 22 of the Indians’ last 36 games. Publicly, Terry Francona says what you’d expect him to say, but the proof is in the pudding – or, more accurately, the lineup card – and it says Gomes has graduated from the “Goon Squad” and essentially supplanted Carlos Santana behind the plate.
As far as compelling storylines within the Indians’ 2013 season are concerned, this strikes me as the most meaningful in both the short- and long-term view. As far back as May, members of the club were privately acknowledging that the Indians were simply a better team with Gomes behind the plate. At the time, though, it was hard to know how Gomes’ production would hold up to the weight of a larger sample.
Well, 251 plate appearances is a pretty sizable sample. Within that sample, Gomes has hit .303/.355/.518. Francona’s trust is such that when the Indians opened a pivotal three-game set against the Royals on Monday night with a tough right-hander – Ervin Santana – on the mound, Gomes got the green light. Sure enough, he made the most of it, throwing out two would-be base stealers and launching a solo homer (his 10th of the season) in the fifth. And Santana, in the DH spot, made the most of it, too, with his seventh-inning pole poke.
The Indians won, 4-3, and it’s worth wondering if the result would have been the same had the lineup been otherwise.
The numbers speak for themselves: With Santana behind the dish, Tribe pitchers have a 4.13 ERA, opposing baserunners are thrown out just 15.5 percent of the time (9 of 58) and the Tribe is 41-38. With Gomes, it’s a 3.68 ERA, a 46.9 percent (15 of 32) caught stealing rate and a 36-26 record.
Gomes, you could argue, has been the most valuable Indians player not named Kipnis.
For the last couple years, I’ve been among those advocating for the Indians to permanently move Santana, for good of his body and his bat, with the obvious caveat that you had to have a suitable replacement option for him behind the plate. That caveat loomed large, because Lou Marson never asserted himself enough offensively to stake a real claim to the job, and catching talent that can acquit itself offensively is one of the game’s more difficult finds.
Nobody was necessarily sure the Indians had found it when they acquired Gomes and Mike Aviles in the Esmil Rogers trade last November. He had a terrific offensive season at Triple-A Las Vegas in 2012, but evaluators tend to take Pacific Coast League numbers with a grain of salt, particularly in the hitters’ dream that is Vegas’ Cashman Field. Besides, Gomes was only a part-time catcher in Vegas, and he played primarily at first-base in his 43-game rookie break-in (over four stints) with the Blue Jays, posting an uninspiring .631 OPS. With the Blue Jays, he was a man without a specific position or a clear future. With the Tribe, he is the future. Behind the plate.
Santana is the future, too. He’s signed through at least 2016. I’m sure the Indians could net a hefty haul for him if they took the bold step of making him available this winter, but I doubt they’d go in that direction. What they’ll need is for Santana to buy into the idea that a permanent position switch is best for him in the long run.
That’s a tough sell, because that Nick Swisher contract isn’t going anywhere, and the 32-year-old Swisher seems best-suited to first base at this stage in his career, particularly if you read into what the advanced metrics say about his regression in right (and, yes, the Indians are a better defensive club with Drew Stubbs in right, unquestionably). So short of moving Santana back to his original position at third (not bloody likely) or giving him the bulk of time at first over Swisher (a superior defender), you’re asking a 27-year-old to spend his prime years relegated to DH duties.
It’s a tricky one, especially if Santana is one of those players who simply struggles with the mental waiting game that comes when you’re a bat-only ballplayer. In his career, he has an .802 OPS as a catcher and .868 mark as a first baseman, but, as a DH, it’s .729. That trend extends to this season: .823 as C, .890 as 1B, .751 as DH.
The DH splits, to date, refute this, but the working theory is that if you take Santana away from the physical grind of catching and getting pinged by foul balls off the facemask or unblocked pitches in the dirt (we’ve seen that a time or two this season), you’ll get more out of his bat. With Victor Martinez, the Indians could make the argument that V-Mart’s bat was made all the more valuable by his position placement. With Santana, that argument still applies, but there’s more raw power in play, and you wonder if the Indians can tap into that power more frequently if Santana changes positions. For the longest time, the discussion was more conceptual, but Santana’s continued regression as a catcher and Gomes’ surprising emergence this season have forced the issue.
These are the kind of conversations typical of September: What have we learned from the season at hand, and how does it apply to the seasons ahead? For the Indians, this kind of discourse has been the only excitement in September in recent seasons.
But not in 2013. In 2013, the conversation takes place in the midst of a potential playoff push. And for that, the Indians have their new starting catcher to thank.
Your first impulse is to just let a good, cute story remain a good, cute story and not try to incorporate it with some higher meaning. But in the land of particularly pathetic and/or heartbreaking professional sporting happenstance — and no land serves that distinction quite like the Land of Cleves — it couldn’t hurt to hold out hope that good karma now graces the Cleveland Indians’ playoff pursuit.
Over the weekend, an 8-year-old Tribe fan by the name of Niko Lanzarotta got to take in batting practice from the field, and the young boy, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at eight months old, asked two members of the team — Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis — to hit a home run for him.
Well, what could they say? Santana said sure, Kipnis said he’d try, and then both players hit the field that night and – amazingly — did just as Niko had asked.
“To see your kid that happy,” said Niko’s father, Mike, in a statement released by the team, “is a great thing.”
Amen to that. And if that’s where the feel-good story involving the Indians begins and ends, we could do worse than to end it with the bright and beaming smile of a little boy.
Then again, the way things are looking right now, the Indians have a pretty good chance at pulling off a feat almost as improbable as fulfilling Niko’s whimsical wish.
