3 Things the Cleveland Indians Must Do to Make the Playoffs in 2013
After beginning the season with modest expectations in the national media despite an impressive offseason overhaul, the Tribe slumped to an 8-13 start. They then won 18 of the next 22, lost 16 of the next 20, won 15 of the next 20 and then lost five of their last seven.
This inconsistency has left many Tribe fans teetering between extremes of delusion, mired in a glass half-full, half-empty conundrum. There are occasions when the team’s play is downright infuriating, and other times when it looks like it can’t be beat.
In what appears to be a seemingly inescapable twist of fate, the Indians find themselves in the same position in 2013 that they’ve been in the past three seasons. Once again, they have played solid baseball the first two months of the season, only to potentially fold under the pressure of elevated expectations.
After peaking at 30-15 in 2011 and 26-18 in 2012, the Indians stood at 26-17 on May 20 of this season. Since then, they’ve gone a lackluster 21-26.
If the Tribe hopes to buck that rather unpleasant trend which left their previous two seasons in despair, they must do the following three things to salvage their 2013 campaign.
1. Cut Down on Team Strikeouts
Perhaps no phrase puts it better than the old baseball adage: "Put the ball in play and good things will happen."
Strikeouts have long doomed the Cleveland Indians. They are currently second in the American League in team whiffs, trailing only the lowly Houston Astros, whose roster is about as professionally credible as the hill that occupies center field in Minute Maid Park.
Offseason acquisitions Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn may have improved the Tribe's offense, but each has brought with them the stigma (and their track record) of being a strikeout machine.
Cleveland fans could hardly have been surprised to see another high strikeout total in 2013, but a look at the team’s performance over the past decade illustrates a disturbing trend.
Since 2003, the Indians have finished in the top three in the AL in team strikeouts eight out of 10 seasons. They finished third in 2003, second in 2005, first in 2006, third in 2007, third in 2008, third in 2009, second in 2010 and second in 2011.
However, despite all of their swings and misses, the Tribe's lineup has managed to hold its own. Cleveland has done a good job of getting on base (ranking fifth in the AL in both walks and OBP), working pitch counts (third in the AL in pitches seen), and hitting ‘in the clutch’ (leading the majors in hitting with RISP and two outs).
That fact they they are fifth in the AL in runs might come as a surprise, but if you cut down on their exorbitant strikeout total, the Indians' ranking would figure to climb even higher.
With their less-than-stellar pitching staff, the Tribe may have to slug out more wins than in seasons past, but all of their Ks do nothing but hurt their cause. The Tribe simply won’t win enough games if they can’t do a better job of putting the ball in play.
2. Find a #2 Starter
I’ve been thumping my chest about Justin Masterson for a few years now.
After an inconsistent 2012, Masterson's 2013 season seems to be proving him a capable No. 1 starter.
Prior to his unwelcome drubbing at the hands of the Tigers on July 5, Masterson had even started to pitch like a true ‘ace’ at times. Despite the setback to Detroit, the big righty figures to put together another solid season where he’ll likely win at least 12-15 games, pitch 200-plus innings and possibly surpass 200 strikeouts, a number he’s never come close to in his career.
Helping Masterson fill out the Cleveland rotation are a pair of comeback candidates and a pitcher whose career minor league ERA is 4.42. Scott Kazmir has pitched about as well as you could hope for a guy who hadn’t been in an MLB rotation since 2010 and had most recently pitched for a team called the ‘Skeeters.’
Ubaldo Jimenez currently has the lowest ERA of his tenure in an Indians' uniform—albeit a mediocre 4.37—and Corey Kluber has more than held his own. By consistently throwing strikes and twice striking out 10 batters in a game, most recently against Detroit’s ‘Murderer’s Row’ of a lineup, ‘CK’ appears to be in the rotation to stay.
Although the Tribe’s patchwork rotation has held it together in the absence of projected third and fourth starters, Brett Myers and Zach McAllister, the Indians need another arm to elevate their rotation from ‘passable’ to ‘respectable’.
While the starters have struck out their fair share of batters (ranking fifth in the AL), they also rank second in the AL in walks surrendered. Anyone who watches baseball knows that walks kill a pitching staff, and it’s no coincidence that the Tigers and their league-leading rotation have issued the third-fewest free passes.
With the ineffective Carlos Carrasco and the effectively wild Trevor Bauer clearly overmatched in their opportunities at nabbing the fifth spot, ‘Bauer Outage’ and ‘CarCar Stinks’ are now both back in the minors.
