Cleveland Indians: Top 5 Questions and Answers for the 2011 MLB Playoff Push
If someone told you, coming into 2011, that the Cleveland Indians would be two games out of first place midway through August and start the season with an MLB-best 30-15 record, you might have thought:
A) Charlie Sheen was remaking the Major League film.
D) This was some sick joke.
E) Some wacky combination that included all of the above.
The city has had a certain '90s vibe since the season started, despite a roster full of unproven prospects, unproven pitchers, an unproven manager and a team widely speculated to be the worst on paper coming into the season. I'm pretty sure we've all read this chapter on the Indians before, haven't we?
The team has had more magic than any one of the 30 Harry Potter flicks, and it feels like another special summer in the ballpark formerly known as "The Jake."
They’ve made us laugh (Fukudome got hit by a pitch, with the bases loaded, in the 14th inning??), they’ve made us cry (brutal bullpen meltdowns in Boston/Texas, all in one week; being Grady Sizemore-less for "Grady’s Ladies" must have been rather tragic), they’ve made us smile (13 last-at-bat wins) and they’ve made us scratch our heads (trading for a Cy Young-caliber pitcher only a few years after giving two away).
They’ve surely given us hope and made us think, "What if?" (…World Series?...)
Well, here we are, midway through August, and there the Indians are, second in the standings on the heels of the Tigers. Could this be a repeat of 2007? A premature rise to the top? Or simply a mirage a la 2005, with a crash-and-burn in the coming weeks of the season to their divisional foes?
August and September will tell a lot about the Indians aspirations for not just this year but beyond. After all, as the 2007 playoff run proved, a lot of good fortune can go wrong rapidly.
Here are the five best questions and five hopeful answers that are key for the Windians to turn on the engine and finish what they started in the AL Central.
1. Is Ubaldo Jimenez Going to Be the Real-Deal "Ace?"
Is it too obvious that the prize of the trade deadline tops this list of questions?
Perhaps so, but the fact of the matter is the Ubaldo Jimenez trade is too heavily praised for its long-term benefits, and (surprisingly) not enough emphasis is put on this fella’s short-term benefit, i.e., TODAY.
He’ll be the most useful this year, considering that the Indians are a sure-fire contender. Who knows what’s to come in the next few years?
Critics of the Jimenez trade question whether or not he is "right" as it’s been a tale of two completely different years with the 27-year-old vet.
He was a bona fide Cy Young-caliber pitcher in 2010. In 2011, he has shown glimpses of being Fausto Carmona II, with dwindling velocity and shaky results.
The Indians are in it to win it today, and Jimenez can no longer be the question but rather the answer. He has got to be 2010, Cy Young-caliber Jimenez (and then some) for the Indians rotation.
The starters, who have been the anchor for the team all year as they’ve kept runs to a minimum and saved the bullpen from working overtime, are all on schedule to eclipse their innings totals from last year. Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco have never grinded (thank you, Eric Wedge) through pitching a full season as a starter at this level.
Can they keep up the brilliance through September? Jimenez must play the role of his predecessors, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia, in being the ace and leader of this staff, going deep into games and showing the others how it’s done.
He must take over the "ace" title from Justin Masterson for the time being.
Most importantly, he’s got to make his teammates, the front office and, of course, the fans forget about what Alex White and Drew Pomeranz are up to because he is performing that well.
2. Is Jason Kipnis the Second Coming?
That sure is a lot of pressure on a guy who has played just over two years of professional baseball and had fewer than 100 ABs thus far in the majors.
Still, the Illinois native Kipnis has been rewarded the second baseman position all for himself, as the Tribe cut the...cable…on Cord Phelps for the time being, and sent veteran (postseason frequent flyer) Orlando Cabrera to San Francisco.
Kipnis' promotion is justified, as he’s rewarded the red and blue with heroics in late innings on multiple occasions with theatrics in the field. However, for as many great diving plays as we’ve seen in his first few weeks, he has had some bumps, falls and errors in the field, especially on double plays.
In a perfect world, he and Asdrubal Cabrera would be so in sync that they could finish one another’s sentences, but reality kicks in as this is the first real stretch of playing time these two have had with one another.
While they won’t be the Alomar/Vizquel duo anytime soon, hopefully Kipnis can catch on from a defensive standpoint and help bridge Cleveland’s defense.
While it’d be a bit much to say the Cavaliers have a better defense than the Indians, we must accept the fact that this is not the ’99 Indians' Gold Glove infield with winners at nearly every position.
