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Tribe Happenings: Indians offense is in need of an overhaul

Tribe Happenings: Indians offense is in need of an overhaul
Nick Swisher's performance has fallen well below career average. (Photo: AP)
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Batting order shuffle

The Indians are desperate for a spark.

The defense has been a hatchet job worse than the goriest of horror movies, and the offense is wildly inconsistent and lacks any punch whatsoever. Without a pretty solid effort from their starting rotation and bullpen up to his point, the Indians might be rivaling the Cubs and Astros as the worst team in baseball – though are dangerously close to that level anyway.

This past weekend manager Terry Francona finally ran out of patience with Nick Swisher and  Carlos Santana and moved them down the order on Sunday. Swisher was moved from his customary second spot in the order to the sixth spot while Santana was moved out of the cleanup spot to the seventh spot in the order. Francona says the changes are only temporary, but this decision was not made for a one or two week trial, it might take a month of good play from both to move back up the order.

Swisher is having the worst season of his 11-year big league career hitting .196 with 3 HR, 16 RBI and .608 OPS in 43 games. His current OPS is a 135 point drop from his career worst .743 OPS he had with the White Sox in 2008, he already has six errors at first base this season compared to eight all of last season there, and for you advanced metrics fans he owns a 76 RC+ and -0.7 WAR.

Santana has been even worse hitting .152 with 5 HR, 13 RBI and .597 OPS in 43 games. The 35-38 walk to strikeout ratio is nice, but everything else he is doing has been bad. While he has adapted well to playing third base, the hope was his offense would jump forward after moving out from behind the plate and that simply has not happened to date. His 188 point drop in OPS from his career worst .785 OPS in 2012 is a big reason for the Indians offensive struggles. What really hits it home is how he has gone from being a 120-140 wRC+ and about a 3-4 win (WAR) player to a guy who currently has a 79 wRC+ and has a -0.3 WAR.

On the surface, these are no brainer moves for Francona as both have struggled mightily in two of the most important spots in the batting order. It is tough to live with not just one but two players hitting under .200 and also with an OPS in the low .600s in the top half of the lineup over a quarter into the season. The hope was that they would eventually hit their way out of their season long slump - and they might very well eventually do so - but it is to the point where Francona simply had to make the change and move them and hope they get hot elsewhere in the lineup and then change things again later if needed.

The problem is the Indians lack suitable options to replace Swisher and Santana’s roles as the two-hole and cleanup hitter. On Sunday, Mike Aviles hit second and Ryan Raburn was in the cleanup spot – though they are not considered to be long term solutions to the two spots in the order. Even though Aviles is swinging a good bat of late, he is by no means the right guy to put in the second spot in the order because of his lack of patience, and Raburn might be even worse than Santana at the plate right now. Aviles went 0-for-4 with a walk and strikeout and Raburn went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and two walks on Sunday.

Once Jason Kipnis returns soon we might see him slide up to second in the order and keep the hot hitting Michael Brantley in the third spot in the order. Or, perhaps the surging Asdrubal Cabrera moves back into the second spot in the order he held for such a long time before midseason last year and the Indians keep Kipnis hitting third and Brantley hits fourth. Or, if they want to split up the lefties, they have Kipnis hit second, Cabrera third and Brantley fourth.

Either way, the warts of the Indians lineup are showing. I feel like a broken record, but I have been saying this for some time and that is this lineup lacks a linchpin. It lacks the one or two bats to fill the middle of the lineup so that the rest of the lineup can be settled around them. Right now this is a lineup that is constructed of a bunch of hitters that should hit first or second at the top of the order or should be hitting in the bottom half from six through nine. They have no true three through five hitters. Brantley and Kipnis may be the closest thing, but in a good lineup they should be hitting first, second or sixth.

That’s the problem with the lineup and why it lacks consistency as there are too many guys miscast for their role and hitting in the wrong spot because the Indians have no other alternatives. I questioned it at the time when the Indians sold Swisher to the team and the fans as their cleanup hitter when throughout his career he has profiled best as a solid to good second or sixth hitter or maybe a borderline solid fifth hitter. Kipnis should probably be leading off or hitting second, but he is miscast as a three-hitter simply because the Indians lack any other options to hit there. And Brantley is doing a nice job of producing this season, but he’s not a prolific bat nor a guy you want to rely on to be your top run producer.

