Tribe Talk: Can the Indians Continue Their Winning Ways?

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Tribe Talk: Can the Indians Continue Their Winning Ways?
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Josh Tomlin

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 discuss whether the bad week the Indians had is a sign of things to come, what they can do to combat injuries to the rotation, and whether or not they have a true division rival.

I would like to thank this week's participant Lewie Pollis, for his contribution. This discussion is open to all, so please feel free to comment below and pitch your thoughts on the questions we're addressing this week.

Go Tribe!

1. After steamrolling the competition for the first few weeks of the season, the Indians appeared to be slowing down a bit last week. They eked out a split in Kansas City, and then dropped both games in Minnesota to the Twins. While they still had a 1.5 game lead in the Central as of Monday, it definitely appears the wheels are in danger of coming off. 

How much stock do you put in the struggles the Indians had last week? Was it just a blip and nothing to be concerned about, or is it a sign of struggles to come?

How much does it concern you that they fared so poorly against, of all teams, Minnesota, a squad that has really struggled for the first month of the season and fallen far short of expectations?

Samantha Bunten: Eh, I don't see any reason to panic. I'll admit that in the midst of watching it happen, I got a little nervous that the wheels were coming off, but it didn't look so bad after the fact. 

The Indians emerged from it still in first place, so I don't think there's any reason to get hysterical and start sounding like all the Yankee fans who demand to fire the manager because they're only two games up in their division in May. If the Indians fall out of first and continue to lose ground, that's when we can sound the alarm. 

For now, it just looks like a bad week. In a 162-game season, everybody loses. A lot. Including the teams that wind up winning their division. No one should be saying that the Tribe is a lock to do that, but I also don't think one bad week in April is in any way a portent of doom.

Lewie Pollis: I think it's too small a sample size from which to draw conclusions. The odds of a team with a 40-percent chance of winning a game pulling off a three-game sweep are greater than the chances of rolling an 11 with two dice. These things happen.

Even with the bad stretch, the Indians now stand at 15-8—seven games over .500 and 3.5 games ahead of the Tigers and Royals for the division lead.

There are legitimate reasons to doubt the Tribe's ability to keep up their hot streak—Travis Hafner's ludicrous BABIP, Justin Masterson's great luck, Grady Sizemore's plate discipline. That the Indians had one mediocre week is not one of them.

 

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

2. The starting rotation looked fantastic two weeks into the season, but unfortunately it's now in a state of uncertainty. Mitch Talbot has been placed on the DL and it appears that Carlos Carrasco may be headed there as well. Both players are dealing with elbow issues. 

Do you think either/both of these injuries will turn out to be serious and cause the pitcher(s) to miss a significant amount of time?

How confident are you that the Indians would be able to replace one pitcher without suffering much damage? What if they have to replace both pitchers?

Samantha Bunten: Every time I hear the words "elbow issue" in the same sentence as I hear the word "pitcher", I start to feel Tommy John Surgery paranoia creeping up on me. Luckily no one has said that will be the case for Talbot thus far, and certainly not for Carrasco. 

That's a relief for the long-term bigger picture, but it doesn't help with the fact that we are currently at least one pitcher short of a complete rotation and possibly two short. 

David Huff and Jeanmar Gomez are the most obvious candidates to act as replacements, which isn't exactly comforting. Both are probably capable of handling the occasional spot start, but I don't see either as equipped to succeed consistently if they were needed for a longer stint in the rotation. 

They were both up for a spot in the rotation this Spring and obviously both failed to get it. I'm not saying that one or both of them won't eventually develop into a viable starter, but neither one of them is really a viable starter right now. Suffice it to say that if the Indians lose both Carrasco and Talbot to injury for any extended period of time, they're going to be in serious trouble.

Lewie Pollis: I don't think anyone without a medical degree is really qualified to answer that question. All I can tell you is what we've already heard—Carrasco's injury doesn't seem too serious, but Talbot could be out for a while.  

As for their replacements, I'm not terribly optimistic. Jeanmar Gomez is only 23 so I wouldn't rule him out in the future, but I don't think he's really a good option at this point. David Huff's problem is that the strikeout prowess he demonstrated in the minors completely disappears when he pitches in the majors, and given his current 3.0 K/9 rate in four Triple-A starts, I'm not looking forward to seeing him back on the mound at the Prog.

But if we bring Alex White up, I would be thrilled. More than a strikeout per inning? A K/BB ratio of 5.6? He's only 22 years old? I'm salivating. I understand there are considerations of his long-term development in play, but boy would I love to see him brought up.

 

3. There are a lot of players on the Indians roster who have been very pleasant surprises this season. Michael Brantley completely turned it around from his disappointing 2010 season and Grady Sizemore extinguished any concerns that he would never be a productive player again when he came back a blazing success. 

But perhaps the biggest surprise of all has been Travis Hafner, who writers described before the season as "done" as a home run hitter, and whose contract has been lambasted as absurdly high for years on end.

