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Cleveland Indians: Can They Win the AL Central?

Professor BushCorrespondent IIIJune 3, 2012

Cleveland Indians: Can They Win the AL Central?

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    Recent injuries have contributed to the Cleveland Indians losing their grip on first place in the AL Central. 

    After sweeping the Detroit Tigers, the Indians have lost seven of their last nine games.

    Travis Hafner, Carlos Santana and Jack Hannahan are all currently on the disabled list. This is in addition to Grady Sizemore, who has not played in a game so far this year.

    Even if all these players return in time for a late-season run, the burning question is whether the Tribe can realistically compete for the division championship this year. 

    Since it would seem that the two wild-card teams would come from the other divisions, taking first place is a do-or-die proposition.

    Let's take a look at the team's strengths and weaknesses.

Infielders

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    There is a reason why Casey Kotchman and Jose Lopez have recently bounced around from team to team. Neither of these two eight-year veterans, nor Hannahan, have the power needed from a corner infielder on a contending team.

    The starting infield of Matt LaPorta, Jason Kipnis, Asdruba Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall with average age of 25 would seem to be the future of the team.

    The question is whether they, as a group, are ready this year for prime time. 

    Kipnis certainly is ready, as he leads the team in home runs, RBIs, runs scored and stolen bases.

    While Cabrera's power numbers are off a little from last season, his batting average has been hovering around .300 this year. 

    Chisenhall and LaPorta both seem to have the potential to hit 20 or more home runs in a full season, but the question remains as to whether that potential will ever be achieved.

    If management really is serious about making a playoff run this season, they might consider trading for Kevin Youkilis. He has become expendable in Boston with the emergence of rookie third baseman Will Middlebrooks. 

    Given their pitching woes, maybe the Red Sox would be interested in a trade involving a pitching prospect like Cody Allen.

Outfielders

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    After making the 20-20 club in 2010, Shin-Soo Choo's power numbers have fallen off a little. But, his on-base percentage and ability to occasionally steal a base make him a reasonable leadoff batter for the Tribe.

    Michael Brantley has done a good job playing center field and contributing as a top-of-the-order batter. He has yet to commit an error in the field, and he is riding a nice heating streak.

    With a batting average of .180 and an age of 39, it would seem to be just a matter of time before Johnny Damon is released. This might provide LaPorta with additional playing time in order to develop.

Catcher

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    If he can recover soon and fully from his concussion, Carlos Santana gives the Tribe one of the better young catchers in the game.

    While his average is a little on the lower side, his 27 home runs last year is a good indication of the bright future the 26-year-old catcher has.

Starting Pitcher

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    With three starting pitchers having ERAs over 5.0, they are clearly a weak link on the team.

    With the default ace, Derek Lowe, being 39 and having a K/9 less than 3.0, there is not much to choose from.

    Maybe Cody Allen can be promoted to provide some help, if he is not traded away to solve another team's problems.

Bullpen

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    If the Tribe can take a lead into the eighth inning, they can be in good shape.

    Vinnie Pestano—probably unknown outside of Cleveland except among fantasy league managers—already has 13 holds and a BAA under .200. 

    Chris Perez has saved 17 of 18 opportunities, which puts him at the top of all closers.

    The issue for The Tribe can be getting through the sixth and seventh innings.

    Fortunately, the Chicago Cubs took Jairo Ascensio off the Tribe's hands, so his bloated 6.0 ERA won't be a problem anymore. 

    Then again, there is Tony Sipp's ERA of around 7.0.   

    On the other hand, Nick Hagadone and Jeremy Accardo have shown promise.

    So, the bullpen is still a work in progress.

The Bottom Line

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    The Tribe at least needs to acquire a reliable left-handed starting pitcher, a corner infielder with pop and a corner outfielder with pop in order to have a realistic shot at competing for a playoff spot this year.

    Three players are needed, and even that won't assure success.

    The team needs to make the classic decision of whether to go for it all this year—even if it means trading away prospects—or to take time and let their younger players develop.

    If it were my choice, I would pick the latter.

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