The odds might be stacked against the Tribe, but they're still in position to take the Central.
The Cleveland Indians look like a team facing an identity crisis. They can’t seem to decide if they’re contenders or pretenders. They play equally average at home and on the road and continue to play to the level of their competition.
Their relative strengths and weaknesses are still unclear, as both the starting pitching and offense have been consistently inconsistent all year.
The Tribe has gone just 6-12 since reaching its high-water mark of eight games over .500 at 26-18. After initially playing very well on the road, the Indians have recently been swept in both Chicago and Cincinnati by the White Sox and Reds.
Despite such mediocre play as of late, the Indians remain just a game and a half back of the front-running Chi Sox, a team many predicted would finish fourth in the AL Central prior to the season.
The season’s midway point is usually a good indicator of where a team stands, and many questions will be answered as the Tribe trudges its way toward the All-Star Break and subsequent trade deadline.
Tribe was in a position to contend at the break in 2011, and showed its hunger to win by trading for Ubaldo Jimenez. While the youth, injuries and inconsistency of 2011 served as a valuable lesson for a team claiming to be a contender, the final 100 games of 2012 will determine if they can make the adjustments to take the next step this season.
Here’s five ways the Tribe can not only stay in contention, but make the playoffs in 2012.
Justin Masterson needs to find the consistency that made him great in 2011.
I’m going to go against the tide of conventional sports maxims and say the Tribe needs to win at least seven out of their next nine games. I suppose there’s a reason I’m not a big league manager.
The Indians face three winnable upcoming series, starting tonight when they take on the Pirates at home, continuing with a three-game set against the Reds, and then hitting the road for three with the Astros. All three NL Central clubs are on the rise, and loaded with young talent.
Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald, and Joel Hanrahan should all be All-Stars this season for the long-scuffling Pirates, who enter tonight’s game with the same record as the Indians, and trail first place Cincinnati by just three games.
Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Tribe assassin Brandon Phillips comprise a formidable heart of the Cincinatti order, while aces Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos anchor a vastly improved starting rotation.
Many predicted Houston would be amongst the league’s worst in 2012, but the upstart Astros have one of baseball’s best young infield duos in Jose Altuve and Jed Lowrie.
Their rotation is anchored by the ever-consistent Wandy Rodriguez, while former starter Brett Myers has once again transitioned nicely into the closer’s role after doing so for the Phillies back in 2007.
Despite the competitive outlook of the next three series, the Indians need to dig deep and sweep one series while winning the other two. The Tribe needs to take advantage of playing at home and give their fans a reason to flock to the ballpark (no seagull pun intended).
The main reason Cleveland needs seven of the next nine?
The Tribe hasn't gotten much production from their veterans.
Recently, I wrote an article about five quick roster fixes for the Tribe to end their recent skid. Although Matt LaPorta was called up, he was given a measly 11 at-bats prior to being demoted once again in favor of an unproven relief pitcher recently acquired for cash.
Russell Canzler is still nowhere to be found, and “super utility man” Jason Donald has fallen off the map as the Indians continue to trot out ineffective veterans Shelley Duncan, Casey Kotchman, Johnny Damon and Aaron Cunningham.
The veterans’ pitiful offensive contributions will hopefully cause management to make some changes sooner rather than later.
The quartet has a combined .199 BA and .279 OBP, with a meager 10 HR, 46 RBI and 86 SOs in 478 total at-bats. Needless to say, that’s not getting it done, especially for veteran players brought in to provide a steady presence for the Tribe’s young core.
It’s blatantly evident that Shelley Duncan is neither willing nor able to make the necessary adjustment to his pull-happy swing, Johnny Damon is crumbs of the player he used to be, Casey Kotchman isn’t capable of getting under a ball, and Aaron Cunningham is as anonymous now as he was when the Tribe acquired him in the offseason.
Cleveland isn’t exactly stacked with exciting outfield and corner infield prospects, but they need to cut Duncan and Cunningham and move Kotchman to the bench upon the return of Jack Hannahan, who could shift over to first.
I still hold out a sliver of hope and consideration for retaining Damon, but only because he’s a proven winner and an accomplished player who could at least serve as a valuable clubhouse leader, if no longer an effective player on the field.
Shin-Soo Choo has altered his game to help the Tribe in 2012.
Manny Acta may not be the most revered manager in baseball, but he has made some wise decisions shuffling Cleveland’s underwhelming lineup.
After watching Michael Brantley struggle in the leadoff spot, Acta moved him lower in the order and inserted longtime No. 3 hitter Shin-Soo Choo into the role, even though he had never hit there before.
Since being moved atop the lineup, Choo is hitting .305 with a .369 OBP. When leading off an inning (the most telling stat for a leadoff man), Choo is hitting a solid .323 with a .421 OBP.
