Long term planners at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario
There is your Cleveland Indians in numbers, as I stand staring here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario. They started the season 8-13. During this stretch, the offense was prone to big innings, but not much else. The starting pitching was suspect, but the bullpen was as dangerous as they come.
The next phase of baseball was dominant. The starting pitching began to show consistency led by Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister and Ubaldo Jimenez. The bullpen was locking games down, and the offense was a juggernaut, led by newcomers Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher. They had power, speed, and arms to spare.
Then it all went away.
The offense disappeared after a weekend series with the Boston Red Sox. The starting pitching wasn’t as dominant, and the bullpen went from a strength to a potential weakness. The closer got hurt, than got busted for allegedly being a moron. The guy taking his place lost his velocity. The southpaws all went north, and the schedule seemed straight outta hell.
Now, the Indians are winning again. The offense is still scuffling, but a bit more opportunistic. Jason Kipnis has rebounded, after slumping, after rebounding, after slumping. The rotation has been buoyed by Corey Kluber andCarlos Carrasco. The bullpen has built a foundation around Cody Allen and Joe Smith, with Pestano still scuffling a bit. They are winning close games, could have won the last seven, and still look like the Bad News Bears.
Is it the flux in the lineup from 2012-to-2013?
Is it the flux in the lineup from game-to-game and week-to-week, as players get injured and Terry Francona adjusts his line-up?
Is it a starting rotation that continues to find new leaders from week-to-week as Mickey Callaway’s adjustments start to take hold?
Is it an offense that is built around risk-reward guys that have high upside and high strike-out potential?
Is it a few injuries to key cogs in the offense and the defense, as well as the rotation and bullpen, that haven’t allowed this team to complete its 25-man roster the way it was really intended?
Is it a bullpen that lacks quality lefties, and has regulars that have struggled at inopportune times this season because of injuries and other things?
I could continue throwing out questions, because this team is a bevy of them as the year unfolds before our eyes. I’ve watched the sabremetrics folks struggle from stat-to-stat, either proving that this team is built to win with a piece or two, or disproving that this team can sustain winning for a long period of time. I’ve seen old-school baseball scholars confounded by a team that has added pure baseball players and veteran leadership, as well as a winning coaching staff, but can’t find solid footing to continue .500 or better baseball for long stretches.
This team is a confusing one, to say the least.
The Indians were terrible last year….but they addressed several of those issues with quality replacements and perhaps the best coaching staff in all of baseball.
They needed starting pitching and left-handed relievers, and signed Brett Myers, Scott Kazmir, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Rich Hill (in other words, didn’t really address the need, whether they tried or not).
The coaching staff has tinkered, and at times, had to depend on Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, Corey Kluber, Mark Reynolds, Jason Giambi and Yan Gomes, guys that either weren’t factors last year for anyone, or weren’t even regular major leaguers.
The players have done a nice job helping carry the load, and presenting a veteran clubhouse, which has helped them win games they could have lost, and helped them break out of their 4-16 run (which wasn’t too far off from their decrepit August record).
My thoughts run from promise to frustration, as I see a team that has many more tools than in the past several years, and are a markedly improved team from the last three months of 2012, but are clearly not quite a team that’s ready to contend. I’m frustrated because my wants don’t necessarily match the realities right now. I want a title and can see this team being a contender. On paper, they aren’t far. If you were to add a sustainable power bat, or a professional bat (or both) into this line-up, then mix in a left-handed reliever, and follow that up with one more innings eater, and I believe THIS team could contend now.
It sounds easy.
The problem is…it’s not.
To acquire three pieces at the trade deadline, with a slew of other teams looking for the same pieces, isn’t an easy thing to do. Combine that with the injuries and ebbs-and-flows of a regular season, and you can’t guarantee that this team has the organizational depth to sustain a winning run in 2013. The upside is a wildcard slot and a sneaky division win. But that’s the upside.
The reality is that this Cleveland Indians team is still finding itself. They are still trying to create a winner that sustains .500 baseball or better, and avoids 4-16 runs. They are still trying to get healthy and become a winner. If they do it in 2013, it’s because of veteran leadership, a lack of a true winner in the AL Central, moves in July, luck, and a coaching staff that knows how to get there.
That’s a whole bunch of dominoes that may not fall the right way. My point here is…they have dominoes. Last year their dominoes led into a black hole. This year, the Indians are still building their domino puzzle, and that’s really my point here.
Terry Francona, along with his coaching staff, Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro have begun building a team using a map that wasn’t with the intent of ending in 2013. They signed players to four-year contracts to bridge to Francisco Lindor and the Cody Anderson and now, perhaps, Clint Frazier. This team doesn’t HAVE to contend in 2013, because they’ve opened the window and locked it into place for the foreseeable future. They can develop the big league team, make moves, and hopefully improve the system to the point that it can self-sustain over the next several years.
In a world that needs “right now” to make the simple-minded happy, the Indians are building a team that should continue to improve, and appears willing to improve it.
There’s a blueprint, and this year, the Indians are starting with icing on the cake. They are .500 after a tough stretch, and realistically, could be better. They will make moves in July to improve their team. They will win more than 81 baseball games. They will get better in 2014.
In other words, confusing isn’t so bad if you are able to see the forest for the trees.
If you aren’t, just get ready to jump on the bandwagon. This team is built to improve…
I love the starting rotation.
I should just leave that heading, and move on…because I love looking at it. I’m pretty sure that I’ve started a point in one of these columns with “I hate this rotation.” It’s the nature of the beast, I suppose, when potential disappears with pretty good starters that never seem to be able to sustain the next step.
