Nine Keys to the Indians Competing in AL Central

Evan Vogel@EvanVogelTweetsContributor IIIJune 8, 2012

Nine Keys to the Indians Competing in AL Central

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    After losing to the Detroit Tigers on Thursday afternoon 7-5, the Indians now have a fantastic 5-1 record against the defending AL Central champions. The only problem is the Tigers aren't in front of the Indians as the Tribe sits at 30-26 behind the Chicago White Sox for second in the Central.

    What is it that this Cleveland team needs to do to maintain a division-winning pace in 2012? In the ups and downs of a 162-game season, there will be plenty of changes, frustrations and reasons for excitement.

    Here, you'll find exactly what the Indians need to stay afloat and compete.

Trade for a Right-Handed Bat...

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    ...and by right-handed bat, I mean Kevin Youkilis.

    To say that Kevin Youkilis would be a perfect fit for the Indians would be like saying LeBron James and the Miami Heat need to stop complaining about the refs. Everyone with eyes knows that it needs to happen. The only issue is that the Tribe isn't alone in the need for "The Greek God of Walks."

    According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, the Phillies and Diamondbacks were in on Youk just this week (here), while Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com had the Indians in on Youkilis on May 20. Other outlets have the Reds, Dodgers, Angels, Rangers, Giants, White Sox and Brewers interested in the Red Sox first and third baseman.

    Youkilis is a career .287/.389/.489 hitter, and at 33-years of age, should have a little left in the tank. Youk is owed $12 million in 2012, and he has an option of $13 million or a $1 million buyout in 2013. The Indians are and have been considered a "small-market" team, but when you've made moves like the Derek Lowe and Ubaldo Jimenez acquisitions, you need to make moves to win immediately.

    Making this trade would indicate that ownership and management intend to win now at any cost, which would potentially lead more fans through the gates at Progressive Field.

Upgrade in Left Field...

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    ...and by upgrading in left field, I mean never playing Johnny Damon again.

    I could have ended the slide there, but let me explain:

    Johnny Damon is hitting .187/.288/.264 in 91 at bats. He has been worse against right-handed pitchers (.169/.289/.246) than left-handed pitchers (.231/.286/.308). In 23 at bats with runners in scoring position, Damon has hit .130/.231/.348. He is 38-years-old and he is taking valuable at bats away from Matt LaPorta, Shelley Duncan, Russ Cantzler and anyone else who could step in the batter's box and breathe oxygen.

    If the Indians aren't able to acquire Kevin Youkilis, then they should turn their sights on Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin. Quentin just returned from the DL on May 28. In seven games and 30 at bats, Quentin has two more RBI than Damon has the entire season with nine.

    Quentin has a small-sample explosion of numbers, posting a .481/.533/1.185 line with five home runs, nine RBI and nine runs scored (just one fewer run than Damon).

    Quentin has had issues staying healthy over his career, maxing-out at 131 games in 2010, but he has been pretty productive in his career, averaging .255/.348/.499 with about 34 doubles, two triples, 33 home runs and 102 RBI averages over a 162-game season.

    Quentin would be a huge addition and he would be a free agent after the season. The Indians need the right-handed bat, but if they don't get Youkilis or Quentin, they'll probably slide Michael Brantley or Grady Sizemore (if healthy...ever) over to left. Either way, the Damon experiment was cute, but it needs to end now in order for the Indians to get some offensive help.

Help Jeanmar Gomez Figure out What He Is

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    Gomez isn't alone. The Indians also need to know what Jeanmar Gomez is to help him get straightened out. He is 13-12 with a 4.71 ERA in 174 innings as an Indian and has made 31 starts, so he has a whole season under his belt at this point in his career.

    Gomez looked like a solid contributor to the rotation back on May 4, the good old days when Gomez was 2-1 with a 2.82 ERA. Since that start, Gomez is 2-3 with a 6.31 ERA in six starts.

    Gomez has the stuff of a ground-ball pitcher, throwing his sinking fastball nearly 45 percent of the time. He has a cut-fastball as well, along with a changeup, slider and a curveball, which he rarely throws (fangraphs.com). His ground ball rate is solid but not great at 49.5 percent. He has to be careful with his location since he doesn't strike many batters out, just a 4.5 K:9.

