Welcome to Tribe Talk, where Bleacher Report's Cleveland Indians fans weigh in on the ups and downs of the club each week throughout the season.
This week, we mull over whether the Tribe's hot start means they could be a contender in the AL Central this season, discuss whether Matt LaPorta's time to prove himself is running out and take our best shot at predicting AL division winners for the end of 2011.
I would like to thank this week's participant Lewie Pollis for his contributions. This discussion is open to all, so please feel free to comment below and pitch in your thoughts on the questions we're addressing this week.
1. Holy hot streak, Batman! After dropping their first two games of the season to Chicago, the Indians went on a seven-game winning streak, sweeping Boston and Seattle in the process.
It seems that all of a sudden, the Indians are in first place. For now.
Most of us Tribe faithful would be lying if we said that at least some small part of us wasn't entertaining the idea that this just might last.
Whether you're playing good or bad baseball, chances are the first week of the season is never going to be enough to make you or break you for the season. Unless by some chance, it isn't just a streak, but rather a sign of things to come.
So, what do you make of the Indians' red hot start? Legitimate or lucky? Long-lasting or a flash in the pan? Do you think this is an indication that the Indians are a far better team than most people thought they would be?
And then the real test: care to revise your prediction on where the Tribe will finish in the Central, or even who will win the Central?
Lewie Pollis: I don't think this really changes anything going forward. The pitching's been a little fluky, but the Indians really are a good offensive team.
Cabrera and Hannahan have been playing over their heads, but look at the success the Indians' lineup has had while Choo and Santana have been struggling.
When they start to pick it up and Sizemore comes back, it'll help balance out the effect of the others' regression to the mean.
The only real impact this has on my projections is that the Indians have outperformed expectations for their first 12 games; I'm not changing my mind much about the last 150.
I'll say the Tribe wins 79 games and at least challenges for third place in the division.
Samantha Bunten: I'd call the Indians start both legitimate AND lucky. They're playing better baseball than they should be, but that doesn't mean it's all just luck.
The Tribe has won dominantly in a number of games this season. Their victories didn't come on lucky breaks, and many of them weren't even close in score.
The offense has more than proven they're a legitimate threat, and the defense has been pretty stellar. I'm not sure the pitching is quite there yet, but it's certainly been far better than we expected.
I wish I could say I'm revising my prediction for the division and that I think the Indians will come out on top at the end of 2011, but they would need to keep this up at least through May for that to be worth considering.
It's certainly possible that they could pull of a miracle and come out a winner (remember 2007? No one thought they'd win the Central that year either), but for now let's just enjoy watching the Tribe play good baseball and wait and see before we start making predictions of huge success.
2. In a few weeks when players like Grady Sizemore, Joe Smith, and Jason Donald start coming off the DL, the Indians are going to have a bit of a problem on their hands: How are they going to create roster spots for them?
Granted, it's a lovely problem to have: players who have been subbing for the injured as well as backup and bench players have all played exceptionally well so far. But who will get the boot anyway?
Which outfielder will be sent packing to make room for Sizemore? Which bullpen pitcher will be out of a job when Joe Smith returns?
And what of Jason Donald? His situation is a bit different: is it possible that Jack Hannahan has played well enough at third that Donald doesn't have a job opening to come back to? Any chance he bumps Adam Everett out of the utility spot?
Lewie Pollis: I'd say Shelley Duncan is the obvious choice in the outfield, based on how little playing time he's gotten. Kearns' signed a major-league free agent contract this winter so I don't see him getting demoted anytime soon.
There's a chance Buck could be sent down, but my money's on Duncan.
Samantha Bunten: In the outfield, I'm guessing that Travis Buck will be the first to go. Kearns has struggled as well, but he seems to be coming on more lately, signed a major league contract before the season started and was unquestionably designated the fourth outfielder for after Sizemore returns.
Shelly Duncan is also a possibility for demotion, but I see him as more versatile than Buck and therefore a more attractive candidate for sticking around.
The bullpen is tougher to predict because the relievers who seem to have struggled the most are the long relief guys (Germano and Durbin) and they're not exactly interchangeable with a guy like Joe Smith.
As for third base, the job is Hannahan's to lose. He's SO good defensively and his bat has been far better than we imagined, so I don't see any sense in bringing in Donald unless that changes.
3. In a surprising turn of events, every starting pitcher on the Tribe roster has now pitched a great game. Some of them (Masterson, Tomlin) have even pitched two.
With all the problems the rotation had last season, and the bad start it got off to in the first two games of 2011, this has been a bit of a shocker.
One of our Tribe Talk panelists has been predicting this for Tomlin since Spring Training. Another panelist has been promising Masterson will deliver like this since early last year. Is there a chance this is legitimate, and not just a fluke of a good start for both pitchers?
