Can the Indians Finish Business Before the Season Closes?
Bob Toth | On 17, Aug 2014
After an improbable September surged the Cleveland Indians into the 2013 postseason, unless you take the opinion of Kenny Lofton regarding the playoff significance of the American League Wild Card game, the returning players for the 2014 club came in with a powerful motto written across red t-shirts in Spring Training:
Halfway through August and now three-fourths of the way through the campaign, the Indians still look like they are waiting to open up shop. With six weeks to play, if they intend on getting any business started, now would be as good a time as any.
It is reminiscent of the song “Closing Time” by the band Semisonic.
Open all the doors and let you out into the world
Turn all of the lights on over every boy and every girl
One last call for alcohol so finish your whiskey or beer
You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here…
The 2014 season is inching closer and closer to closing time. The entrance gates will open at Progressive Field only 21 more times after Saturday’s game. The stadium floodlights will light up over the field the same number of times, and only so many seventh inning last calls remain for the fans who have remained loyal and in attendance.
If the Indians’ players do not want to make it their “time for you to go out to the places you will be from” with an earlier trip home while missing the postseason after their final regular season game on September 28th, they need wins now.
The American League is up for grabs. The AL Central is as wide open as any. The Indians have found ways to win, but are still a frustrating team to watch at times.
The Detroit Tigers have hit a tailspin. They have dropped seven of ten going into action on Saturday. Their rotation is in shambles. Justin Verlander missed his scheduled start Saturday with a sore right shoulder. Anibal Sanchez is on the 15-day DL with a strained right pectoral. Their bullpen, a sore spot for years, has an ineffective Joe Nathan (six blown saves), the newly acquired Joakim Soria landed himself on the DL, and Joba Chamberlain has more saves blown (three) than converted (two).
The Indians, who are 7-5 against Detroit this season and were four and a half games in back of them for second in the Central, have seven more games on the docket with them before the season closes.
The first place Kansas City Royals may have gotten hot too soon and are in unfamiliar territory pursuing their first postseason trip since 1985. The Royals have six more games each against the Indians and Tigers and hold just a one and a half game lead going into Saturday. They are 7-6 against Cleveland, but just 4-9 against Detroit.
Heading into play on Saturday, this Indians team, riddled with injuries and Columbus Clippers youngsters, somehow has remained in contention. But being in contention and leading the American League Central division are two different things, and somehow, “Unfinished Business” did not seem to imply having to fight and scrap to the season’s end to reach the playoffs for a second straight season.
How did the Indians get here? A lot of use of Chief Wahoo emblazoned Duck Brand Duct Tape, it seems.
The rotation has been one of the biggest areas of deficiency for the Tribe. The tandem of Kazmir and Jimenez were not replaced externally, as the club hoped to see Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, and/or Trevor Bauer fill the vacated spots alongside Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, and Zach McAllister. Aaron Harang, who pitched well on a spring invite, was cut loose and signed by Atlanta the same day. He entered Saturday with a 9-7 record and a 3.51 ERA in 25 starts for the second place Braves.
Masterson is gone, traded for minor league outfielder James Ramsey. In his contract year, Masterson was 4-6 with a 5.51 ERA in 19 injury-filled games.
McAllister, Salazar, and Tomlin have ridden the shuttle back and forth to Columbus while dealing with injuries or tired arm problems. Carrasco flamed out of the rotation before the end of August and only now is getting a second chance because the club is simply running out of starting options. Bauer has shown glimpses of hope, despite a 4-7 record and 4.35 ERA in 18 starts. T.J. House has filled in admirably and provided the team with a lefty look in the mix, but he is just 1-3 with a 4.13 ERA and has spent significant time travelling back and forth down I-71 this season.
Kluber has become an AL Cy Young candidate and near the top of that list with a 13-6 record and a 2.41 ERA over 26 AL leading starts, giving the Indians their only legitimate and consistent pitching threat. Two complete games, one shutout, second in baseball in wins, second in the AL in strikeouts, second in batters faced, third in innings pitched and third in ERA all provide compelling statistical evidence for his inclusion on the list. He has added eleven straight starts of six innings or more and has struck out ten batters in five of his last eight starts. He is the first Indians pitcher to strike out ten or more in a season at least eight different times since Dennis Eckersley in 1976.
