“I found that just surviving was a noble fight”

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

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.

ImageOver 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 Imagethan – 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.

~AC

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.

“We were walking on the wild side”

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

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:

wildcard

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?

Hmm.

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.

~AC

Foul Balls

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

ImageWe 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!”

Image

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).

Of course, not everybody wants to give it away, and therein lies the difficulty. Catch a foul ball and keep it for yourself, and the moment is captured in high-definition, broadcast on big screens across the region and, next thing you know, you’re Deadspin material. How do you know that guy keeping that ball isn’t out of town on business with a son of his own waiting at home? How do you know he’s not planning to give that ball to his dying mother to fulfill her lifelong quest of owning an object once touched by Greg Dobbs? How do you know he wasn’t recently laid off from his job and ditched by his wife and this precious piece of paraphernalia is the only thing keeping him from jumping off a short bridge?

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.

~AC

More than meets the eye

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

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.

ImageOn 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 Imageor 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.

~AC

“Got to begin again”

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

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.

budnorrisStill, 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:

Now?

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.

asdrubalI 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.

~AC

“No matter what I do, ain’t good enough for you”

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

ubaldoroyals

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.

~AC

“Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks”

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

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

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

What a ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~AC

“Yesterday I went shopping, buddy, down to the mall”

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

crockerparkThis great debate erupted in the media dining room at Progressive Field about the proper way to identify Westlake’s Crocker Park.

Well, I guess it wasn’t a debate so much as it was one sportswriter (and Crocker Park resident) willing to go to great lengths to argue with much more sensible, reasonable individuals about whether or not he lives at a mall.

The writer in question shall remain nameless here, but he would prefer Crocker Park be identified as a “High-End Shopping District,” rather than an “outdoor mall.”

His point, to the extent that he had one, is that if Browns and Indians players are inhabiting Crocker Park’s self-described luxury apartments and Michael Symon can open his burger joint there and Coach can sell its overpriced purses there, it is as high-end as a person could come to expect in suburban Cleveland.

Maybe that’s true, but a rebuttal — and a pretty darned good one, at that — is offered merely by reading aloud some of Crocker Park’s retail offerings and evaluating whether the term “high-end” indeed applies:

Gap (we’re off to a bad start)
Bath & Body Works (getting colder)
Nordstrom Rack (not Nordstrom, mind you, but the place where Nordstrom sells all the stuff that didn’t sell)
Best Cuts (do we really need to keep going?)
OfficeMax (seriously… what are we doing here?)
Giant Eagle (the high-end crowd doesn’t typically go crazy for Fuel Perks)

And here’s the kicker, which the Crocker Park web site is proud to announce as “Coming Soon!”…

Sears Appliances (not to be confused with the Sears Appliances on Rodeo Drive)

Understand, none of this is meant as a knock on Crocker Park, which is certainly more high-end than the wheat pasture that used to inhabit that land. It’s just that Crocker Park is one roof shy being the kind of place where you’d find a Spencer’s Gifts. It’s a mall. A mall where people can live and dine and socialize. But a mall just the same. It has a Buckle.

This is, however, one of the great traits of the human species, our ability to reframe reality to our liking, be it positive (Parmatown Mall, by the way, is now known as “The Shoppes of Parma”) or negative. And we see this in baseball — simply as a byproduct of it being played every freaking day — all the time.

We see it, especially, with these 2013 Indians, who have been streaky enough this season to offer plenty of opportunity for debate. You’re either convinced that Ubaldo’s turned a corner and the rotation is going to hang tough or you’re just waiting for the wheels to fall off and burn. You’re either undaunted by that stretch of six losses in seven games and the betrayal provided by the bullpen or you’re convinced Chris Perez is one setback away from shoulder surgery and Vinnie Pestano’s going to blow out his elbow and a funk is going to envelop the late-inning efforts. You’re either utterly enamored with the offense or concerned it is too home run-reliant and strikeout-prone. The Trevor Bauer-penned theme song is either music to your ears or 99 seconds of your life you wish you had back.