How about Carrasco? He bounced back nicely after a disastrous first start, but can he keep that up?
Lewie Pollis: The thing I like about Carmona's start to the season is his increase in strikeouts. His 7.6 K/9 rate is almost a 50 percent increase over last year, which is why he has a 3.61 xFIP. Small sample size caveat here, but it's a reason to be optimistic.
Same goes for Talbot, but I'm not confident that he can keep his K/9 rate above 8.0 when it was below 5.0 last year.
Carrasco has been better than he's looked while Tomlin hasn't been quite as good. Actually, Tomlin reminds me of Talbot this time last year—great ERA, miserable peripherals.
Based on his track record I think he'll be able to at least get the walks under control (pun intended), but at this rate he's in for some major regression.
Finally, there's Masterson. There's a lot I could say about how he's been lucky (even so, he's got a 2.61 FIP), but instead I'd prefer to bask in the glory of saying, "I told you so!"
Samantha Bunten: I'm not sure I completely trust either Masterson or Tomlin just yet, but I do think they've both given us a good reason to think they may just be able to stick it out.
It's not so much about the wins (though those are nice, obviously). Mostly I like what I see because both pitchers have excelled in doing what they do best.
Masterson has been overpowering and missing opposing bats, and Tomlin has done a pretty nice job finessing his pitches.
Carrasco probably concerns me more. He's done a nice job so far (aside from that first outing in Chicago), but I'm still seeing a lot of control problems.
He's young and still learning, so I expect he'll improve further throughout the season, but at the moment, he's not my favorite guy to see out there on the mound.
4. Just like the Indians' pitching, the Tribe's offense has also gotten off to a torrid start, with almost all of the starters contributing greatly to the offense's overall success.
Well, with the exception of two people. Let's go ahead and assume Choo will be fine. There's no reason to think, for a player like that, that he won't turn it around quickly, as he's starting to do already.
That leaves Matt LaPorta as the only starter who looks like he may be an ongoing problem for the Tribe's offense. It's early, but LaPorta is still struggling at the plate the same way he did last year, and others who struggled in 2010 seem to have already turned it around.
Do you think this is an indication that it's finally time to give up on LaPorta? How long do you think the Indians should give him before they throw in the towel? Remember that LaPorta is 26 years old and has just one option left.
If you are in fact entertaining thoughts of pulling the plug on LaPorta, how do you think the Indians should handle the first base spot going forward?
Lewie Pollis: I reject the premise of the question. He's got an impressive 11.9 percent walk rate and a fantastic 1.000 Power Factor.
The problem is his .192 BABIP. If we replace his BABIP with his previous-career .260 mark (still probably quite unlucky), his batting line improves to .236/.332/.472. If we use a league-average .300 BABIP instead, he jumps to .265/.371/.530.
And we're really talking about pulling the plug? http://www.wahooblues.com/2011/04/14/cleveland-indians-matt-laporta-is-better-than-you-think.html/
Samantha Bunten: I'm still not entirely sure what to make of LaPorta. I want to like him, but he's still having a lot of trouble with consistency.
I'd be very hesitant to give up on him because he has so much power and his plate discipline has definitely improved from 2010.
Still, I'm looking for a much higher average than .189 and a much, much higher OBP than .295. Unless he hits 40-plus homeruns, he better be hitting at least .270.
Granted, LaPorta has had some bad luck on some well-hit balls this season, but if your luck is so bad that it keeps your average below the Mendoza line, maybe you're just too unlucky for the team to risk sending you out there.
I'm not ready to say I'm giving up on LaPorta just yet, but he's going to need to get it together in a hurry. At the moment, he's being far outperformed by the other guy who came over from Milwaukee in the CC Sabathia trade with him, Michael Brantley.
5. Fun Question of the Week: It's time for Tribe Talk panelists to take their first pass at predicting division winners across the league. We'll make our picks for the AL this week, and next week take a shot at the NL. We'll also revisit the question at a few later intervals throughout the season.
Lewie Pollis: East: Red Sox Central: White Sox West: Rangers Wild Card: Yankees
The only change here from my preseason picks is dropping the Rays from the Wild Card—with Longoria injured, Manny gone and the disadvantage of a miserable start, my sleeper team looks like a failure.
As for the pennant, any prediction is meaningless because anything can happen in five- and seven-game series. But I'll take the Red Sox, just because I still think they're the best team.
Samantha Bunten: East: Yankees Central: White Sox West: Rangers Wild Card: Indians.
The AL pennant is tough to predict at the moment; I don't see a single team who is playing like they deserve a trip to the World Series. But of course as Annie Savoy once said, "it's a long season and you gotta trust it".
For now my pick is the Rangers, IF they can stay out of the trainer's room. And you should never, ever count the Yankees out, because the second you do is always when they sneak up behind you and drop the anvil on your head. Be warned.