Whatever you wish to read into this sort of thing, it’s worth noting that the Indians’ percentage shot at a postseason berth, as calculated by Baseball Prospectus, has risen 12 points just in the past week alone (from 21.3 to 33.7, at last check). No, the jump is not attributable to the news that the Indians maybe possibly put in a waiver claim on Kendrys Morales (and more on that in a moment). Rather, it’s climbed because the Tribe has maintained a season trend of beating up on the kind of clubs you’re supposed to beat up on. They swept the Angels in Anaheim, then took two of three from the Twins.
This is how the #RollTribe caravan rolls, when it rolls: through the streets of sleeping cities. The Indians have built their 71-59 record (two wins better than their Pythagorean expectation based on run differential) by going 40-17 against losing teams to offset their 31-42 mark against those currently sitting at .500 or better.
You don’t get docked for this sort of thing. Some might call the Indians a soft contender as a result of that record disparity, but they’re certainly no softer than the A’s team they trail in the Wild Card hunt by two games. The A’s, after all, have 43 wins against losing teams, including 12 inter-division wins against the lowly Astros.
Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright, it’s alright.
Here’s where it gets really interesting for the Indians, though. In the here and now. In a six-game road swing, beginning Tuesday night, against the two teams with perhaps the most realistic shot at home-field advantage throughout October: the Braves and Tigers. The Tribe will follow that up with a three-game set against the fellow Wild Card-contending O’s, beginning on Labor Day.
A trade for Morales – and, to be clear, we don’t yet know which club put in the reported claim on the 30-year-old slugger or if a trade will even be worked out – would be considered a timely one given the laborious stretch the Indians are entering and the need for an injection of offense.
Then again, it would be difficult to call Morales an outright game-changer, given the regression he’s shown after a strong start in Seattle. His 264 AVG and .730 OPS since June 7 are only slightly better than the numbers of the much-maligned Nick Swisher (.241/.718) in that same span. And Morales’ presence would only limit the Indians’ ability to put their best lineup on the field – i.e., a lineup with Yan Gomes behind home plate and Santana at first base or DH – while also creating roster concern for Jason Giambi, who has been an instrumental member of this club.
Color me doubtful.
Anyway, the focus here is not nearly as much on Morales as it is on the need for the Indians to simply survive a stretch that, once endured, gives birth to greener pastures. The rest of the Indians’ schedule comes against the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Astros and Twins, against whom they’re a combined 30-14 (they’ve yet to face the Mets, who, we now know, won’t be bringing Matt Harvey to Progressive Field).
Of course, to read much into schedule strength is to ignore the very essence of a sport in which a team like the Indians can climb into contention.
The Tribe, after all, is a contender for reasons that, almost across the board, defy all projection or prediction, which is why the fact that we’re having this discussion in late August is such a surprise.
Look at the biggest free-agent expenditures: Swisher is the primary reason the Indians have an OPS output from the No. 4 spot (.754) that is below the league average (.783); Michael Bourn has an on-base percentage (.322) just below the league average from the leadoff spot (.324) and is having the least effective stolen-base success rate of his career (19 steals in 29 attempts); Mark Reynolds disappeared after a hot April in a way few before him have disappeared.
Furthermore, Trevor Bauer, the highly touted trade acquisition, has been a non-factor, relegated to Triple-A, where he continues to endure control issues. And only three qualifying AL shortstops have a lower OPS than so-called cornerstone Asdrubal Cabrera.
Had you known all this in March, you really wouldn’t be feeling Terry Francona’s club.
No wonder some scouts feel this might be Francona’s finest managerial moment, for this club never turned in on itself in the midst of, say, losing eight straight in early June or getting swept in a pivotal four-game set at home against the Tigers earlier this month and following that up with two straight losses to the Angels.
Francona’s temperament has been at least as pivotal as – though perhaps not moreso than – that of the resurrected Giambi, who has had almost literally nothing but big hits on the field (his is the most impactful .186 average in all of baseball) and provided nothing but positive presence off it, and Mickey Callaway, whom Francona hired at the behest of an Indians front office that viewed him as a rising star in the coaching field.
Callaway has helped eke effective-if-not-flashy results out of an unproven rotation – one that could have come undone when either Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber succumbed to rare finger sprains (this kind of thing tends to happen in the realm of Cleveland sports). Shockingly, it is the rotation that is picking up the slack for a disappointing offense, which has scored less than four runs per game in the second half.
If the Indians can get their bats going in the here and now, they are absolutely a legit postseason contender. Maybe to many, that’s hard to believe.
But I know of at least one little boy who believes in the improbable.
PS: Those of you who read Indians.com regularly are of course familiar with the work of young Zack Meisel, who has been a big asset to us at MLB.com the last few years. Zack is moving on to Cleveland.com’s Ohio State beat, where I know he’ll continue to do great things while surviving on a daily diet of Chick-fil-A and chocolate chip cookies.
Go get ‘em, Zack.
PPS: I mentioned Bourn’s unexpectedly low stolen-base total, but there is one area where the Tribe’s improved team speed has been beneficial: the double-play tally. The Tribe has only been doubled up in 9.1 percent of GDP situations, the third lowest rate in baseball and the second-lowest team rate in the Wild Card era, trailing only the 9.0 mark set by the 2007 AL Central championship club.
With 41 games remaining in their 2013 regular season slate, the Indians are nine games over .500, 6 ½ games back of first place and 3 ½ games back of a Wild Card slot.
Everything above is, as of this writing, an absolute fact.