After hitting just .237 with a .297 OBP in the leadoff spot, Brantley is hitting .340 with a .352 OBP in his current spot hitting fifth. Brantley is hitting .290 with men on base, .311 with RISP, and .308 with RISP and two out.
Acta also worked his magic with Jason Kipnis. Originally slated low in the order and forced to work his way up, Kipnis soon resumed his familiar No. 2 spot with Asdrubal Cabrera hitting behind him. As Jason emerged as the Tribe’s top run producer in 2012, Acta flipped him and Cabrera, and the move has sent Kipnis’ numbers through the roof.
Kipnis hit .263 with a .316 OBP hitting second, but has subsequently hit .340 with a .377 OBP batting third.
Acta also had a good deal of success with Jack Hannahan batting ninth prior to his nagging back injuries. At the bottom of the lineup, Hannahan has hit a eye-popping .327 with a .397 OBP.
While the Tribe lacks the big names and consistency of a dangerous offense, Acta’s moves have helped squeeze the most out of the Tribe’s young players, even when others have struggled. Manny needs to stay willing to get creative with the lineup, especially if Carlos Santana continues to struggle.
Choo, Cabrera, Kipnis and Brantley have all responded well to their new places in the lineup, and it’s time to get Carlos straightened out. It’s no secret that Santana misses hitting behind Travis Hafner.
When batting fifth, Carlos has a .299/.375/.388 slash line, but when batting cleanup, it’s dropped to .191/.331/.348. At least until Hafner comes back, Manny should consider moving Brantley to second in the order (.333/.385/.417, 6 RBI in 12 AB in 2012) and move both Cabrera and Kipnis down a spot, Asdrubal batting third and Jason hitting cleanup, with Carlos back in the fifth spot.
Ubaldo has looked much better of late.
2011 will always be remembered as the year the Tribe gambled the farm on Ubaldo Jimenez. While the returns have been mostly frustrating, Ubaldo has shown glimpses of his former self from time to time.
Many fans were outraged with GM Chris Antonetti for giving up so much to acquire Jimenez. People wondered why the Indians had to gut their farm system for a former Cy Young-caliber starter, after we received so little in exchange for CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
Only time will tell just how good or bad the trade was. It’s important to remember that both Drew Pomeranz and Alex White are still just 23, but a quick glance at the stats since the trade is at least a little consoling to Tribe fans:
Pomeranz: 9 GS, 2-3, 5.01 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 33 K in 41.1 Innings pitched
White: 15 GS, 4-9, 6.83 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, 55 K in 81.2 Innings Pitched
Jimenez: 23 GS, 10-8, 5.00 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 106 K in 135.0 Innings Pitched
Obviously, management and fans were expecting better from Ubaldo. It would be nothing short of monumental if he could continue his recent resurgence and resemble the pitcher we thought we were trading for. The numbers show, however, that the situation hasn’t been as apocalyptic as many Tribe fans want to believe.
The trade also offers a valuable lesson.
If the Indians want to be serious about competing in the short term, they’re going to need to be willing to part with more highly-valued prospects. Come July 31, if the Indians are still in contention, they need to roll the dice again and go get some more big league-ready talent.
They essentially have a gaping offensive hole in left field, and face another one at both corner infield positions if Lonnie Chisenhall can’t show better plate discipline.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s nearly exclusively left-handed lineup continues to get manhandled by opposing left-handed pitching. What’s more, the starting rotation, at one time the gel holding the Indians' season together, has been knocked around in recent weeks.
Going after a marquee name like Zack Greinke or a steady presence like Wandy Rodriguez could help cement the starting five while Josh Tomlin or Jeanmar Gomez could be sent down to refine their craft.
All of these signs point to the Tribe being aggressive once again at the deadline, and this could entail parting with more stud prospects, Francisco Lindor included.
Manny needs to get the troops motivated for the final 100 games.
At season’s outset, the fashionable picks for the five AL playoff spots were Texas, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York and Boston/Tampa. Teams like the Indians, Royals, Orioles and Jays were considered second-tier fringe contenders another year away from serious playoff aspirations.
Ironically, as the Angels, Tigers, Yankees and Red Sox all stumbled out of the gate, the Tribe and Orioles have all remained either at or near the top of their division for the majority of the season.
While the Angels and Yankees have regained their pre-season mojo, the Tigers and Red Sox continue to be hampered by injuries and poor pitching.
The eventual return of players like Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, Victor Martinez, Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury will provide a spark for the underachieving Tigers and Bo Sox, however, and gear them up for a late-season run at the playoffs.
With the prima donna Tigers still licking their wounds, the onus is on the Indians to step up their play right now. And while the veteran White Sox have emerged as a team demanding respect, the young Indians need to show they’re serious about making the playoffs now if they have any hope of doing so come September.