Danny Salazar, one of Cleveland's few starting pitchers who was raised in the Indians' farm system, will make his MLB debut on Thursday against the Blue Jays.
Until McAllister comes back to resume his spot, Tribe fans can only hope Salazar is the one to help restore order.
In the case he’s unable to do so, the Indians must very seriously consider aggressively going after a legit No. 2 starting pitcher.
Recent history tells us that gambling top prospects for proven starting pitching can be hit or miss. The Indians seemingly missed when they gave up three of their top pitching prospects to acquire Jimenez, but the rival Tigers have been handsomely rewarded since dealing top prospect Jacob Turner to Miami in order to acquire Anibal Sanchez at the 2012 trading deadline.
Either Garza or Gallardo could help push the Indians into the postseason, but would it be worth potentially giving up a Francisco Lindor, Bauer, Dorssys Paulino or some combination of the three?
3. Get the Bullpen Back in Order
It is aggravatingly ironic that the Indians bullpen, undoubtedly the team’s greatest strength the past three years, has been its most glaring weakness in 2013.
The once lights-out trio of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez has barely resembled the seventh-eighth-ninth-inning security blanket of years past. Each has endured his share of embarrassing letdowns that have cost the Indians a handful of very winnable games.
Unfortunately for the Wahoo faithful, the late innings haven’t been Cleveland's only area of concern. The Indians have failed to find a reliable left-handed specialist since dealing Tony Sipp in the offseason, as both Nick Hagadone and Rich Hill have proven inept and unable to throw strikes.
The middle innings haven’t been much better, as newly acquired Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers have had an especially rough go in recent weeks. Perhaps the Tribe’s most effective reliever this season has been youngster Cody Allen.
A former 23rd-round pick in 2011, Allen has a good fastball and curve when he can locate both, but he lacks the sustained success to make you feel truly comfortable when he’s pitching late in tight games.
Based on track record and potential, the Indians' bullpen mix appears solid, although the numbers tell otherwise. Indians' pitching ranks dead last in the majors in save percentage (51 percent), walks (124) and wild pitches (25) while being tied for last in the AL with 17 blown saves and second-to-last in the league with 37 home runs allowed.
The fact that the bullpen is allowing so many unmerited baserunners and gift-wrapping additional bases is bad enough, but its shortcomings are only compounded when getting buried by the long ball.
Former Triple-A Columbus Clippers closer Preston Guilmet was recently called up, and if Cleveland’s current relief corps continues to struggle, further reinforcements could be on the way as well.
Scott Barnes and Matt Langwell have already had a taste of the big leagues, and former top prospect Chen-Chang Lee—and his 311 strikeouts and 1.09 WHIP in 250 career minor league innings—should be considered as well.
The Indians have already stated that Brett Myers will move back to the bullpen upon his return in a role where he’s had some success in the past. Should the Tribe acquire another starter, they could also convert Scott Kazmir into their long reliever, a role that’s currently vacant on the Indians' roster despite having eight bullpen arms.
The Indians are a team of incalculable contrasts.
They rank near the top of the AL offensively, yet can be found near the bottom in pitching.
The run well on the basepaths, hit a good deal of home runs, and are extremely good at hitting with runners in scoring position. They have a well-balanced offensive attack, with 12 players on their roster currently with at least 20 RBI.
Yet, they struggle to manufacture runs, as they’re toward the bottom of the league in sacrifice bunts. They don’t have a single player in the top 30 in home runs, and don't have one .300 hitter in their lineup.
The Indians' pitching isn’t much clearer. While their numbers show that the staff is below average, if you told a fan that all five Tribe starters would have an ERA under 5.00 come the All-Star break, they would be elated. This is a starting staff whose top pitcher ended the 2012 season with a 4.93 ERA over 34 starts!
With the bullpen in flux, and uncertainty surrounding the back end of the rotation, the Indians are truly at a crossroads. Despite their streaky play and contender-pretender disorder, they find themselves just 2.5 games back of the overwhelmingly favored Tigers in the AL Central.
Indeed, baseball fans have seen this story the previous two seasons. The hope among Cleveland fans is that with a manager in Terry Francona who has already won two World Series and a deeper, more talented roster, the same fate won’t befall the Tribe in 2013.
Should Francona and general manager Chris Antonetti make a few well-timed adjustments, it would seem more likely that this is indeed the season that it all goes down to the wire in Cleveland.