But absolute facts are open to varying degrees of interpretation.
Maybe you’re content with the above, knowing full well that this team lost 91 games last season and that, in Major League Baseball, the climb from 94 losses to even 82 wins – ensuring a winning season – is a steep one that ought to be applauded. Nobody knew quite what to expect from this Tribe team in the first year of the Terry Francona era, but I think a majority of you would have signed up for a winning season, no questions asked. Some small percentage of you would probably still be content with that outcome.
Then again, the Indians kept things interesting enough long enough in the Central against a supremely talented Tigers team that some people can’t give up the ghost of the division chase. Hey, nothing wrong with dreaming big, and even though the Indians’ record against the Tigers is 2-46 (or thereabouts), they do still have three head-to-head matchups and we can’t rule out a late-season surge. Some small percentage of you is still firmly invested in that potential outcome.
Meanwhile, the majority of you, I’d venture to guess, are somewhere in the middle. And the middle, of course, is the Wild Card chase, in which the Indians, according to Baseball Prospectus’ latest postseason odds report, still have a 21.5 percent chance of suiting up in October.
MLB, as you know, expanded the Wild Card format to include two teams last year, so now you’ve got no shortage of standings and scheduling scenarios to pore over on a daily basis.
As I type this, the Wild Card picture looks like this:
Whoa. That’s a lot to take in. Tampa Bay, Oakland, Baltimore, Kansas City, New York. And the East and West races are close enough that you’ve got to keep track of Boston and Texas, too.
Rooting for the Wild Card, as you can see, is an onerous ordeal. But I am nothing if not a man of the people. It is my job to distill this mess down to its essence and make your lives a little bit brighter, a little bit more manageable.
And so I encourage you to use this painless, handy guide to navigate your way through the home stretch of the season. Please, please, thank me not with flowers or money but rather with your ever-abiding affection. It’s all I ask.
HOW TO ROOT FOR THE WILD CARD
All right, let’s begin in the here and now, Aug. 16-18. This is easy: You’re rooting for the Tigers, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Mariners.
I know, I know… the Tigers? Woe be the postseason scenario that encourages you to cheer on the very team you’re trying to catch in your division. But to be entirely realistic is to embrace the fact that disposing of the Royals in this AL Central troika is in the Indians’ best interests, and the Tigers, who took the first game of a four-game weekend set, are the best bet to do the dirty work.
It would be helpful if the Red Sox would make like Chris Nelson and crush the confidence of the desperate Yankees, who have left no stone (or Mark Reynolds) unturned in their quest for coherence.
It would be really helpful if the Rockies would jump all over the Orioles, who have lost three straight and have been burned by Jim Johnson’s severe ninth-inning regression. A couple more blown saves from Johnson wouldn’t hurt. Closer controversies can bring a ballclub down.
It would be helpful, too, if the Blue Jays would keep the once-reeling Rays from enjoying an upswing. The Rays just took two straight from the Mariners and were encouraged by the strong return of Alex Cobb. It is in the Indians’ best interest if the Blue Jays put them down a peg.
And while you’re at it, you might as well root for the Mariners against the Rangers. Anything to encourage a brutal battle in the AL West to drag down the respective records of the Rangers and A’s.
All right, so there you go. Seems pretty simple, right?
But wait a sec.
What if… and I’m just throwing this out there… what if the Royals salvage a split with the Tigers, and Detroit’s Central lead remains about where it was… and then the Orioles take the series with the Rox and A-Rod, somehow buoyed by all this attention from “60 Minutes,” propels the Yanks to a thrilling sweep in Boston and the Rays get back on a roll?
OK, well, first things first, you’d have to watch that Rays-Orioles series closely next week and make sure you root for a split and a rainout. Then you’d want to pay close attention to how the Royals fare against the White Sox. Need a big week from the Sox there. And you’ll want to stay up late to root for the Mariners against the A’s (you’ll be accustomed to rooting against the A’s at this point) and the Giants against the Red Sox. Those West Coast games are a pain. You might be groggy and cranky in the morning, particularly if the A’s and Red Sox sweep.
And if they sweep, you’ll want to hold out hope that they run away with their respective divisions so that you can put all your energy into rooting against the Orioles, Yankees, Rays and Rangers. Then again, the Rangers will be at home against the lowly Astros, so maybe they’ll sweep and the A’s won’t and now you’ll want to make sure you’re rooting firmly against the A’s instead. Oh, but… darn… I forgot the A’s then head to Baltimore next weekend, Aug. 23-25. And you can’t root for the Orioles. So maybe instead of focusing on the O’s and A’s, you should devote your time and attention to the Rays. They’re pretty dangerous. But wait, by that point they’ll be playing the Yankees, and we can’t let those Yanks get hot. Man, this is stressful. All right, let’s simplify things and just root against the Royals. We can all get behind that, right?
Oh, shoot, the Royals play the Rays in a makeup game Aug. 26. So scratch that. I told you to be careful with those Rays. Really need the Royals to take that game, unless of course the Royals took care of business at home against the Nationals the previous weekend, in which case you’ve really got to worry the Royals will overtake the Indians. So root against the Royals. But don’t root for the Rays. And then, the next day, root for the Twins against the Royals and the Angels against the Rays and the Blue Jays against the Yankees, but be careful about that Tigers-A’s series, because you never know if that might be the start of the Tigers’ stunning collapse, although it might be the beginning of the A’s surge over the Rangers, in which case you’ll really want the Mariners to beat the Rangers at Safeco. Crap. West Coast game again. You’ll want to have plenty of caffeine handy.