    Jeanmar Gomez has an extremely low BABIP right now of .265, while the league average is .300. Even though he hasn't been pitching well of late, Gomez has been lucky.

    Gomez needs some help to get to where he can be with the potential that he possesses. He is just 24-years-old and a work in progress, but he is a valuable asset to the Indians rotation. Manny Acta and Scott Radinsky need to find a way for Gomez to become the pitcher that he was in his first four starts. If Gomez gets back on track, it solidifies the rotation behind Lowe.

Get and Stay Healthy

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    It has been a painful year: (mlb.com)

    • Carlos Santana was out seven days with a concussion (he missed the series against the White Sox when the Tribe was swept in Chicago).
    • Travis Hafner underwent knee surgery on May 31 and will, possibly, return in late June.
    • Jack Hannahan went on the disabled list on May 28 with a left calf strain.
    • Rafael Perez has been out with a left lat strain and will return in late June or early July.
    • Grady Sizemore has missed the whole season due to surgery on his back and right knee. He could return later this month, but he had a setback, which was reported on June 7, earlier in his rehab.
    • Carlos Carrasco will miss all of the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery.
    • Johnny Damon has had 93 at bats and hurt the Indians lineup...oops. Opinions are fun.

    Clearly, the Indians are lucky to have the Cleveland Clinic in town. Major contributors, or expected contributors in the case of Sizemore, have been missing a lot of time. The club can't really handle another injury to an every-day player as the bench is versatile but weak with the bat.

    If Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Brantley or Jason Kipnis were to go down at this point, the team would fall faster than LeBron James on a flop.

Win Games When You Are Supposed to

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    It is great to be 5-1 against the Tigers, but you can't sweep a series against what most think is the class of the division and then lose four of six to the Royals and Twins.

    The Indians are 12-14 against AL Central teams not in Detroit in 2012, including 4-8 against the White Sox, 5-4 against the Royals and 3-2 against the Twins.

    The White Sox received no attention earlier in the season, and when the Indians swept the Tigers at Progressive Field, it was forgotten that they were only up by 3.5 games before losing their lead all together five days later. That's when the White Sox beat the Rays on May 29 to take a 0.5 game lead.

    The Twins are currently 22-34 and the Royals are 24-31, a combined 19 games under .500. If you want to compete with the class of the division, which consists of the Tigers and White Sox (both teams, not one), you need to win games against the Tigers and White Sox while beating the teams that they beat, too. The Twins and Royals are in rebuilding mode and the Indians need to be in win-now mode, especially against "weaker" teams.

    With upcoming series' at St. Louis, at Cincinnati, home against Pittsburgh and hosting Cincinnati, the Tribe suddenly has a challenging schedule ahead. The "easy" games need to be won because of stretches like this.

    Real life isn't Las Vegas and you can't win all 162 games, but you have to win more than you lose against teams like the Twins and Royals. Going 4-6 against them isn't going to do it.

Keep Mashing Against Right-Handers and Learn to Hit Lefties

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    .272/.348/.416 is a solid line for an everyday player. That slash is the Cleveland Indians entire team slash against right-handed pitchers in 2012.

    Running a lineup of all left-handed hitters clearly has its advantages. The Indians have great on-base skills and a potent lineup. Unless...

    ...there is a left-handed pitcher on the mound. I'll reiterate the need for Kevin Youkilis and/or Carlos Quentin right now with the team slash against left-handed pitcher on the mound: .212/.302/.323.

    The Indians are 25-13 when a right-hander starts, but just 5-13 when a left-hander starts. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can certainly start blaming upper-management for the roster they've put together and Bruce Fields, the hitting coach, for the lack of adjustments from the hitters.

Veteran Starter Consistency

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    I took a lot of heat in the message board comments when I wrote last week that the Indians should trade Derek Lowe (here) before he loses value and crashes back to earth, and it was well deserved. The same day the article was posted, Lowe went 6.2 innings allowing one earned run, improving to 7-3 on the season.

    With that being said, a 20:19 K:BB in 67.2 innings is still frightening, and Lowe, at 39, has a .295 average against compared to a career average against of .261. Lowe has managed to leave 78.3% of batters on base this season, the league average is 72.6%.