I’m on record, for better or worse, that I believe this is a fundamentally different ballclub than the ones in recent years past. I don’t believe the Indians are going to completely collapse. Do I think they can give the Tigers an honest, earnest run for their money (quite literally) in the AL Central? Well, that’s complicated, to say the least. But with two Wild Cards on the table, if you can simply hover north of .500 into the late summer, you’re in the conversation. And this is a town that could use a good conversation.

But the Indians will frustrate you, no doubt. They have a way, at times, of playing into the less-than-positive perceptions and negative noise. Certainly, when a cemented strength such as the bullpen becomes such a gaping, glaring hole in such a short span, it rattles the senses. But just as adamantly as the mall resident defended Crocker Park, Terry Francona defends his ‘pen. He seems genuine in his enthusiasm over the bullpen depth guys like Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw have afforded him. He is unfazed by the current absence of a proven closer, and with good reason. Look around the game: The “proven closer” label is almost worthless, anyway.

Because the Indians are so power-prone and because their rotation doesn’t have a great deal of track record on which to rely and because all bullpens – not just the Tribe’s – can be a disaster waiting to happen, the streaks and stretches, both good and bad, are going to keep coming. This is not what you’d call an elite team — not a “high-end” team, if you will — and so at times it can be an utterly maddening team.

But it is a team that’s already shown it is capable of some serious, sustained runs of positive play and one that could make things awfully interesting around here in the months that matter.

Maybe even the months when the weather cools and you need a coat to stroll the grounds of that outdoor mall in Westlake.

~AC

PS: Do people still do “shout-outs”? Is that still a thing? Because I want to send a shout-out to Ramon Diaz.

Ramon has worked for the Indians — first as a batboy, then as a clubhouse attendant — for the last eight seasons, and it’s been a real pleasure to get to know him all this time. Born with nothing, Ramon’s worked for everything he’s got. And he’s got a lot. Degrees from St. Ignatius and Columbia University, an extensive shoe collection and, now, a job opportunity with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in New York City (where I assume he will be pushing hard for Trevor Bauer’s lucrative rap deal).

Because he’s headed to bigger and better things, this is Ramon’s final homestand with the Indians, and I just wanted to use this space to wish him well. Ramon used to ask me for my “Writing Tip of the Day.” I ran dry after about three days because, well… you’ve read this blog, so you know my availability of advice in this area is probably pretty limited. But as a writer, I do know a good story when I see one, and Ramon’s is both a great life story and a great baseball story. The connections and experiences he’s made in his time with the Tribe will stay with him wherever he goes, and I’m sure glad I got to cross paths with him along the way.

PPS: You want to know something not-so-fun? When the Indians rattled off wins in 18 of 22 games, my boss and I wondered, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked Elias to look up the worst final records among teams that won 18 of 22 at any point, thinking that would probably be a pretty high floor.

Well, uh, it’s not.

Behold:

1978 A’s: 69-93
2004 Rays: 70-91
1978 White Sox: 71-90
1914 White Sox: 70-84
1994 A’s: 51-63
2008 Tigers: 74-88
1966 Reds: 76-84

And there were several more in that range, but you get the idea. The lesson, as always: Never underestimate how long a 162-game schedule really is.

“People find some reason to believe”

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

ImageAll right, fine, I’ll bite:

I believe in the Indians.

I believe that what’s happening these last few weeks — the wins in 18 of their last 22, the plus-54 run differential in that span, the relentless pursuit of runs even against Cy-caliber arms and the opportunistic approach to the late innings — is more omen than mirage.

I believe that this is a deeper, more balanced, more complex club than the ones that faded — and faded thoroughly — in 2011 and ’12.

I believe that while a manager’s in-game effect is often overstated, the best ones know how to instill a culture of camaraderie and confidence, and that’s what Terry Francona has done here.

I believe Francona when he praises the job first-year pitching coach Mickey Calloway has done with the pitching staff, which is exceeding all expectations.