What do you think of Hafner's unbelievably hot start? Did you think he still had it in him? Do you think he'll be able to continue his stellar hitting over the long haul of the season, or is he just on a short-lived hot streak?

Samantha Bunten: Not sold. At all.

Look, we all wish Hafner would snap back to his monster power hitter days of the past so we can enjoy having a true home run hitter on our team and stop complaining about his contract. But I don't think that's how this is going to turn out. 

I think it's fair to say Hafner is doing a decent job. But I think his numbers are deceptive in their indication that he's doing an exceptional job. I think he'll slow down a lot, and I think he'll do it soon.

Fortunately I don't think there's any indication that he'll revert back to the serious struggles he's had in the recent past, but I don't think we'll be calling him "excellent" at the end of the season; I think we'll be calling him "serviceable".

Lewie Pollis: I hate to play raincloud here, but there's one number on Hafner's stat sheet that really pops out: his .407 BABIP.

Now, I realize that not everyone is on board with the idea that major BABIP fluctuations are just random chance (despite the fact that it's been proven repeatedly), but consider this: no one has ever maintained a hit rate that high over a full season in my lifetime. The last time anyone finished the year with a hit rate over .400 was Jose Hernandez in 2002.

Either Travis Hafner is hitting the ball harder than any other player in the last almost-19 years—including, but not limited to, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder—or he's getting lucky. You decide.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

A couple days ago I calculated each Indians regular's stats and adjusted for their xBABIPs. In general, the results were good—six of the eight players I tested have actually been getting unlucky. Hafner, however, fell to .279/.326/.464. That ain't bad, but it's a far cry from .348/.395/.580.

 

4. Thus far in the season, Manny Acta has been praised for not only putting together a winning ballclub in general, but for many smaller things he's done specifically to make that happen. 

One thing that seems to come up a lot is how much the Tribe faithful seem to appreciate his willingness to pull pitchers as soon as there are signs of trouble, something that was a frequent issue for former manager Eric Wedge, who always seemed afraid to pull the plug and caused the team to lose games because of it.

Do you think this is something that is a huge part of why Acta has been successful thus far?

What else do you think Acta is doing well that is keeping his team in first place?

Samantha Bunten: For the most part, the mark of a good manager is virtual invisibility. If a manager is doing his job well, you shouldn't be talking about him or thinking about him much. Generally speaking, what you tend to notice about what a manager does are the things he does poorly or makes mistakes on, so the less you notice him, the better. 

We all talked about Eric Wedge constantly because he was always making mistakes. That made it glaringly obvious that he was doing a poor job. We don't focus on Acta much that way at all, which to me says he's doing a good job. 

I think he does a good job of being a likable "player's manager" type without undermining his own authority by trying to be his players' best friend. I also think he does an excellent job of marrying small-ball style manufacturing of runs and wins with simply outmuscling the opponent when that's the better option in a given situation. But mostly, unlike Wedge, he's stayed off my radar, which to me indicates he's doing a great job.

Lewie Pollis: Frankly, I really don't think a manager makes much of an impact on his team. A bad manager can definitely hurt his team, but a good skipper doesn't really help much. Still, I love Acta because he understands that traditional, by-the-book managing isn't always the right way to go.

In an interview in 2007, he said: “It’s been proven to me that a guy at first base with no outs has a better chance to score than a guy at second base with one out. That has been proven to me with millions of at-bats. I don’t like moving guys over from first to second unless the pitcher is up or it is real late in the game." The guy knows what he's talking about.

 

5. Fun Question of the Week: With the AL Central standings turning out very different than expected thus far, a possible new and unexpected rivalry has been born: Cleveland vs Kansas City. 

Great rivalries don't begin overnight, so it's too early to tell if this thing really has legs, but at least for the time being, do you see the Royals as the Indians' prime rival? If not, who do you consider their rival instead?

How much of the old Indians-White Sox rivalry do you think still exists? Is this a dead issue or is it merely taking a temporary backseat to a rivalry with the Royals only to be reignited at a later time?

Samantha Bunten: It's tempting to say yes, the Royals are our great and worthy opponent. Rivalries are fun. But I think we have to be careful not to bestow the title of "rival" on someone when in fact they're just someone we really want to beat. 

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

There aren't really many true rivalries in baseball anymore. Even the Yankees-Red Sox "rivalry" is, these days, mostly just the media trying to capitalize on the draw of two big market teams or an excuse for Yankee fans to randomly attack people in Boston hats. 

The Indians are no exception to the norm throughout baseball on this; they don't have a true rival, and they haven't had one for a long time. The White Sox rivalry is long dead and Kansas City isn't anything close to a real rival yet. But it sure does feel good to beat them, doesn't it?

Lewie Pollis: I don't think the Indians have a rivalry with any team. There are a few notable exceptions, but almost every baseball rivalry seems forced or manufactured. The only team I consider to be the Indians' rivals is the one suiting up against them that night.

Oh, and the Yankees. Everybody hates them.

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