With that said, Kipnis will have to be a force not just at the plate, but also one in the field. “We are all Kipnesses” may even be a bit cheesy for the anti-LeBron crowd, but there is no doubt, we have been witnesses to his pure hitting ability in his short time in "The Show."
Can Kip keep it up? It sure looks like he's the real deal...
3. Can We Get More Size and More Choo?
Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo were undoubtedly considered part of the Indians' "core" players for the last few seasons. It’s funny how, coming into a season with very few expectations, two of the team’s most talented players have failed to meet any/all expectations.
Choo struggled out of the gate, as his off-field issues may have triggered his on-field issues. Sizemore started the season hurt, returned to what we may consider the "renaissance Sizemore," only to be injured and shut down two more times.
Both of these former Indians stars have been a disappointment to this point, but it’s never too late to chip in on the fun. Manny Acta needed bats for his lineup at the trade deadline, and while the import of Kosuke Fukudome has already been a good one, they were still left with a sour taste in their mouths after the July deadline came and went with no Hunter Pence and no Ryan Ludwick.
The patience may pay off if these two lefties come back and provide thump in the middle of the lineup for the remainder of the season. Just their presence in the lineup can go a long way, believe it or not.
Tribe fans have seen enough of Austin Kearns. Ezequiel Carrera has been a solid regular in their absence, but is a depth player for a reason. The ability is there, but is the health? Only September will tell.
4. Can the Bullpen Mafia Recover from Its Recent Shakedown?
Imagine a bullpen, where everyone is treated equally. Where anyone can pitch any inning. Where everyone contributes to a better tomorrow…and there you have the Indians bullpen.
If the starting rotation is the anchor to the Indians team, then the bullpen is the heart, artery, aorta, atrium and every other cardiovascular term you learned in high school. The bullpen has kept everything in motion.
They have been the perfect segue to the win column. They’ve steered the team in the right direction, with some swag, nonetheless. Cleveland’s ‘pen pals have relied on one another, picked each other up and been in sync—minus one tough road trip to Boston/Texas—thus nearly been "The Untouchables" all season long.
However, these guys have got to keep fueling the fire, namely Chris Perez. The closer’s first half was one to remember. He was dominating. His beard was only second to the mysterious Brian Wilson’s. He was an All-Star and instantly became one of Cleveland’s most loveable athletes.
I'm sure Joe Borowski and Bob Wickman were taking notes when they saw his “Pure Rage” demeanor on the mound, jotting down fury, fire and every other adjective they could find to describe this passionate closer. Since the All-Star break, however, Perez has suffered a series of unfortunate events that Indian closers in recent memory know all too well.
The closer, with as much heart and character as any in baseball, has got his head focused and must find the results that he has had almost since he was hired after Kerry Wood’s departure last year.
Does he have his stuff together? I believe so. And so do the Indians.
5. Does Cleveland Have the Depth To Go the Distance?
The future of the Indians season will be dictated by just that: the players to be named sooner rather than later, the Triple-A veterans and rising stars—simply put—the depth players that will be called up in September and the depth players that are here already.
While players may simply see it as just their cup of Joe come September, the minor leaguers that are called up will play a bigger role than ever because of how close this last-man-standing division is.
Whether it’s a Josh Judy coming in to eat up innings in a slugfest, or a Thomas Neal to pinch-run, the depth is what has gotten the Indians this far, and it’ll be what puts them over the hump.
Guys like Ezequiel Carrera, Zach McCallister, Jack Hannahan and Josh Tomlin weren’t even in the 2011 forecast, yet they’ve stormed together in some instrumental moments in 2011, among others.
They’ve contributed in both big and small ways, from spot starts, to pinch-hitting, to defensive substitutions that may go unnoted but pay great dividends. As Cleveland team president Mark Shapiro pointed out, Ubaldo Jimenez was instantly the biggest star on the team when he walked through the front door, halfway through the season.
This squad does not have a Who's Who, All-Star roster, but who was Dave Roberts before 2004? Or how about Javier Lopez before 2010? Some may still not know.
The case in point: They played drastic roles in helping their respective clubs win championships, despite playing the lesser Hollywood-type roles. Great depth can save you for some time when star power is fading due to injury, age or overall performance.
Cleveland possesses perhaps the best depth in the AL, considering its two biggest "stars" and a whole cast of other oft-injured players (Hafner) have been out a majority of the season, yet here it sits on the cusp of first place.
Never underestimate the power of Shelley Duncan? Not quite. But never underestimate the value of solid reserve players who can occasionally fill in gaps.
We’ll have to wait and see if the depth that is playing now, filling in for the two stars and spelling the other guys on a day-to-day basis, can keep this parade alive.