Fortunately, you’ll have the Labor Day weekend to relax. Then again, that could be a stressful holiday weekend, what with the Rays facing the A’s and O’s facing the Yanks and you, sitting there with your special bonus Saturday edition of the Plain Dealer, staring at the standings and trying to tabulate what, exactly, it is you’re supposed to be rooting for. Oh, but don’t forget: The Indians play the Tigers that weekend. You’ll want to root for the Indians, for sure.
Come to think of it, just root for the Indians the rest of the way. My head hurts.
We were sitting in the right-field stands at PNC Park, my buddy Mike and I, taking in the rare August sight that is a near-sell-out in a ballpark much too beautiful for the bad baseball it has housed for the majority of its existence.
Mike is a Pirates fan. A real one. He didn’t just board the bandwagon… not that there’s anything wrong with the forming bandwagon supporting a team that has posted losing season after losing season for two decades and now, stunningly, holds the best record in baseball.
Mike used to sit in the stands at Three Rivers, rooting on Denny Neagle and Andy Van Slyke and Don Slaught and Al Martin (though I’m not certain if he was an actual member of “Al’s Army”). He has spent his fair share of hours making the best of a bad situation at PNC, back when the lackluster play on the field was offset, in some small measure, by the occasional Jason Bay bobblehead or commemorative Jack Wilson “Jack in the Box” giveaway.
And the one constant, aside from the results, was this: Mike had never caught a foul ball.
He lamented this fact to me recently, taking note of the national story that a Tribe fan had caught not one, not two, not three but four foul balls on a single Sunday at Progressive Field.
“Man,” Mike said when he heard this, “I’m 0-for-life.”
Imagine, then, the flash of hope, the flicker of anticipation that fluttered in Mike’s Irish heart in that moment when right fielder Jose Tabata turned to the crowd after a between-innings game of catch, surveyed the scene and cocked his arm back for the toss above the 21-foot-wall in right. This is one of the things you have to love about the experience of attendance. Because Tabata, bless his heart, has a .695 OPS and is one of the primary culprits responsible for the Buccos’ right-field plight. Yet in a moment such as this, he can still make a fond memory for some fortunate fan.
On this night, in this seat, that fan was Mike.
I knew it from the moment of release. The ball was coming directly to Mike. It was a no-doubter. He lifted up out of his chair, extended his arms out and, with the God-given athletic skill that once allowed him to serve as a walk-on for the very prestigious, world-renowned baseball team at Ohio University, easily hauled it in.
He sat back in his seat, peaceful, fulfilled.
“I have never caught a foul ball*,” he remarked, studying this inspirational orb, scuff marks and all, perhaps envisioning a spot on his mantle for this treasured piece of memorabilia.
*And yes, technically he still hadn’t, because this wasn’t an actual foul ball. But work with me, people, I’m trying to tell a story here.
But then, just as suddenly as the ball was delivered into Mike’s anticipatory palms, you could feel the eyes upon him. Everybody in the crowd, it seemed, was staring at Mike, waiting, pining, imploring him to give the ball to the little kid sitting two seats to his left.
Mike could feel it, too. I swear to you the six or seven seconds after he came down with that ball felt like an eternity, a full trial and sentencing of a man scrutinized by his own, Pirate-loving peers.
And when the eternity had passed, Mike did the only thing a man in his place could have done without inspiring the ire of every inhabitant of Section 144:
He gave the ball to the kid.
Now, I want to make one thing very clear: I love kids. And I love that baseball, at its core, is a game that caters to kids. Certainly, some people get swept up in the passion of a pennant race at some advanced age and become late-blooming baseball fans. But I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of us who love this game love it because it cosmically connects us to our childhood in some small way. And baseball teams go to great, admirable and always evolving lengths to ensure that experience is passed down to future generations, so that the wheel is always in spin.
The other night, my uncle brought his three grandsons to an Indians game. They wanted to bring their gloves, but my uncle had to tell them their seats would be out-of-range for even the most mammoth of Jason Giambi blasts.
“But just in case,” he told them, “have your hat ready!”
And this is how it should be, true ambition forming in the heart and mind of a young boy and the understanding that, if the fates allow and if he applies himself, perhaps his reverie will be realized. If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme… unless maybe if you’re sitting in Section 749, Row Q.
Anyway, this is what bothered me about what I witnessed at PNC: The hand-off from adult to child felt more expected than appreciated. The kid’s dad thanked my friend, certainly, and the gesture was applauded by the guy sitting behind us. But the whole thing seemed — to me, at least — to have all the emotional magnitude of a $10 bank transaction. It felt like Mike had merely completed his end of some pre-existing agreement written in tiny font on the back of his ticket.
At the risk of sounding insensitive or out-of-touch or just plain grumpy, when did this become a thing? When did giving little kids every foul ball (I would imagine, perhaps naively, that home runs are more commonly acknowledged as the property of the possessor) become part of some binding social contract? Because I know it wasn’t written into the fabric of fanship when I was a kid. When I was young, I could not even conceive of begging some stranger, in word or in enticing or teary eyes, to give me a freebie. The thought never would have even crossed my mind. Or my dad’s mind, for that matter.
