Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana are integral parts of the offense.
The first 10 games of the Cleveland Indians’ 2012 season have demonstrated the up-and-down nature of the 162-game marathon.
Throughout the course of the year, every team will have its share of offensive peaks and valleys.
Only two weeks into the 2012 campaign, Indians fans have already witnessed the highs and lows of a young team trying to claim its spot as a contender in the American League Central.
While it’s important to avoid knee-jerk reactions at such an early stage, here are four level-headed observations that will likely characterize the Tribe’s season.
Shelley Duncan has shown great plate discipline thus far.
Strikeouts have been the Tribe’s Achilles' heel for as long as fans can remember.
The Indians have finished in the top three in the AL in team strikeouts every year since 2005. Thus far in 2012, however, the Tribe have looked immensely more patient at the plate, and that’s translated to fewer strikeouts, more walks and more manufactured runs.
While the Indians were living and dying on the long ball during the opening home stand, they’ve done a much better job manufacturing runs, since beginning their nine-game road trip.
The key to sustained offensive success will be on-base percentage. (I am an admitted Money Ball adherent.)
The reason the Tribe enters tonight’s game tied-for-second in the AL in runs scored? They currently lead the AL with 53 walks, and their .336 team OBP is fifth best in the bigs, trailing only the Cardinals, Yankees, Rangers and Rays.
While the Tribe is also currently tied for fourth in home runs, OBP is the more telling stat. It doesn’t matter how many bombs you hit if there’s no one on base to capitalize on them.
Choo will be a major run producer for the Tribe in 2012.
Cleveland fans who stayed up to watch last night’s game in Seattle witnessed a familiar trend of the Tribe bats.
After being held in check the first five games of the season, the Indians responded with four consecutive games of scoring at least eight runs.
Cleveland entered last night’s contest on a four-game winning streak in which they pounded out forty-one runs, only to be shut down by Mariners’ soft-tossing lefty Jason Vargas over seven dominant innings.
While watching, I could only hope to avoid the ensuing nightmares of a young, 40-year-old Jamie Moyer stymieing Indians’ hitters with his 82 mph fastball.
The grind of a long season will inevitably reveal inconsistencies in a mediocre offense. While the Indians have the potential to be good offensively, they won’t be great. Injuries and fatigue will take their toll and cause players to go through slumps.
Kipnis can produce for the Tribe in any part of the order.
In 2011, the Indians offense was led by Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, who each belted more than 25 home runs, drove in more than 75 RBIs and scored more than 80 runs.
After those two, however, the drop-off in offensive production was steep. Injuries to Shin-Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner and Michael Brantley disrupted any semblance of a well-balance offensive attack.
Injuries and inconsistency led to prolonged periods of stagnant offense and wasted efforts from Tribe starting pitchers. After a hot start, Cleveland’s season was effectively rerouted by a 10-17 record in June, where the Indians scored a paltry 91 runs (3.4 runs a game).
The Cleveland lineup will likely fail to produce a single .300 hitter for the season, but it could easily churn out four or five .270 hitters who mash 20+ home runs and drive in 60-90 runs.
With Cabrera and Santana continuing to develop, a bounce back campaign from Choo, a productive-when-healthy Hafner and the emergence of Jason Kipnis, the Tribe should have a much more balanced offense in 2012.
Jose Lopez provides nice pop off the bench.
Despite their youth and inconsistency, injuries were the ultimate hindrance on the Tribe’s promising 2011 campaign.
Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore can no longer be counted on to play more than 100 games each, and Cabrera, Santana and Choo have all missed extended time due to injury in the past.
A key difference this season, however, is offensive depth and players knowing their roles.
In the offseason, GM Chris Antonetti made several unheralded moves when he acquired veterans Casey Kotchman, Jose Lopez and Aaron Cunningham. All are on the 25-man roster and have played serviceably to start the year. None is a world beater, but each provides something different, with Kotchman’s glove, Lopez’s power and Cunningham’s versatility to play all three outfield positions.
Although still unproven as an everyday player, Shelley Duncan looks leaps and bounds better than Austin Kearns did last season in left field.
Jack Hannahan appears comfortable as an everyday player, and Jason Donald has accepted his role as the Tribe’s utility player off the bench.
Players tend to play better knowing their position, and until Johnny Damon arrives in a few weeks, there won’t be any confusion as to who’s playing where.
The mix of youth and experience on Cleveland’s roster should enable them to remain relatively consistent and avoid extended periods of offensive ineptitude.
With another year of experience for youngsters like Kipnis, Brantley and Jason Donald and the eventual addition of Johnny Damon, the Tribe’s depth should keep it afloat in the event of injury.