    He has pitched out of jams without striking opposing batters out, but how long can he continue to benefit from luck and solid defense? Would another injury behind him turn him into the Lowe who imploded without Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera in Chicago (8 ER, 10 H in 2.1 innings)?

    My thoughts are that luck runs out, but the Indians need Lowe more than anyone else in the system to be able to compete in the AL Central.

    What about Ubaldo Jimenez? He's been consistently awful. He has dominated at home as I've stated before (here), but he's been miserable on the road since joining the Indians, now 5-5 in 12 starts with a 7.52 ERA after a solid win on Tuesday at Detroit. Will he find the strike zone more often and become a dominant, power arm like the Indians envisioned when they gave up a potential ace, Drew Pomeranz, for him?

    Regardless of my own thoughts and opinions, the fact is that the Indians need Lowe and Jimenez to either continue to dominate or figure out how to. The Indians don't have the rotation depth of the White Sox or Tigers as their starting pitchers rank 11th in the American League and 26th in baseball with a 4.73 ERA.

Continued Dominance out of the Bullpen

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    While the numbers say that the Indians have the 23rd ranked bullpen in baseball, there are some skewed numbers there. Take a look:

    • Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith and Nick Hagadone have combined for a 2.81 ERA in 89.2 innings.
    • Tony Sipp, Dan Wheeler and Jairo Asencio have combined for a 6.75 ERA in 58.2 innings.

    Wheeler and Asencio are gone, replaced by left-hander Scott Barnes and right-hander Jeremy Accardo. Those two have managed to allow just two earned runs in 15.2 innings (1.15 ERA). If only they could get rid of Sipp...

    Dominance has been the norm for the bullpen if you take out Wheeler, Asencio and Sipp. If the starters can get through six innings, the Indians truly look to have an asset with six of the seven arms currently in the "Bullpen Mafia."

Add an Arm to the Rotation

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    There are several intriguing arms who will be free agents after the 2012 season. Typically, these arms are available at the trade deadline when or if their team is out of it. With the added spot in the playoffs, more teams will hold onto their arms until they know that they are out of it. Below is a list of arms that the Indians could consider acquiring:

    Zack Greinke, Edwin Jackson, Erik Bedard, Carlos Zambrano, Anibal Sanchez, Chien-Ming Wang, Brandon McCarthy, Kevin Millwood, Shaun Marcum, Brett Myers, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster, Joe Blanton and Bartolo Colon.

    There are several names on the list who would cost the Indians prospects that they just don't have anymore. The system isn't bare, but a majority of the future lies in the lower ranks of the system.

    The Indians need to keep what they have in upper levels to compete since they seem to have a window of opportunity with their current group ror the next two to four years, replacing parts as needed.

    The best move for the Tribe could be the arrival of Roberto Hernandez, formerly Fausto Carmona. Hernandez could still face a suspension from baseball for his identity fraud, but the Indians hoped that the drastic decrease in salary was enough punishment for the issue. Hernandez will take time to get into shape, and though he has been throwing in the Dominican Republic, he is free, which means the Tribe can keep their future.

    If they did make a move, Erik Bedard or Bartolo Colon would be on the cheaper side of trade options, and Bedard's age and arsenal make him a smarter option. He is on the Pittsburgh Pirates, so he'll probably become available in the next couple of weeks.

Wrapping Things Up

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    While I could have saved time by saying "win more games than the teams in front of you," there is a lot more than that. The Indians have a solid team, regardless of what its done. And it is clearly a much better teams against right-handed pitchers due to the left-handed stacked lineup.

    Consistency and staying healthy will be the main issues for the Indians. They still have a lot of young talent in Santana, Kipnis, Gomez and Brantley who need to make adjustments on the fly to become better all-around players. The Tribe has been ravaged by injuries at inopportune times this season. The loss of Santana, Cabrera and Hafner prior to the White Sox series was excruciating for the fans and the team.

    There is no telling what Grady Sizemore and Roberto Hernandez will be able to do when they are healthy or are allowed back on the field. If they return to their career averages, the Indians will be winners at the deadline.

    If they continue to lack identity (get it?) or are hampered by injuries, the Indians will be fading faster than a sunset over Lake Erie.