I still remember the day Cory Snyder showed up to The Palace, the Euclid High School baseball field, to put on a hitting clinic (yeah, yeah, smart aleck, Snyder struck out in 25 percent of his career plate appearances… he was still a golden-locked legend in my young mind). At some point in the session, my dad stood up and vanished from our seats behind the backstop. I was too engrossed by the glory of Cory Snyder to pay any mind to this disappearance. A few minutes later, my dad, completely out of breath, comes back with a ball in hand. When I was older, he explained that he had outhustled a bunch of little kids half his size (which is really saying something, seeing as how my dad is a tiny Italian-American) to get me that ball — a ball I still have. That’s a father taking care of his son. That’s America. Or baseball. Or a Harry Chapin song. Or something. And if I’m blessed with children of my own one day, I plan to do everything in my power to create those little magic moments for them, too.
But anybody who watched, without the benefit of context, as my dad raced past those kids in pursuit of a ball off the bat of the great Cory Snyder probably figured he was just a jerk.
Point is, we’ve progressed to a point in our culture where such context has ceased to have any value whatsoever. There are people — a good number of people — who are content to give this souvenir away to someone else’s child without even a fleeting moment of contemplation. These are kind and gracious people, and they deserve to be applauded (my friend Mike, it must be noted, has expressed not even a hint of regret or uncertainty about his decision).
Or how do you know he’s not just a big baseball fan who always wanted to catch a freaking foul ball?
You don’t know any of this, and, what’s worse, we don’t have any finely stipulated statutes upon which to work off here. What is the age cut-off for both the bearer of the ball and the kid in question? How old is too old to keep a ball? How young is too young to expect a ball? How do you know if the guy giving the kid the ball doesn’t want it more than the kid, who very well might just toss it in his toy box and never think about it again (or, for that matter, toss it back on the field)? If you give a crying kid a baseball, are you encouraging him to waltz through life expecting that all good things will come his way if he whines a little? Are foul balls the new participation trophies?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t know if it’s insensitive or unseemly to even be asking them.
I just know the whole thing strikes me as foul.
Chris Antonetti just held a press conference to discuss the Indians’ acquisition of a guy who was demoted to Triple-A by the Cardinals mere hours earlier.
On its face, this seems a silly reason to create such a formal setting, but, hey, it’s Trade Deadline season, Antonetti was in the building, reporters were in the building, and, so, why not get everybody together in one room to talk about the trade and joke about the difficulty of spelling Marc Rzepczynski’s name?
It struck me, though, that maybe these are the types of moves the Indians ought to be getting more attention for. Because if we’re being honest, with the exception of the organization-altering hire of Terry Francona last October, the reason the Indians remain firmly in the playoff hunt here at the end of July is not because of the moves that earned them the most discussion, ink and Internet bandwidth.
If anything, the Indians are where they are in spite of the difficulty endured by their most high-profile acquisitions.
As of this writing, Nick Swisher’s batting .218 with a .634 OPS since the first of June. Michael Bourn’s .337 on-base percentage is actually two points lower than that of Tribe leadoff men a year ago, and he’s stolen just 13 bases in 21 attempts. Mark Reynolds’ bat, after a transcendent April, became the Indians’ equivalent of Amelia Earhart’s plane or Jimmy Hoffa’s body. It has simply vanished off the face of the earth, and so, too, has Brett Myers (though I’m not sure the latter disappearance is all that regrettable). The Shin-Soo Choo trade has been notable more for the speed and defense supplied by Drew Stubbs than anything we’ve seen out of the much-more-touted Trevor Bauer, who might not pitch up here again this season after his pitching-from-the-stretch shenanigans in Chicago.
Point is, the guys we put so much emphasis on in the offseason have been but bit players in an Indians season that has been nothing if not entertaining and, it turns out, mathematically meaningful, too.
Certainly, the exceeding of external expectations has come about because some core pieces — chiefly, Justin Masterson, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana — have taken needed developmental steps (Santana’s defense notwithstanding) and because Ubaldo Jimenez has been at least a passable fifth starter type. But it’s also come about because some completely overlooked acquisitions — Corey Kluber from the 2010 Jake Westbrook trade, Zach McAllister from the ’10 Austin Kearns trade, Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes in last winter’s Esmil Rogers trade, and Jason Giambi, Scott Kazmir and Ryan Raburn from the scrap heap — have played their respective roles with aplomb. It’s made for a team altogether more interesting than the sum of its parts.
“If you talk about building a culture or a tradition, Tampa is a prime example,” Giambi said. “The way they play as a unit is unbelievable. Longo [Evan Longoria] is the central piece, and they have this cast of players that are all about winning. What they’ve done over there is something you look at and want to build. That’s what I think we’re building here.”
Giambi himself is a prime example of the positive effects of the Tribe’s team-building approach. He’s hitting a buck-ninety-seven. But sometimes it seems each and every one of his 17 hits has come in a big spot. Arguably, none was bigger than the walkoff shot to beat the White Sox here Monday night, when Giambi became the oldest player in history to hit a game-ending homer (45 days older than Hank Aaron was when Hammerin’ Hank hit one in 1976). And Giambi has, of course, been a glue guy off the field, which you knew going into the year.
“It’s a dream when you can create something special and be a part of it,” Giambi said. “That’s what anybody longs for in life. That’s the exciting part. To be part of a unit is, to me, gratifying. There’s not many things in life you get to go 25 guys in one direction. It’s hard to find. To get two people to go in the same direction can be hard.”
This is a team that’s been awfully difficult to explain. A team that can go into the funkiest of funks yet come out better for it. A team that has received nowhere near the return expected out of this ownership’s unexpectedly (and unprecedentedly) aggressive offseason investment yet carries on all the same.