Think Fausto Carmona.
Think Justin Masterson.
Think Corey Kluber.
Think Josh Tomlin.
Something is different. It could be Mickey Callaway. It could be maturity. It could be pitchers building off of each other. It could just be luck. It could be all of the above.
I love this rotation.
I love the fact that Justin Masterson looks like a guy that can absolutely no-hit every team he pitches to.
I love the fact that Zach McAllister is the type of pitcher that lineups hate.
I love the fact that Ubaldo Jimenez has turned into an old-school fighter that is never out of a game…ever.
I love the fact that Scott Kazmir has a seven-inning game (small things, right).
I love the fact that Corey Kluber scares the hell out of me when he’s standing on the mound.
I love the fact that Carlos Carrasco may be an ace, right now.
I love the fact that Trevor Bauer is better than folks say he is, even with the walks.
I love the fact that Callaway is some sort of pitching coach savant.
I was dead wrong about Corey Kluber, and it makes me downright giddy. I hate when I look at a guy and think that the sum of his parts just aren’t good enough. I freakin’ love when I am 100% wrong about it.
I had convinced myself that Carrasco physically couldn’t stop himself from throwing at someone’s head. Seriously. I pretty much assumed that from this point on, he was going to just go at the lead-off hitter during every start. Okay, that’s hyperbole, but if you listen to every talk-radio show (including my own), that’s the direction most were going in (alright, I still think that). He proved that he can dominate at this level…again.
I still can’t fathom that he’s effective. He’s no ace. He never will be, right? But he’s effective, and dare I say it…tenacious.
Seriously. How did that happen?
There were a bunch of people that knew we needed Masterson to pitch well, but partly figured he was a bullpen guy after all. At best, he was maybe a middle-of-the-rotation starter. That may be true as we speak, but he has proven that he can be an ace when it’s all clicking. He’s wicked, but can locate. If he continues down the path he’s on, he’s going to do big things this year.
One or two of these stories are normal for a team from year-to-year.
This year, they’ve all already happened.
It’s freakin’ June.
Which means there are a whole lotta stories yet to be told.
Of course, they all can’t be good ones can they?
Can they Brett Myers?
I wonder…if Mickey Callaway can’t make some of these other guys into something more than they are. I’m not a big Josh Tomlin guy, but I’ve always liked his make-up and mentality. There’s a small part of me that thinks if the Indians don’t non-tender him next year, he could become a project. If Callaway improved some of these other guys, can Tomlin follow suit? He has the tools, if not the velocity…but I wonder.
If Jason Kipnis finds the type of consistency that keeps him at or above the .280 mark during his downturns, he has the ability to be the most impactful bat in the lineup. While he’s clearly a blue collar player, he has white collar ability. The kid can flat out dominate when he finds it. The problem over the past year is he’s either dominant, or disappearing. If he locks it up, he’ll be the best player on this team…or perhaps just the most impactful. I really believe that. He just needs to polish the edges. It was easy to forget it when he was in his slump from August to May, but you can still see the plus promise. Let’s hope it’s here for good.
Is there a more professional looking player at the plate in the league than Michael Brantley? Seriously, just watch his approach. I’ve never seen a guy look so absolutely locked in. He’s not an all-star sort of player, but boy, you can’t help but think good things when he’s presented with opportunity. That’s what can make him a team MVP of sorts. He may not dominate with his play, but his even-keel-ness makes him dangerous from game-to-game, in situations that count.
Cody Allen should be this team’s closer. I don’t agree with the “best pitcher shouldn’t close” mentality. I agree with the guy best suiting to close should close mentality. I get it, and know the stat gurus will throw numbers to refute, but I am a firm believer that a lock-down closer plays an important role in the psyche of a team long before he steps on the mound. The team he plays for knows he’s coming, and the team he’s playing against will throw the kitchen sink BEFORE he gets there. Cody Allen is that guy. I do like bullpens that can maneuver other guys around, including the closer, but do believe that Allen is a CLOSER in terms of mentality. It just so happens he’s the best reliever on the team, in my opinion.
There’s a small part of me that wonders what would happen if Cleveland and Kansas City get hot, and Detroit continues to be Detroit, and underwhelms for a bit. I don’t think it would happen, but wouldn’t it be funny if they finished in third? Imagine if Verlander missed a start or two…they are a whole different team…just sayin’. The Indians and Royals aren’t far behind, and are only going to get better. It won’t happen…but it could…if you squint a little bit.
It’s a beautiful day for baseball…everybody…
Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are SO many variables to a team and a season its all a gamble. But in gambling you seek to improve your odds of success.
That said, the schedule remaining I think points to a team that can play 10 games (dare I say 15? 20?) over .500 from here on out. Will that get them in? We shall see.
What I think it does do, is get them into meaningful games at the end of the season where hopefully the mettle forged in the crucible of the season will show itself tough enough to see them through.
McAllister's return should push Kazmir to the bullpen, which will improve that situation.
Kipnis is hitting .356 in June with an OBP of .451. His OPS for the season is up to .802. On top of that he's on pace to steal 36 bases this year. He's emerging as an All-Star caliber second baseman. His numbers are actually better against lefties than righties.
It's all looking good except for the bullpen and for the fact that three key players are out with injuries: McAllister, Cabrera, and Perez. And they just got Chisenhall back. If those four play up to their potential the second half this team will be something to watch.
The biggest concern is that they fell flat on their faces when they had to play the better teams on their schedule. That 4-16 stretch was brutal. So far the Tribe has shown they can handle the bad teams but they are routinely beaten by the better teams. They need to turn that around.