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‘Goon Squad’ Giving Cleveland a Chance

‘Goon Squad’ Giving Cleveland a Chance

| On 18, Aug 2013

Much has been said, especially over the last few weeks, about the struggles on the field, both offensively and defensively, of the members of the Cleveland Indians lineup. Slumps are becoming far more evident, errors have been a significant issue throughout the second half, and some players simply look tired.

Welcome to the dog days of summer.

One of the most notable and impressive upgrades of this 2013 Indians team was the rebuilt bench, vastly improved over the crew used last season by Cleveland.

Utility infielder Mike Aviles and backup catcher Lou Marson were the known pieces heading into Spring Training. Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi, both brought in to camp on minor league contracts with spring invites, earned roles on the ball club as well.

That group has remained in the fold all season long, with the exception of Marson, whose early season injury when a collision with Tampa Bay’s Desmond Jennings sent him to the disabled list for the first of two trips. It opened the doors for Yan Gomes to excel both at the plate and behind it, becoming a regular contributor to the Cleveland season.

Three of the four have been regular starters for periods of their Major League careers. They have been substantial upgrades over the bench bunch used in 2012.

Last season, Indians fans were subjected to a lackluster group of players, including Marson, many of whom have not appeared on Major League rosters this season.

Jason Donald batted .202. He hit a pair of home runs and eleven RBI in 33 starts. He was a jack of all trades, playing second, short, third, left field, and center field. In the field, his numbers were not much better than at the plate. He made seven errors in 94 chances, good for a .926 fielding percentage. His seven errors were fifth highest on the team, despite playing significantly fewer games than his teammates. He has yet to crack the big leagues this season, batting .225 for Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate, the Louisville Bats.

Brent Lillibridge may have been the more veteran clone of Donald, despite being just a year older. In the field, he had a .916 fielding percentage and eight errors while playing all four infield positions and both left and center field. At the plate, he supplied a .216 average with three home runs, eight RBI, and six stolen bases in his 43 games, 30 of which were started. His 2013 season split between the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees, he is batting .119 in 20 games.

Aaron Cunningham accumulated 72 appearances last season, primarily as the defensive replacement for both Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon in left field. He batted .175 with a home run and seven RBI. He was perfect in the outfield, with 65 putouts and four outfield assists. He made just 21 starts. This season, he is batting .248 for Texas’s Triple-A Round Rock club.

Duncan appeared in exactly half of the Indians’ games last season. He batted .203, but was seventh on the team in home runs (eleven) and eighth in RBI (31). Despite batting .306 in July, his .120 month of August played him right off of the roster and out of the team’s long term plans. He has played 20 games at the Major League level this season with the Tampa Bay Rays, where he has batted .182 with two home runs and six RBI.

Jose Lopez may have been the best the Indians had on the bench for the early portions of last season, but was let go while hitting .249 with 28 RBI. He made it back to the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox at the end of last August, but is no longer on American soil. With Yomiuri of the Japan Central League this season, he is batting .305 and is third on their team with 14 home runs.

Russ Canzler played 26 games for Cleveland, getting an extensive look in September. He finished the season with a .269 line with three home runs and eleven RBI, but became a casualty of the waiver wire. He bounced around several clubs in the offseason, including the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Yankees, and the Baltimore Orioles. After starting the season for Triple-A Norfolk (Baltimore), he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who placed him in Triple-A Indianapolis. He is batting .255 on the season with 12 home runs and 58 RBI.

Ezequiel Carrera batted .272 as a fourth outfielder for the Indians in the second half. He scored 20 runs in 48 games played and stole eight bases in nine attempts. He made just one error (.991 fielding percentage) while playing all three outfield spots, but was a roster cut at the end of the spring. He later rejoined Cleveland when placed on waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies, but has batted .176 in 15 big league games between the two clubs.

None of this collection of ball players was able to provide manager Manny Acta with consistency in the lineup or in the field.

This season, Terry Francona has had the opposite problem. He has had to force opportunities for the ‘Goon Squad’ to crack the lineup. But generally speaking, when he has inserted any of the four into the game, they have contributed.

Raburn has been the shining star of the squad. He is third on the team this season with 14 home runs entering play on Saturday night. His .271 batting average is better than six different regulars in the starting lineup (Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher, Asdrubal Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs) and his .367 on-base percentage trails just Jason Kipnis for the team lead. His .563 slugging percentage leads the team.

The utility guy has played both corner outfield spots as well as second base and, in the ultimate utility role, pitched an inning of scoreless relief. He has three assists and two double plays started from right field and has a .989 fielding percentage on the year.

He has performed so well that the Indians have secured his services through each of the next two seasons, with a club option for the 2016 season.

The presence of Aviles made the loss of Cabrera earlier in the year far less noticeable. He is batting .263 on the season entering Saturday, 32 points higher than Cabrera, with seven home runs and 33 RBI, five fewer than Swisher in 15 fewer games. He has picked off eight bases. Like Raburn, he has plugged both corner outfield spots, but has been used more in the infield, seeing time at second, short, and third.

His strong play gives Francona some peace when plugging him into the lineup for Kipnis, Cabrera, or Chisenhall. His inexpensive acquisition from Toronto makes his contribution to the roster that much more impressive.

It is hard to quantify the contributions of Giambi this season, but based on how consistently he is praised for his efforts in the clubhouse, his value far exceeds his .190 batting average. He had played in just 54 of the first 122 games, but has eight home runs and 28 RBI prior to Saturday’s start. His game-tying, three-run home run last week against Minnesota was one of many reasons “Big G” has excelled with the Indians. During difficult stretches of the season, it has several times been the veteran Giambi who has called closed door, players-only meetings in the clubhouse.

Gomes is the only younger player of the bunch. He had just 43 games of experience at the Major League level prior to this season, after batting .204 with four home runs and 13 RBI for Toronto last year. He was acquired with Aviles in a trade with the Blue Jays for reliever Esmil Rogers. The 26-year-old Brazilian has been on a tear since the All-Star break, batting .420 in 16 games, with two home runs, five doubles, and eight RBI entering play Saturday night.

The ‘Goon Squad’ is batting .261 on the season as a whole, with 37 home runs and 129 RBI between the four of them. Their average of 2.63 strikeouts per walk is just off of the team average of 2.39. Individually, their contributions to the Indians offense have rivaled or even been better than the efforts of Cabrera, Swisher, Chisenhall, Stubbs, or the expelled Mark Reynolds.

Last Thursday’s day off gave the Indians their first reprieve in three weeks. They played a stretch of 20 games in 20 days, the longest such stretch allowed within the Collective Bargaining Agreement (Article V C). Most regulars in the starting lineup, including Swisher (.231), Santana (.219), Bourn (.206), Cabrera (.168), and Chisenhall (.167), have slumped since the break and could be due for additional rest to make it through the regular season in one piece.

Resting Swisher and/or Santana provides additional at bats for Gomes. Aviles could rest both Cabrera and Chisenhall, while still spotting Kipnis when needed. Raburn starting in right field allows Stubbs to come out of the lineup or slide over into center field to give Bourn the occasional rest.

With another day off this coming Thursday and the Monday that follows, Francona has the opportunity to give some of his regulars some extra time off.

Thanks to his ‘Goon Squad’, he can do his best to rest his stars while not worrying about a considerable drop off in production from the players replacing them in the lineup. In the meantime, the hope is that the Indians’ starters can find themselves at the plate and begin to provide the level of offensive support that many of them have offered throughout their Major League careers.

Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan

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