It’s a strange team, but baseball’s a strange game. Four years ago next week, Jose Veras was designated for assignment by the Indians. He had to go, because the Tribe had to make room for… Jess Todd. Four years later, Veras, fresh off a successful stint as closer on a bad Astros team, is lauded as a prized acquisition for the Tigers, who will use him as their seventh-inning guy.
On Tuesday, the Indians responded not by acquiring the top-end starter they might have coveted (and might very well need) or even by landing a veteran LOOGY with a desirable 2013 track record.
No, they landed the Scrabble man, a guy appealing more for his arbitration status (he’s under club control through 2015), his ’11 postseason success, his bound-to-improve BABIP and his Triple-A splits than anything you’d glean from his 2013 numbers.
It was not a sexy acquisition. Which, on this team, can only mean it was a genius one.
Questions facing the Indians as the second half — ceremonial as it may be — arrives:
1. Do they add a frontline starter?
At the moment, I doubt it, only because of the quality of starters purportedly available and the fact that so few teams are currently identifying themselves as sellers. There is little sense in the Indians going all-in on a short-term fix like Matt Garza. This team is built to contend beyond just 2013, and it’s definitely doubtful they’d be able to lock up Garza beyond 2013.
Still, the Indians could benefit from another starting arm atop the rotation. Not that getting Zach McAlllister back won’t be a huge boost. Not that Corey Kluber hasn’t been encouraging. Not that Danny Salazar didn’t grab everybody’s attention in his big-league debut. But the rotation lacks the kind of tangible track records that would make you feel better about the postseason potential.
As far as outside options are concerned, Yovani Gallardo strikes me as Ubaldo 2.0, except without the absurdly excellent half a season Ubaldo had put together at the start of 2010. Rising pitch counts and declining velocity are not a good combo, and there would be questions about how well Gallardo would transition to the American League. On the bright side, he’s under contractual control for $11.25 million for 2014, which is not all that unreasonable given the market conditions.
Bud Norris seems to make more sense. He has already made the transition to the AL and has a 3.63 ERA at the break, though his WHIP has risen and his K/BB ratio has lowered. Still, he keeps the ball in the yard, he’s averaging six innings per start and he’s making just $3 million this year with two more arbitration seasons looming. That’s the kind of guy the Indians need to be targeting, to the extent that they’re going to pull the trigger on a deal at all. Maybe they’ll feel more comfortable going with what they’ve got. It would be hard to blame them, given the costs of an upgrade. We’ll see.
2. Can they fix the bullpen?
The bullpen has not been the team strength it once was, though Chris Perez’s numbers since his return (0.90 ERA, .216 average against) have been extraordinarily encouraging. The guy who worries you is Vinnie Pestano, because (and understand I’m only speculating here) it’s hard to believe he’s not fighting his way through some sort of physical limitation. Undoubtedly, ramping up quickly for the World Baseball Classic did him no favors. Whatever the case, not having Pestano settled into that eighth inning exposes Joe Smith to more wear and tear, and the Indians have to be careful with Cody Allen’s innings in his first full season. So you can sense the need for another setup option, though I’m not sure the Indians are inclined to delve too deeply into that market. What I do expect is for them to at least explore another left-handed setup option, because the trade market affords quite a few of those, as MLB Trade Rumors breaks down.
3. Do they trade Asdrubal Cabrera?
This question — one that came to the forefront upon Buster Olney’s speculation last week about a potential match between the Indians and Cardinals — prompts a question:
Listen, not that my opinion matters even the slightest, but I’ve been on the “trade Asdrubal” bandwagon (if such a thing exists) since the end of ’11. I thought, at the time, that his value would never be higher.
I remained convinced they ought to trade Asdrubal last winter, when it seemed the Indians, with Mike Aviles in hand and questions about their status as true contenders hanging in the air, could take advantage of a weaker-than-weak free-agent shortstop market.
And however this 2013 season turns out, I’ll remain in favor of moving Asdrubal elsewhere, because he’ll still have trade value and the Tribe has reasonable bridges on-hand and on the farm to get to the Francisco Lindor era (with front-office fingers crossed in the hope that the Lindor era is more fruitful than, say, the Andy Marte era).
But right now, the Indians are in the thick of a division race or, at worse, a Wild Card race, and as much as it might make long-term baseball sense to deal Asdrubal for a top-end pitching prospect, that deal makes little sense in the immediate. I know he’s having a subpar season, and I know there are questions and concerns about the Tribe’s ability to hang in this division race. But they’ve made it this far, and dealing your starting shortstop/weakening your bench would be an awfully difficult sell to that clubhouse.
Again, I get trading Asdrubal, and I expect the Indians to do their due diligence and explore his worth. I just don’t necessarily agree with trading him now.
4. What are they going to get out of Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds?
Reynolds is batting .178 with a .532 OPS since May 7. Swisher is batting .192 with a .587 OPS since May 30. These are completely arbitrary endpoints on my part, but there’s enough distance between the endpoints to make you sweat a little bit, if you’re Terry Francona. Swisher’s shoulder situation can’t possibly be helping matters, and Reynolds is a guy prone toward boom and busts. But because there is little reason to believe the Indians are going to target a position player before the Trade Deadline, it’s incumbent upon these two to perform up to their perceived par. The Indians have actually scored the sixth-most runs per game in the Majors since June 1, but it was a fundamentally deeper offense when Reynolds was on a prodigious pace and Swisher was serving as a serviceable No. 4. They don’t need either of those guys performing out of their minds. But they need something.
