Evaluating the First Half and a Look Ahead at the Stretch Run
By Craig Gifford
The first half of the Major League Baseball season is in the books. For the Cleveland Indians, the first half was bookended by blown saves from closer Chris Perez, who was perfect in 24 save attempts between Opening Day and Sunday’s final game before the All-Star break.
In between the two rough outings, the Indians spent quite a few days in first place and entered the break 44-41. That is good for second place in the AL Central Division, three games behind the surprise, front-running Chicago White Sox. Record-wise, this is about where a lot of people thought the Indians would be, myself included. I thought 87 wins was reasonable goal before the year and the Tribe is roughly on that pace. Many people also thought the Indians would be the second best team in the division. The exception to that being the Detroit Tigers were far and away the team picked as the top dog, not the Sox.
The journey to a spot of contention – the Indians are one game behind the shocking Baltimore Orioles for the second AL Wild Card spot – has been full of surprises, both good and bad. It has been full of key contributions and a lot of memorable moments.
Let’s start with the aforementioned Perez. One of two Tribe All-Stars this season, the closer was as dominant as any closer in the game for three months. The unfortunate thing for him as that his two blown saves came at probably the most inopportune times. The first was Opening Day in front of sold-out crowd at Progressive Field. The other was Sunday, killing what would have been a major momentum boost for the Indians had they held on to take two of three from Tampa Bay and end the first half with three straight series wins against contending teams.
Still, what Perez did in between those two performances was quite memorable. He collected 24 straight saves and became arguably the face of the franchise. His comments about the early-season home attendance woes and the Kansas City Royals hitting Cleveland batters were catalysts for a lot of discussion and debate around town. He did do one thing that a long line of vanilla pinchedinneck.net Indians players had not done in years – he had Clevelanders talking Tribe, with a passion and vigor. Love him or hate him, Perez got the job done a lot more times than not in the first half.
That cannot be said about the majority of Indians bullpen, which was a huge disappointment in the first 85 games. Last year the relievers were hands down the strength of the team. This year, injuries and unforeseen struggles have limited Tribe manager Manny Acta to only three bullpen arms he can feel good about.
Like Perez, Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano picked up where they left of last year. Pestano has combined with Perez to give the Indians one of, if not the best, one-two punches in the back end of a bullpen in the league.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, key lefthander Rafael Perez was hurt in April and has not returned and fellow southpaw Tony Sipp has had an unexpectedly bad season with a 6.39 earned run average. Both were mainstays at the back of the Cleveland relief corps the past several years. The Indians could really use a healthy Raffy Perez and righted Sipp in the season’s second half.
Another shock has been Cleveland’s rotation that has been anything but consistent. The Tribe’s top two starters, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, both started the year horribly. Neither looked like an ace, much less a number two pitcher, for the first two months. Then, something seemed to click and both have delivered more times than not since the start of June.
Most teams would have been buried with the first two guys in the rotation getting off to slow starts. Instead, the Indians saw Jeanmar Gomez and Derek Lowe start the year red hot. Both have since cooled. Gomez is back in the minors. However, the Indians probably would not be in the spot they are if not for those two picking up the rotation slack in April and May.
Gomez was optioned to Triple-A Columbus two weeks ago in favor of rookie Zach McAllister, who has been a surprise himself, going 3-1 with a 3.40 ERA.
Going forward, it seems the Indians have the front of their rotation ready to go for the stretch run. heating-pad.net If McAllister can continue to grow and Lowe and Josh Tomlin can pitch closer to their career numbers, the Indians will be all right.
While the pitching entered the season with high expectations and hopes, the offense was an enigma. Outside of 2011 All-Star Asdrubal Cabrera and catcher Carlos Santana, the line up was full of questions marks. We knew Cabrera, who just played in a second straight All-Star game, would likely hit and he has. We thought for sure Santana would only improve on last season’s first full year and he has regressed.
Beyond, those two, questions abound. Would Jason Kipnis continue to get better and move toward the All-Star he is expected to be in his second big league season? Could Shin-Soo Choo rebound from disastrous 2011 campaign? Could Travis Hafner stay healthy enough to make a difference?
The answers to those have been yes, yes and kind of. Kipnis has put up near-All-Star numbers and was on the cusp of going to this year’s Mid-Summer Classic. Choo has come back strong, batting .299 with 10 home runs and 34 RBI. His on and off-field issues of 2011 seem a thing of the past. Hafner was injured for a little over a month, but has been a big contributor when healthy. He is still solid hitter and an on-base machine in the middle of the lineup. He is missed when out.
The surprises in the offense have been Santana and Michael Brantley, Santana on the down side, and Brantley on the up side.
Santana, after a breakout sophomore season last year, has seen his offensive production take a steep fall. He’s batting just .221 with five homers, after a 27-homer 2011. The Indians have been working hard with 26-year-old on cutting down his swing, but nothing has worked toward gaining back Santana’s power stroke to this point. Santana got off to a decent start, but a concussion in late May derailed him and he has not been the same since. It would be a huge boost to the Tribe if he could get back to blasting balls out of the ballpark in the second half.
On the flip side, Brantley has seemingly figured things out in his fifth Major League season. peppermintbenefits.org The 25-year-old center fielder had a 22-game hitting streak in June, helping him get to a solid .288 first-half batting average. He has hit just about everywhere in the batting order and has been a catalyst at the plate, on the bases and in the field. Without him, Cleveland’s offense and record probably would have gone completely south in June with Hafner injured and Santana struggling.
Choo, Cabrera, Kipnis and Brantley have combined to give the Indians a solid five spots in the line up most of the first half. If Hafner can stay healthy, the Indians have a top five that Cleveland fans can hang their hats on.
All this said, here are some team awards for the first half.
MVP: Chris Perez
Break-Out Performance: (Tie) Brantley and Kipnis
Best Surprise: Brantley
Biggest Disappointment: (Tie) the front-end of the bullpen and Santana
Best Managerial Move: Inserting Choo into the leadoff spot in May. He has taken off ever since.
Comeback Player: Choo
Going Forward: Looking ahead, the status quo will probably not be good enough to get the Indians to the postseason. The status quo will likely mean 85-87 wins and 90 will be more likely the number needed to play October baseball. The Indians could use rebounds from Santana and Sipp and Rafael Perez.
With the July 31 trade deadline fast approaching, it appears the Indians should be buyers. They could use a strong right handed-hitter in left field, third base or first base (that is the order of importance). They could use another reliever in case Rafael Perez and/or Tony Sipp do not come back to be key contributors over the final 77 games.
One thing is certain, the Indians are going to be playing meaningful baseball for a while longer. They are better built than the team that suffered a second half collapse last year. They are a year older, a year wiser and have more veterans in the clubhouse who know how to win. The first half has been fun, the second half should be even more fun with many story lines and possible push for the postseason.
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