Santana has been a great disappointment. This is a guy who SHOULD be hitting in the middle of a good lineup, but somewhere between his knee injury in 2010 and now he has lost his aggressiveness at the plate. He always drew his walks in the minors but he also attacked the baseball. Now, he takes way too many pitches and is extremely passive at the plate and when he does swing he tries to pull everything. This is not the same hitter who dominated the minor league circuit from 2008-2010 and in his first call to the bigs. The nosedive his offense has taken this season is really hurting the Indians.

For now the Indians are going to have to deconstruct this lineup and piecemeal it back together and find something that works. Moving Swisher and Santana to the sixth and seventh spots in the order is a start, and I would expect Cabrera to be hitting second when he is back in the lineup on Monday against the Tigers. From there I would consider moving Lonnie Chisenhall up several spots to the five hole and even David Murphy up a few spots.

Even if the lefty-righty makeup of the lineup does not work out well, they just need to find a spark and worry about all of that other stuff later.

A poor approach

Often times when a player draws a good amount of walks or sees a lot of pitches in a plate appearance they are lauded for their ability to work deep into counts and give quality at bats. While this is true most of the time, sometimes players do this to a fault and in a sense lose their aggressiveness and a true ability to impact in an at bat.

The Indians are one of the top teams in the American League ranking in the top four in walks and pitches seen per plate appearance, yet all of that work has helped them along to a subpar .244 team batting average and pedestrian numbers at best through almost every other stat imaginable.

Could some of their problem offensively be too much of a focus on patience and working deep into counts rather than being a little more aggressive early in counts when they are maybe getting better pitches to drive as a pitcher tries to get ahead? For example, how many times have we seen Carlos Santana take a hittable fastball for strike one only to have work from behind and have to swing at a pitcher’s pitch later in the count?

I’m all for guys being patient. I love that kind of approach. But there is a difference from a patient approach and a passive approach. You can’t be passive and just let hittable first strikes continuously go by, which appears to be the case more often than not. The truly good patient hitters are the ones who are aggressive early in the count on pitches they can drive but also have the patience to let the borderline ones go.

That is something that has been missing from the Indians approach this season, particularly Santana, and is something that will be a big key for them to turn around in order to change their current misfortune as an offensive unit.

Save Aguilar!

The Indians called up first base prospect Jesus Aguilar on Thursday and he joined the team in Toronto. He has really been limited in the early going as he has played in three games but has just six plate appearances where he is 0-for-4 with two walks and two strikeouts.

Considering the Indians struggles offensively and their search for a spark, it is maddening how Francona has refused to play Aguilar and just see what happens. Sure, he has started two of the four games he has been up, but they were starts against a lefty and in Saturday night’s game he was lifted for a pinch-hitter against a right-hander. For little used Jose Ramirez no less. On Sunday he had Ryan Raburn as the DH and cleanup hitter when he should have given Aguilar an opportunity.

The Indians need to play Aguilar and see what he can do. All of this platooning up and down the lineup is group overthink and sometimes you need to just let guys play. I understand that Aguilar is new and he is young so they don’t want to overexpose him and they want to put him in a position to have success in the early going, but considering where they are as a team right now between injuries and poor performance they do not have that luxury to bring a guy along slowly. Sometimes you just need to have to take a leap of faith and see what a guy can do.

Now it appears that Aguilar may be in line to be sent back to Triple-A Columbus at some point this week if the Indians activate Jason Giambi from the disabled list, which if that happens is crazy. For as great a teammate as Giambi is and as impressive a career he has had, he is of little impact now and does not help this team out where it needs it most right now: power from the right side that can play every day.

It is important to tone down expectations with Aguilar. Yes, he had an impressive showing with the RBIs at Double-A Akron last season and he had a stellar showing this past offseason with 22 homers in winter ball, but he is also a guy who has never been considering a big time prospect nor considered to be a key piece to a Major League lineup in the future. Some players surprise and play beyond their scouting report and projections – which hopefully is the case with Aguilar – but for now it is important to set realistic expectations at to what kind of player he can be for the Indians which is as a complementary bat that could be a good yet unspectacular fifth or sixth hitter in their lineup for a long time. Anything beyond that would be a bonus.