5. How illustrative is the record against the Tigers?
The Indians are 3-9 against the Tigers, but the Tigers are 43 and 39 against everybody else. So there’s the difference in your division race, right there. If you’re going to beat them, you’ve got to beat them. The perceived schedule strengths of these two clubs are fairly similar, so there’s no denying the importance of Aug. 5-8 at Progressive Field and Aug. 30-Sept. 1 at Comerica Park.
Most of us are assuming the Tigers will outlast the Indians on pure talent level in the rotation and lineup. That’s not a knock on the Tribe, just the reality of a Little Caesar’s-aided investment on the part of Mike Ilitch. But the Indians still have the ability to alter that opinion, and it starts with the head-to-heads.
They ask themselves the question in the Indians’ front office, and the fact that it’s a question at all gives us a hint at the answer:
Is this rotation good enough?
Good enough to outlast the Tigers in the American League Central race? Good enough to survive a postseason series?
Look, the Tribe rotation has been better than anybody — even those in the front office — could have reasonably expected, given the circumstances, and that’s one reason the Indians find themselves in the division race post-Independence Day.
Going into the season, there was simply not enough track record or tangible upside to label the rotation anything other than a work in progress. And there has been progress, no question.
Justin Masterson is the ace he was in ’11. Ubaldo Jimenez needs about 30 pitches to complete an inning (and he certainly didn’t complete that sixth inning Thursday in Kansas City), but he’s not the total train wreck he had been for too much of his Tribe tenure. Scott Kazmir has made an incredible comeback, Corey Kluber has shown some flashes of strike-throwing brilliance and Zach McAllister will provide a second-half boost, provided he’s not dealing with the fickle finger of fate, a la Adam Miller.
These are good things.
But is that good enough?
Well, quite possibly not, which is why the Tribe’s primary trade target will be an area that’s costly and tricky to target. While the offense has shown a streaky side borne out of some instability in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots, it’s deep, balanced and multi-faceted enough to be left alone. While the bullpen has been a shell of its former self, the left-handed hole so evident in setup situations is likely repairable without sacrificing the future of the franchise.
The rotation, though, is tricky, and right now Chris Antonetti and Co. are weighing the benefits of going all-in on upgrading it.
They know they have depth. They know that with McAllister on the mend and Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco on the farm, they have enough bodies to get by, if nothing else.
But do they have the horses to truly tango with the Tigers down the stretch? If the season was at stake in a late-September, three-game series, how would the Indians’ best three match up against the opposition’s best three?
The problem with this rotation right now is that it can’t be trusted to take the pressure off a beleaguered bullpen. The fundamental difference between the Indians’ rotation and that of the Tigers is that Tribe starters have recorded an out in the seventh inning 31 times while the Tigers’ starters have done so 45 times. That’s the kind of difference that’s going to assert itself over the course of 162.
With the Trade Deadline now less than four weeks away, the Indians would love to address that issue, if they can find a fit. They see no point in looking for back-of-the-rotation alternatives, because they already have plenty of those. Adding a veteran merely for the sake of adding a veteran solves nothing (and in the case of Brett Myers, it cost $7 million more than nothing).
We know the names in the rumor mill, for whatever that’s worth, and the list of No. 1-3 types is predictably short. Cliff Lee makes too much money, Jake Peavy likely won’t be dealt within the division, Ricky Nolasco is probably going to command a significant overpay. Jason Vargas would be a nice improvement if he was healthy (he’s not), as would Matt Garza. But the Indians never envisioned 2013 as an all-or-nothing effort, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them place more emphasis on guys like Bud Norris, Jeff Samardzija and Yovani Gallardo, who are contractually controlled beyond this season.
Two years ago, the Indians were in a similar situation at this point in the calendar, leading the Tigers by a game and a half after the Fourth and searching for more starting stability. They wound up dealing their top two pitching prospects for Ubaldo, comfortable with the knowledge that he’d be around through at least 2012, with two team options beyond.
Well, to pull off a move of similar import (and hopefully of more impact), the Indians would have to get quite a bit more creative, for the majority of their prominent prospects are in Double-A or lower. They do, however, have a decent stash of middle-of-the-diamond talent (Francisco Lindor, Dorssys Paulino, Tyler Naquin, Ronny Rodriguez, Luigi Rodriguez, Tony Wolters), so an impact trade is not out of the question.
It’s incredibly difficult to imagine the Indians trading Lindor, but, then again, it was equally difficult to imagine them trading Drew Pomeranz two years ago. There is a growing suspicion, internally and otherwise, that the Tribe’s overall roster composition is more legit this year than it was in ’11. And postseason opportunities are precious, so you can’t rule anything out.
The Indians have a chance, but they also have a need that becomes a little more apparent just about every time a starter not named Justin Masterson takes the mound. This rotation is better than expected, but is it good enough? Right now, the Indians are asking themselves how far they’re willing to go to address that question.
Back in Spring Training, Terry Francona was quick to tell people he truthfully did not know how good this Indians team would be in 2013. And nearing the halfway point, it remains a downright difficult club to get a firm read on.
That’s because the Indians vacillate so seamlessly between the awesome stretches and the abysmal ones. They’ve had three win streaks of four games or more and three losing streaks of five games or more. And were it not for a botched pop-up and an untimely wild pitch, they’d be riding an eight-game winning streak right now, directly on the heels of an eight-game losing streak.
What a ride.
The Indians’ home-run reliance made for fireworks in the season’s first six weeks or so, but the power pace has cooled considerably of late, and losing Asdrubal Cabrera to a quadriceps strain (and, ergo, depleting the bench) hasn’t helped. A back-end bullpen that once thrived on health and dependability now has neither, as questions linger not just about when Chris Perez (shoulder) will return but what the Indians will be getting when he comes back, particularly given the off-the-field issues that hang over him and his wife and dog.