I don’t believe that the rotation will sustain a 3.24 ERA (which is what it has posted in this 22-game stretch) over the long haul, but I do believe that it doesn’t necessarily have to.

I believe a versatile lineup with a deep bench, an array of switch-hitters and a ton of speed and power is dangerous enough that you need only an average assemblage of starting arms to survive.

I believe that, one way or another, the Indians can patch together at least an average rotation, particularly with the way Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister have looked from Day 1 and the way Ubaldo Jimenez has been pitching lately.

I believe bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. when he says this team has that “’95 style. You just come to the ballpark expecting to win and never say die.”

I also believe Alomar when he compares this club to ones of recent past and says, “We have more depth. When you give guys a rest, you’re not losing anything. That’s the big difference between the past and now. You’ve got guys with track records — like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and Jason Giambi — who have been in winning situations before and can help the young guys stay on the path and keep from collapsing.”

I believe that feeling rubs off on guys like Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes and helps them make the most of their limited playing time.

I believe the Indians are not one injury away from a complete collapse at any given moment, as they were in ’11 and ’12.

I believe that if the Indians are still in the hunt come July, general manager Chris Antonetti will try to be as creative and aggressive in the summer trade market as he was in the winter one.

I believe his aggressiveness and creativity won’t have to be quite as desperate as it was in ’11, when he sold the farm for Ubaldo.

I believe that there won’t be many days like Monday, when Vinnie Pestano, Chris Perez and Joe Smith each served up a late-inning home run.

I believe that the Indians were awfully lucky to win a game in which Pestano, Perez and Smith each served up a late-inning home run.

I believe it’s better to be lucky than good.

I believe the Indians are both.

I believe the AL Central is more interesting than expected.

I believe the Tigers’ bullpen is making it more interesting than expected.

I believe the next two days, when the Indians face the Tigers’ Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in succession, will tell us quite a bit about the current state of both clubs.

I believe we’ll probably read too much into the results.

I believe it’s also kind of fun to read too much into the results.

I believe that it’s the eighth week of a six-month baseball season, so my beliefs are very much subject to change.

I believe that, in Cleveland especially, some part of you is always waiting for the catch, the drawback, the booby trap.

But I believe that it’s hard to watch a team win 18 of 22, sometimes in the wildest of ways, and not believe.

~AC

“All you want to do is believe”

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

ImageThe Indians have been a contending team at this late (and by late, I of course mean … not at all late) juncture of the season schedule for three consecutive years. They have established a tradition of early season excellence. Or at least competence, which, even when followed by second-half heartbreak, at least beats the alternative option of an all-uphill effort in which you truly feel each and every step of the 162-game schedule.

Now, contention means different things at different times. A year ago at this time, the Indians were in first place in the AL Central, but you still had to talk yourself into believing it. Their standing was a product more of their surroundings than their own success. Their top two starters (Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez) had ERAs north of 5.00, their best hitter (Shin-Soo Choo) wasn’t hitting, their stopper (Derek Lowe) was striking out nobody and Jose Lopez, Aaron Cunningham, Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon — none of whom are even in the Majors now — were getting plenty of playing time.

That Tribe team was still in “contention” — by the loosest definition of the word — in late July, but not enough to compel Chris Antonetti to add anything more than Brent Lillibridge (no, he’s not in the Majors now, either). When they won just five games in August, it felt more cognitively correct than when they won 16 in May.

I’d say 2011’s “contention” was more believable than ‘12, if only because of the mathematics involved. The Indians went 30-15 out the gate. I still can’t wrap my head around that. While the Tigers certainly had star power, they had not yet gone overboard in their pursuit of a monster middle-of-the-order and they had not yet assembled a resplendent rotation beyond Justin Verlander. It didn’t really seem a foregone conclusion, as it did in ’12, that the Tigers would wake up one day and begin dominating the division.

Besides, did I mention? 30-15! All suspicions that the Indians were “out over their skis,” as one scout told me at the time, were countered a little bit by the simple fact that the Indians had bought themselves some mathematical breathing room. It is, after all, hard to screw up being 15 games over .500 (and seven games up in the division) more than a quarter of the way through the schedule.