But for now the Indians need to take the reins off Aguilar and let him loose and see what he does. If he struggles, then it is no worse than about ten of the other players on the roster. If he has success, then the Indians may have solved an important need in the lineup not just for this season but over the long term as well.

A lot of volatility

The Indians had a lot of unknowns going into the 2014 season.

Even though they were coming off of a 92-win season and a playoff appearance, they had a relatively quiet offseason and lost some key members from the 2013 team. They also had numerous question marks with so many unknowns up and down the roster that it was hard to predict how they would fare this season. Were they an emerging giant or a one year wonder?

Well, at least a little over a quarter into the season, they are doing their best to prove that last season may have been a one hit wonder for them.

The question marks going into the season were plentiful:

Could Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco fill the last two spots in the rotation given their limited experience or success as starters?

Would Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister show more consistency?

Would Michael Bourn, Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Swisher rebound from a tough 2013 campaign?

Could John Axford effectively fill the closer role after two subpar seasons?

Could Carlos Santana really play third base and be effective?

Could Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes continue to be key right-handed bats in the lineup?

There were many more question marks than that, but other than maybe Cabrera bouncing back some and Corey Kluber establishing himself as a good front of the rotation pitcher, all of those question marks to date have been answered in an unfavorable way.

That is not a good sign as this team looked to be one that was heading in a positive direction after last season. Things can still turn around for the club, but with all of the concerns with this roster at the moment the Indians may have to consider some significant tinkering to it if the problem persists into July. They may need to move on from some inconsistent players, get what they can get for them in a trade and try to find the right mix of players to get this team back on the right track and playing more consistently.

There is still a lot to be hopeful about as the Indians have a very strong core of starting pitching under control for several more years. If you have starting pitching you always have a chance, And the bullpen is pretty deep. Hopefully as they continue to mix in some youth into the lineup and make a trade or two over the next few months they can find the right mix to get on a roll and compete for a second straight playoff berth.

Parting shots

Second baseman Jason Kipnis is still recovering from his abdominal/oblique strain. He is progressing well and is expected to go on a minor league rehab assignment by the end of the week though the Indians have made it clear that his rehab this week will dictate how things go. He has been out of the lineup this entire month. … OutfielderNyjer Morgan hit the disabled list on Thursday with a right knee sprain. An MRI revealed a sprain to his PCL but no surgery is required. He will probably be out for some time in order to let it fully heal. … With the Indians short on outfielders Nick Swisher has volunteered to play some outfield, but manager Terry Francona is reluctant to play Swisher anywhere but first base. A big reason for this is because of the shoulder issue he suffered from last season which affected his throwing and performance at the plate.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

pathofkindness
May 20, 2014 - 4:13 PM EDT
Sooo many questionable decisions made this offseason, don't even know where to begin.

IMO Santana's issues are definitely linked to his being new at 3B, a position they moved him to when they didn't have to; thinking that Raburn could be a middle of the order bat when it was pretty clear to everyone that last year was a total outlier; or that they could contend without improving the middle of the order; or thinking that Salazar was ready for the big leagues, or that McAlister had figured out his mental/mechanics issues, or that Axford was an improvement over Perez, or that Pestano could return to form...there were just a bunch of bizarre fantasy dream-like decisions that made no sense to me whatsoever.

What were Antonetti and Francona thinking with this house of cards? Very disappointed in them for thinking that they actually had the pieces in place to win. They didn't and they don't now, and I'm starting to think that Masterson, Bourn, and Cabrera (and Swisher for that matter) have lost so much value that they really couldn't get anything of much value for them if they tried, a perfect storm of bad stuff...best thing we can hope for is that Masterson puts together a string of good outings and that Cabrera stays hot and we can get some young talent for them at the deadline. If we could unload Swish and Bourn that's a total bonus!
jiggawhat?
May 20, 2014 - 8:34 AM EDT
Tony should be put in charge of the tribe. For real
Willie
May 19, 2014 - 6:06 PM EDT
If the Tribe continues to struggle I'm sure we could hear some rumors they'll be shopping Swisher, Bourn, Masterson, and ACab at the deadline. Hopefully, Axford can regain some value for the Tribe to move.
Willie
May 19, 2014 - 6:03 PM EDT
It's looking like this is one of those take a step back to step forward type of yrs.

