Second Thoughts: The Three-Step Playoff Plan
The second half of the season is about to kick off, and now is as good of a time as any to analyze what it’s going to take for the Indians to make the playoffs. Currently, the team is 47-47 and just 3.5 games back in the race for the second Wild Card spot. The division race is a much shakier proposition, with the Indians trailing Detroit by 7.5 games. Below are three steps that are needed to get the Indians a playoff spot for a second straight season.
Step One: Second Half Pitching Equal to 2013
Last year, the Indians rode a strong second half from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, along with consistent pitching from Corey Kluber and Justin Masterson, to the playoffs. Jimenez had a 1.82 ERA, and Scott Kazmir had a 3.38 ERA, after the All-Star Break. The team was getting consistent starting pitching almost every night. The result was a 41-26 post All-Star break record.
Fast forward to this year, and the starting rotation is undeniably the weakest part of the team. If we use last year as a guide, and knowing that the team has to make up some ground, the team needs two or three starters to step forward and replicate what Jimenez and Kazmir did last year. The question to answer is who can do that? Kluber is this year’s Justin Masterson, hopefully minus the late season injury. That leaves Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, T.J. House, and Danny Salazar to round out the rest of the options.
As stated in different articles, I think Trevor Bauer is the key to the rotation. Set aside McAllister, Masterson, House, and Salazar for now. Over the last two months the constants in the rotation have been Bauer, Tomlin, and Kluber. While Tomlin can be considered more consistent, it’s Bauer that has the potential to dominate in the realm of Jimenez or Kazmir. It’s only a three start sample, but in July Bauer has a 2.33 ERA, 2.36 FIP, and a 18:7 K/BB ratio in 19.1 innings. He’s coming of a start with a season high 10 strikeouts. If something close that performance can be replicated over the next two and half months, the team would gain a strong 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.
That leaves us with Josh Tomlin. While Tomlin is pitching well, and can be counted on to keep the team in games, I don’t think he qualifies as the type of pitcher who can carry the team and rotation toward a playoff spot. I’d classify Tomlin as more a complimentary piece in the puzzle. Last year Zach McAllister had a 4.06 ERA in 13 post All-Star break starts. I think that’s about what we should expect from Tomlin. Tomlin has been invaluable to a rotation that’s been a revolving door all season, and if he continues to pitch like he is, the team will be happy. Still, it doesn’t fill the void of Kazmir or Jimenez from last year.
The rest of the rotation options have plenty of warts. Salazar and Masterson, while talented, have struggled all year. T.J. House is another pitcher who’s shown that can keep you in games, but with ground to make up a higher level of starter is needed. At this point the Indians aren’t trying to just stay in games; they need to win those games. They need consistent high quality pitching. Obviously the wild card here is Justin Masterson. A return to last year’s form would be huge, but with what we’ve seen so far this season it’s not a safe bet.
Truly, I think the team needs to go out and get another pitcher. Not just any type of pitcher, but someone who can slot into the top of the rotation with Kluber. I’m not optimistic that the current collection of pitchers can get this team to the playoffs. I know the team had talks with Chicago and Tampa Bay about Jeff Samardzija and David Price, and that’s the quality of pitcher of they need to add to the rotation. It would come at a high cost, and that cost may certainly be prohibitive. I certainly wouldn’t fault the team for not mortgaging its future to add a high end starter to a team that doesn’t profile as a strong playoff contender, but improved starting pitching is the most important step toward making the playoffs.
Step Two: Beat Left-Handed Pitching
The Indians could face the group of Dallas Keuchel, David Price, Jose Quintana, Jason Vargas, John Danks, Chris Sale, Danny Duffy, and Drew Smyly more than 15 times before the season is over. There are certainly other left-handed starters they’ll face that aren’t named above. I’ll get into the remaining schedule later, but the Indians will face Houston, Kansas City, and the White Sox 22 times the rest of the way and each have multiple left-handers in their rotation. Meanwhile, the team has a .671 OPS (.766 OPS in 2013) and is 13-16 overall (36-20 in 2013) against southpaws.
The biggest offenders are Michael Bourn (.491 OPS), Nick Swisher (.512 OPS), Ryan Raburn (.542 OPS), and Jason Kipnis (.582 OPS). While I do believe that Bourn should see some days off against left-handers, the fact that Kipnis, Raburn, and Swisher were among the team’s best hitters against lefties a year ago is the real problem. Truthfully, the Indians struggles against lefties are a microcosm of the team’s overall problems offensively. Some of its key players continue to struggle, and there’s only so much you can do about that.