Naturally, they finished under .500.

All right, so here we are again. We’re basically at the quarter-pole of the season, and the Indians are contending. Through 39 games, they are 22-17, a half-game back of Detroit. More to the point, they’ve won 14 of their last 18 and are “undefeated” in their last nine series (five wins, four splits). They are, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi put it the other day, “a much different club” than they were even a month ago.

“They’re swinging the bats really, really well,” Girardi said. “There’s balance in their lineup, and there’s speed.”

The pitching has come a long way in a short time, too. If you watched Masterson shut down Girardi’s Yanks for nine innings Monday afternoon, what you saw was a bona fide ace effort on a day when the Indians had to preserve their bullpen. If you were the most pessimistic of people when it comes to Jimenez (and my hand is raised), even you had to be intrigued by the way he tamed the Tigers in a ballpark where he has traditionally had nothing but trouble. I remain skeptical about a guy who had to, in his own words, “erase everything,” shortly after a seven-week Spring Training camp, but not defiantly so. Furthermore, Zach McAllister continues to defy expectations based off his Minor League career, Scott Kazmir continues a strong comeback effort and Trevor Bauer seems to get a little bit better with each spot start. Where once I compared the Tribe’s rotation outlook to turnpike dining, they are now starting to resemble that dive off the side of the road that has surprisingly good burgers. Hey, that’s improvement.

Anyway, it’s the lineup, when it’s rolling, that makes this team inherently fun to watch. And while that lineup has provided enough power to push the Tribe to nine blowout wins, the most compelling stat is that the Indians have won 10 of their 13 one-run games. For that, you can thank the timely hitting, a defense that has been steady if not always showy and, of course, the continuing reliability of the relief corps, even though Vinnie Pestano has been missed.

How does all this compare to 2011? I have no freaking clue. I know the division is deeper now than it was then, thanks to the Tigers’ elite standing and the Royals’ revamped rotation. But I also know there’s a little bit more conviction in that Tribe clubhouse, given that it’s a more veteran club that can actually account for these early season accomplishments, to say nothing of the two-time World Series-winner at the top dugout step.

“Then [in ‘11], we were raking, and it was, at times, maybe playing a hair out of our shoes, if we were being honest and evaluating it correctly,” Masterson said. “This year, we have guys who are still not where they’d like to be and everybody’s not perfect every night. But the pitching is picking up the offense, the offense is picking up the pitching at times, the defense is helping everybody, and the bullpen’s as great as it’s always been. There’s a little bit more consistency, guys are more comfortable, and I like where we’re at and what we can do for the rest of the season.”

ImageIt’s a good sign that the offense has been as productive as it has (sixth in MLB in runs per game, fifth in on-base percentage, first in slugging percentage) despite Michael Bourn missing more than 60 percent of the games so far, Lonnie Chisenhall earning a demotion to Triple-A and Jason Kipnis starting rather slowly. The performance of the bench has been encouraging, and, among the regulars, the only guys who might be accused of playing out of their minds are Mark Reynolds and Carlos Santana. Reynolds won’t keep hitting a home run every 11 at-bats or so, and Santana won’t slug at a .600 clip. But Reynolds’ pure power is certainly not a novel development, and Santana strikes me as a breakout-player-in-waiting finally learning how to separate the offensive and defensive sides of his game.

Overall, the offense, it seems, still has more upside than downturn in its near future. And an offense this explosive can do quite a bit to overcome a merely average starting staff.

Again, though, I don’t know what this means. I don’t necessarily know that this team is any more equipped to handle 162 than the ’11 and ’12 teams were. I can certainly speculate that it is, based on that aforementioned managerial influence and the track records on the roster. But as this 2013 club began to come together over the winter, it became clear that it was going to be an especially difficult club to forecast.

The good news is that it’s a team that’s interesting and, in keeping with the Tribe’s newfound tradition of early season strength, in contention at the quarter-pole. The better news is that there is a decent degree of believability that this is not necessarily the peak.

~AC

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