Bourn and Swisher have both disappointed, it was nice to see Morgan performing. As for Santana, if it's 3b that is messing him up than maybe playing him at DH is the answer. That would put Aviles and Chisenhall at 3b. Lets see what JRam has a second until Kipnis comes back.

I was hopeful Bourn would rebound, but it seems pretty clear he has declined. I am still hopeful Swisher can get his avg around .250 and still belt 20hrs. I'd consider that a successful campaign from him at this point.
larry
May 19, 2014 - 4:52 PM EDT
I've been saying for two years Santana is not a good hitter and no other team would give Swisher or Bourn the money the Tribe did. I've read the Cards and the Dodgers are interested in trades. Maybe the Tribe could work something with one or both .
Tony
May 19, 2014 - 4:49 PM EDT
The pitching is not a problem right now, in fact, is the lone bright spot as to why this team can contend this season and in years to come. Also, with the retooling of some of the lineup it will also mean some changes to the defense too.....so killing two birds with one stone kind of thing.
bob
May 19, 2014 - 4:29 PM EDT
I agree that the offense needs retooling, but so does the defense and the pitching. Where do they begin? Maybe we should consider retooling the front office.
ClevelandinCali
May 19, 2014 - 3:09 PM EDT
This is what happens when you use band aids to hide gaping wounds: mediocrity, and below average expectations..
Tony
May 19, 2014 - 2:27 PM EDT
The question mark going in was whether Gomes and Raburn could continue to be key right-handed bats for the Indians. They were the two mainstays from the right-side last season and performed at an above average to elite level.....we all knew regression would come so the question was whether they could maintain themselves as key right-handed bats. Raburn has tanked and while Gomes has been solid he is proving to be more of the complementary variety - a nice 6th/7th hitter with some pop who can be pitched to but can still be productive as a non-focal piece in the lineup. He's the least of their worries offensively right now. Having a solid season at the plate and proving some doubters wrong.
shy
May 19, 2014 - 2:12 PM EDT
In addition to S.F. maybe Cinci would be interested in Swish w Votto having quad problems. It's Ohio Bro'. So's Columbus for that matter. If they send him down he's the richest player on the Clippers. Everybody will want him to pick up the check at dinner
Yourtribe
May 19, 2014 - 2:06 PM EDT
Haven't had a 4 hitter for years. And that includes the fraud roid induced few years hafner had before he came clean and tanked. The tribe should sue him for fraud for a return of their money!!!!!

As tony wrote the other day, Bourn is a horrible leadoff hitter. And still think Lonnie is hitting 250 by year end.
After an up year history says down for masterson.
Lack of drafting rearing it's ugly had again. Last year an aberration?? Hope not. But no difference makers on this team. Scherzer verlander and Cabrera are better than our entire roster!! Tough odds to overcome. Need to turn it around now with a 3 game sweep!!!!
Lee
May 19, 2014 - 1:54 PM EDT
I agree the guys are being moved around too much, in the lineup and on the field. Let them play a position and get confortable there. That said, I said a couple of weeks ago something needed to change with Santana and Swisher. Let them sit for a 3 or 4 days, see what happens. Give Lonnie and some other guys a chance to play everyday.
shy
May 19, 2014 - 1:36 PM EDT
Yes Jesus A. is a young guy a long way from home. I think the more time he is sitting, the more uncomfortable he could get. If they are not going to give him a chance, i.e. play him everyday for a month at least against righties, then it's not going to do him or the team any good for him to be here. You can't worry about Swisher- his money, his clubhouse vibe. He isn't producing- he's hurting the team. If I'm Antonetti I'm on the phone to Brian Sabean. The Giants have lost Brandon Belt w a broken thumb for 6-8 weeks. This is a town where Swisher would be comfortable and could make a contribution. Whether the Giants or anybody else for that matter would want to take on that kind of payroll for a roll player is doubtful, but IMO he and the Indians have no future together. Same for Santana, unfortunately.
Hermie13
May 19, 2014 - 1:23 PM EDT
Agree with just about all of this, though think you're being a tad hard on Gomes. I think he has answered the question that he can be a solid RH bat in the lineup.

.771 OPS, .116 wRC+, 6 HRs (on pace for 20+), .208 ISO

Maybe those aren't All-Star numbers but I'll take that from the right side.

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