June Swoon or Just a Slump?
Bob Toth | On 09, Jun 2013
Many Cleveland Indians fans seem to share the sentiment that we have all seen this movie before. The hope is that this particular version has some sort of alternate ending we have yet to see, with a much happier end result.
The 2013 Indians team has been streaky throughout the season. When the offense was clicking, the rotation was struggling. When the rotation was solid, the bullpen was struggling. When the bullpen was going strong, they could not get to the mound in a meaningful opportunity with a close game to preserve because the offense and starting pitching would not let it be so. Too few times has the entire machine been functioning on all cylinders.
The Indians just are not playing good baseball right now. There is no real denying of that. But is this a June swoon to be likened to the midseason collapses of the last several years, or just a temporary stretch of bad baseball made worse by a series of slumps, injuries, and unfortunate scheduling?
The bats at the plate have been icy cold at times. Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera finished April with batting averages in the low .200’s. Carlos Santana and Mark Reynolds followed suit in May. Nick Swisher is in a prolonged batting slump rivaling the longest of his professional career, with no hits in his last 24 bats exiting play on Saturday afternoon.
The injury bug has bit. And it bit hard and left an itchy, swollen sore that starts to heal, only to get aggravated and irritated all over again. No one area has been spared.
The rotation has been hit. Scott Kazmir spent the beginning of the year on the disabled list with a right rib cage strain. Brett Myers, out with right elbow inflammation, has spent seven weeks on the shelf as well and does not seem close to returning. One of the most reliable pitchers on the staff, Zach McAllister, joined the walking wounded on Saturday afternoon, leaving a hole in the rotation that is more difficult to fill than the inconsistent Kazmir or the unknown Myers. His right middle finger sprain was affecting his offspeed pitches and the team believed it was more important to rest the injury now than to risk something more severe, as happened to one-time Indians prospects Alex White and Adam Miller.
The bullpen has not been out of harm’s way any less. Matt Albers missed time on the paternity list and then the restricted list. After setup man Vinnie Pestano returned from a right elbow injury, closer Chris Perez was afflicted with right shoulder soreness. Left-handed relievers have come and gone and all have been unable to consistently do the job assigned to them for any significant stretch.
The starting nine took a hit this past week when Cabrera, struggling all season long with a right quad injury, severely aggravated the leg running to first base and will miss several weeks, at the least. Michael Bourn missed time with a lacerated finger. Swisher was out for the birth of his first child.
Regular backup catcher Lou Marson has been on the disabled list twice, once for a cervical neck strain and again a few days later with a sore right shoulder. Even bench guys Jason Giambi and Ryan Raburn have dealt with minor injuries.
None of these problems factor in the tough schedule the Indians have faced over the last few weeks. The Indians have played two series with Detroit, two with Cincinnati, and one each with Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay. While good teams find a way to win, even normal good teams do not see as tough a schedule as the Indians have been dealt in the last three weeks. To make matters worse, they took on this stretch of games, prior to the weekend series with Detroit, by playing 20 consecutive days without a day off.
And they still have left a road trip to Texas to take on the Rangers after finishing with Detroit.
Despite this long list of afflictions and inconveniences and losing both returning All Stars from 2012 to injuries, the Tribe has remained in contention. The resiliency and a far more rounded team are just some of the factors that create some optimism that this recent slump is just that – a slump.
In their last 18 games, the four wins Cleveland has earned have come by margins of three runs or more. Three of the four wins were by five runs or more. In their 14 losses, eight were by three runs or less, including a pair of blown leads against Boston. Six of the defeats were by four or more runs. They have lost each of their last five games by three runs or less.
Why should you believe that this is just a slump and not the monumental collapses of seasons prior?
The simple and most basic argument starts with the roster.
When comparing the usual starting nine for the Indians this season to the team that fell apart in such an epic flameout last season, there are clear improvements across the field.
At catcher (Santana), second base (Kipnis), and shortstop (Cabrera), the team stood pat with three of their strongest returning offensive options on the ball club.
At first base, the Indians spent big money to bring in the veteran, playoff tested Swisher, replacing last season’s Casey Kotchman. Even with Swisher’s sizeable slump at the plate, he provides a much more rounded bat at the plate and a surprisingly good glove at first base. And as for his excitement level, leadership, and enthusiasm in the clubhouse? Awesome amazingness, bro.
Lonnie Chisenhall was supposed to take over third base this season, but the lack of punch at the plate sent him to Columbus, moving designated hitter Reynolds into the third base role. While Reynolds may not have the glove that Jack Hannahan, the starting 2012 third baseman, had, his ability to change a ball game at any moment with just one swing of the bat is more than worth the upgrade. His offensive power from the right side of the plate is something the Indians have not seen in too many years.
The outfield was in shambles last season. Left field was a monster that devoured what few remaining skills a player had when he entered the playing field last season. Are there any fans who can make a sincere, legitimate argument that shifting Michael Brantley to left field and adding Bourn to center is a worse tandem in left and center than Brantley plus any one of: Shelley Duncan; Johnny Damon; Ezequiel Carrera, Aaron Cunningham; Russ Canzler; Vinny Rottino; Thomas Neal; Jason Donald; or Brent Lillibridge?
By the end of the season, the comparison between Drew Stubbs and Shin-Soo Choo should not be too horribly off either. While Stubbs will provide a lesser batting average and pop, he is an upgrade defensively and should account for more damage on the base paths. Choo, however, has found quite a bit of success in Cincinnati at the top of their potent lineup. But when you consider that Stubbs, Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw, and Albers were all netted as part of the jettisoning of Choo in the final year of his contract, the scales may tip in favor of the Tribe.
Management and coaching is much improved.
While Terry Francona has made a couple of coaching decisions that may have had fans guessing, he has been night and day better than Manny Acta. He has been animated and visible when the team has needed him the most and has shown time and time again that he has his players’ backs. Two ejections in a week’s span defending his players was better than what Acta would accomplish in a season while sitting with his arms crossed in the dugout while appearing disinterested.
The work that Mickey Callaway has been able to do with Ubaldo Jimenez has been nothing short of a miracle. It surely beats the results that former Indians pitching coach Scott Radinsky got from Jimenez last season, not that Jimenez’s failures should be blamed on the former coach.
The Indians benefit from playing in an American League Central division that has not spent a lot of money to build their rosters, outside of Detroit. While Chicago, Minnesota, and Kansas City have struggled throughout the season, Cleveland has compiled a lengthy streak of success this year as well. And while the team has been playing worse than hoped for the last several weeks, they have only recently lost ground to Detroit due to head-to-head matchups, as the Tigers have had similar struggles like the rest of the division this season as well.
So which team is Cleveland? Are the Indians the team that went 18-4 in a 22-game span between April and May, or the team that has gone 4-14 in their last 18 games?
No one knows.
What this team is, however, is a better ball club than the one that fell apart last season and in 2011.
If any team can overcome the trials that the Indians are being subjected to, it is a Francona-coached ball club, with strong veteran leadership in Swisher, Bourn, and Giambi pushing the players to drive through the tough stretches.
It will be these down times and losing skids that truly test this team’s mettle. If they can ride out this tough schedule and still be within striking distance in the AL Central, other teams will take notice, because just as Cleveland showed in late April and early May, this group of players can put together an elite and spectacular all-around display that has made seven different former Cy Young winners become losers this season.
With just over 100 games remaining, the Indians still have plenty of time to show Cleveland and the rest of the league that they are not out of this six-month marathon.
Photo: Leon Halip/Getty Images