Regardless, the premise of this article is what it’s going for the team to make the playoffs. Considering the potential heavy dose of left-handers they’ll face, and their performance against them so far, Terry Francona needs to figure out a way to maximize his roster in these games. First, and most pressing, the team needs to figure out what to do with Ryan Raburn. There’s no polite way to put this, but he’s been awful this year. His purpose on the roster is to hit lefties, and he’s not doing it. He’s owed 2.5 million next year, but I’m of the opinion that team would benefit from releasing him.
Of course, to release Raburn the team would need to find a similar player to replace him. If they go all-in on starting pitching, the assets might not be there to find the type of bat via trade. I’d be nice if Minnesota were willing to deal Josh Willingham to a division rival. Willingham has a .831 OPS against lefties despite a .225 BABIP. Another possibility in the division would be Dayan Viciedo, a player that’s never developed as the White Sox had hoped. He’s a capable bat against lefties, but provides little else.
Regardless of any potential acquisition, the fact remains that core players like Kipnis and Swisher have to turn their season around. We’ve been waiting for this all year, and finally Swisher has shown some signs of life in recent weeks. His .289/.319/.511 slash line in the month of July is easily his best stretch of season. Swisher has a long history of hitting lefties, and if he rebounds, he’ll no doubt give the team a boost against left-handed pitching. That leaves Jason Kipnis, who was arguably the best player on the team last year. Kipnis was considered the Indians best player entering the season, and he needs to start playing like it. His power has completely disappeared, leading me to believe he might not be fully healed from his oblique injury. If that’s the case, I can only hope the All-Star break provided plenty of rest. At his best, Kipnis is one of the true difference makers in the Indians lineup. Getting him back to 2013 would cure a lot of ills.
Step Three: Finish July Strong, Dominate in September
The rest of July is a tough, but extremely important, stretch of baseball. The Indians will start in Detroit for a four game series before heading to Minnesota and Kansas City. The month will conclude with the team returning home for a series against Seattle, the current holders of the second Wild Card spot. That series will be the last time the Indians will see Seattle this year (barring playoffs).
The month of August is a mixed bag. The Indians will have series against Cincinnati, Kansas City, Baltimore, and the Yankees. They’ll also have some reprieve, with series against Houston, Minnesota, Texas, Arizona and the Chicago White Sox. The August schedule isn’t overly tough, and if the team is able to control Kansas City and New York, they could gain some separation in the Wild Card standings going into the last month of the season.
The September schedule is nowhere close to as easy as last years for one reason; seven games against the Tigers. Other than Detroit, and a three game stretch against Kansas City, the Indians will have plenty of winnable games with three against Minnesota, four more against Houston, three with the White Sox, and three with a hopefully depleted Tampa Bay Rays team.
With the exception of that seven game stretch in early September against Detroit, there isn’t a more important time for the Indians than right now. They need to play well the rest of the month of July. If they’re able to gain some ground on Detroit and Seattle, they’ll have the ability to get on a roll in late August and September with a favorable schedule on their side. Keep a close eye on the team’s performance over the next two weeks; we could look back on it as the most important two week stretch of the season.
Swisher is now hitting .300/.867 in July. Raburn had two doubles last night. So far, so good.
We need at least a split of today's doubleheader. Kluber is pitching the first game against a guy making his first major league start. It would be great to get out to a 2-0 lead in this series. But the Tribe always lays an egg against guys making their first start.
The key will be Masterson and McAllister. Both had injuries in the first half. If they come back healthy and pitch up to their capabilities, we're fine.
At that point, perhaps the Tribe can start unloading players that are dead weight (Raburn, Giambi, Swisher) or unsignable or should not be signed (Masterson), and maybe begin a RF platoon with Aguilar and Murphy taking turns. If Kipnis doesn't show some life for the rest of the season, it may be time to consider moving him as well. At least, I would bring Ramirez up for an extended look.
Lots of Tribe fans are down on Bourn but except for no longer stealing bases, he's pretty much the same Bourn he always was. He shouldn't lead off though. He is still extremely fast, so his defective hamstring may be the main impediment to his lack of SBs.
Yes the Indians need another reliable starter for the stretch run. However there are no quality pitchers on the market . The ones that are rumored cost to much or will cost the Indians a lot to give up in order to get that pitcher. (Price, Lee, Hamels)
Should the Indians try to trade for Peavy or Kennedy. I guess we will know by the end July 31st.
Or do we expect more movement in August for potential player moves. With the the wildcard in affect I think MLB should move the Trade deadline into August.
I wish we had more reliable top of the rotation guys as we look prospectively, but (still) I think our staff as it exists can step up and pull off a series win against the Tiggers. Can't wait to see what happens.