Of course, bullpens are prone to flukiness and flakiness, so it doesn’t take much for a good situation to become uncomfortable. And the Indians’ starting staff, no matter the specifics (such as the surprisingly captivating improvement of Corey Kluber), has been neither remarkably better nor worse than anticipated, on the whole.
It’s the lineup that seems most responsible for the Tribe’s decidedly streaky side, and to this, I think, a great deal of credit must be given to the lack of a true No. 3 or No. 4 hitter.
Nick Swisher was brought in to be that focal point type of guy, but he hasn’t really produced like that guy. Doesn’t mean he won’t, doesn’t mean he can’t. Just means that he hasn’t, and his recent shoulder woes undoubtedly contribute to that bottom line, which is that Swisher’s .739 OPS is below the MLB average for first basemen (.776). His struggle to produce like the so-called “traditional” cleanup man was one fear when the Indians gave four years and $56 million to a guy who was at his best batting fifth or sixth in a loaded Yankee lineup.
Mark Reynolds <i>can</i> be that kind of hitter, but only when he’s on the good side of the hot-and-cold streaks you get with a guy whose 162-game average is 34 homers and 212 strikeouts. You take the bad with the good, and, lately, it’s been mostly bad. Tribe fans are discovering that when Reynolds gets lost, it’s the no cell phone service/GPS broke/no gas station in sight kinda lost. We’re talking lost.
Cabrera is the Tribe’s usual No. 3 hitter when he’s healthy, but the trouble you run into with Asdrubal is when he actively tries to put together another 25-homer season. That was, after all, the primary problem with Cabrera in the season’s first month, when he was largely invisible. If he focuses on contact, he’s a .300 hitter, but not the dynamic hitter he was in that first half of 2011. In an ideal world, he’s probably a No. 2 hitter, and the same goes for Jason Kipnis.
You know who has the second-most plate appearances in the cleanup spot for the Tribe this year? Michael Brantley. Nothing against the man they call “Dr. Smooth,” but that’s not ideal casting (although I write this just after he doubled his season home run total in a single night).
What would be ideal for the Indians is to have Carlos Santana raking in that No. 4 spot. But Santana’s position simply gets in the way, and — let’s be honest — his positioning is increasingly difficult to defend.
The Indians, dating back to the Victor Martinez days, have long been hung up on the idea of having a premium offensive presence behind the plate. With Martinez, it made sense, as, even in his prime, he didn’t have the power potential to truly be an elite-hitting first baseman.
With Santana, though, the so-called premium is particularly costly. Not just because the abuse Santana takes behind the dish can affect his power production at the plate, but because Santana seems to be regressing as a catcher. Even if the recent spate of wild pitches can be shaken off as a slump, of sorts, the 13-percent success rate at throwing out opposing baserunners is a defensive liability that is tough to tolerate.
The Indians have wrestled with the question of what’s best for Santana in the past, and the Swisher, Bourn and Reynolds signings essentially served to cement his catcher status for the time being, given their effect on first base. Then Yan Gomes’ surge complicated matters, in a good way, and right now it’s hard not to argue that the Indians are a better team — at least defensively — with Gomes behind the plate and Santana elsewhere (preferably DH).
It’s not that Santana isn’t putting up elite offensive numbers for a catcher. He is.
“If he were a position player,” Francona said, “he’d still be really good. But the fact that he’s a catcher makes him great.”
Very true. But the mental and physical grind of catching does take a toll and does distract from the adjustments in approach Santana could stand to make at the plate. Teams started to put the shift on Santana when he bats from the left-hand side because he struggles to drive the ball the other way, and he also tends to get a little mechanically hyper with his swing. And even if those issues have absolutely nothing to do with catching, Santana’s defensive role does lead Francona to believe his best bet is to bat him lower in the order.
“When our lineup is going good, we can hit him lower, so he’s not coming in after the first inning and getting the shin guards off with the responsibility of hitting cleanup,” Francona said. “So that’s kind of on me. And at some point, we’ll probably remedy that when we get Swish back and everything. I think that can help.”
So, again, the Indians have a complicated cleanup situation. And the No. 3 spot isn’t any clearer. If Lonnie Chisenhall starts hitting like he did in Triple-A, well, hey, that’s a viable option for the three-hole. But obviously that’s easier said than done.
Besides, Chisenhall has his own potential positional identity crisis. The Indians weren’t really happy with what they saw from him defensively during his Columbus stay (for obvious reasons, as Chisenhall made eight errors in 27 games), and there is some question as to whether the hot corner is really a long-term fit (remember, Chisenhall was already moved from short to third after he was drafted to address concerns about his range at short).
Maybe Chisenhall will have to pull an Alex Gordon and move to a corner outfield spot before he reaches his true big-league potential. Though Chisenhall is quick to note he’s not looking to move, he’s equally quick to admit his defense has been a slow process.
“In Triple-A, you’ve got a lot of the left field/first-base types who play different positions every night,” Chisenhall said. “It’s a little more comfortable knowing what position you’re playing, but if something like that does occur, I don’t think it would be an issue, athletically, getting there.”
In the meantime, in Santana, Swisher, Bourn, Cabrera, Kipnis, Reynolds, et al., the Indians have a great deal of offensive talent, when healthy. But they don’t have those true No. 3 and 4 types, and that makes a big difference in a 162-game schedule.
This team seems intent on making those 162 games as much of an adventure as possible.