The Indians are 17-9 when he takes the mound. In three of his six losses, his offensive teammates provided just one run or less of support.
The bullpen exits of Albers, Hill, and Perez were not thought to be significant losses, especially with an army of young arms knocking down the door in Columbus. The team added John Axford to be the closer, but his exposure and subsequent subtraction to the Pittsburgh Pirates this week acted as a reminder that bullpen arms come and go with little to no warning. The likes of Austin Adams, Kyle Crockett, Nick Hagadone, and C.C. Lee have taken advantage of the opportunities given them and have made contributions to the big league roster.
Meanwhile, Albers has not seen the field since April 21st and is resting on the Houston Astros’ 60-day disabled list. He was off to a good start, earning three holds in eight appearances while posting a 0.90 ERA, but is out with right shoulder tendinitis. Hill has bounced around the league, appearing on the rosters of the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, and now with the New York Yankees, after dealing with personal tragedy earlier in the year. His minor league numbers have been solid, especially in Triple-A with the Yankees, but it has not translated to Major League success. Perez, who left Cleveland a two-time All-Star with the third-most saves in club history, entered play Saturday with a 0-3 record and a 5.03 ERA in 42 games.
The offense needed a boost and the addition of only David Murphy prior to the season did little to bolster the need for a right handed bat or an everyday right fielder. Murphy at most was seen as a role player and platoon mate for Ryan Raburn, who like so many others on the roster, has failed to produce at the level seen in 2013, hitting just .193 with three home runs entering Saturday night’s game.
In need of a boost, the biggest names have failed to provide. Nick Swisher hit .257 in July to finally boost his batting average over the .200 mark, but he has not come close to providing equivalent production for the contract he is being paid. Carlos Santana was hitting .159 with six home runs when he went on the disabled list in May with a concussion. Since his return, he hit .308 in June and .313 in July with 14 combined home runs to pull the average as high as .235 in early August. Lonnie Chisenhall’s hot start after being hidden from lefties has now cooled off, like the autumn-like August temperatures that have hit the northeast Ohio region over the last week, after he was exposed by the league and gravitated away from using the whole field as he had done so well throughout the year.
The defensive lapses from the starting nine have been appalling and unexplainable. Across the diamond, the Indians are represented amongst the leaders in errors. Swisher leads all AL first baseman with nine errors and is second in the MLB. The only player with more, Garret Jones of Miami, has two more errors while playing more than double the games and innings that Swisher has at the position. Chisenhall has 15 errors in 76 games at third base, third in the MLB and second in the AL. Asdrubal Cabrera committed 14 errors at short prior to his trade to Washington and transition to second base. Yan Gomes is atop the MLB error board with a dozen errors behind the plate and is fourth in the AL in wild pitches (35) and passed balls (six).
As a whole, the Indians find themselves with the worst fielding percentage (.980) and the most errors (93) entering Saturday’s action in all of baseball. Five more errors will surpass their entire total for 2013, with 41 games remaining to be played. They are on pace to challenge their highest error total of the 21st century, when they committed 126 in 2003.
As if pitching problems, offensive struggles, and monumental defensive deficiencies are not enough to derail a season before it can get going, the injury bug has bitten multiple times. Kipnis missed a month. Murphy will miss at least a month. Swisher and Michael Bourn have each made two trips to the DL. Jason Giambi barely cracked the lineup and hit just .128 in 15 games before fading away to the 60-day DL.
Can the season be saved? Can the Indians finish business? If they are successful and find a way to sneak in to the postseason, do they even have remotely close to what it would take to knock off some of the other stacked and loaded AL leaders like Oakland, Baltimore, and Los Angeles?
Maybe if they find a way to clone Kluber and Michael Brantley. A team of Klubots and Dr. Smooths may be the only way for this team to contend.
If Cleveland fans collectively shook a Magic Eight Ball, the blue dyed answer may be “Outlook not so good”. But baseball, like all of the professional sports, is a funny game. Sometimes, it is not the best team that wins, but the hottest team. As the baseball world saw last September, the Indians were not the best team out there but played confident and crashed the postseason dreams of others while trying to make their own come true. The same could happen again, but the Tribe needs to close the gap now, methodically and consistently, avoiding any further long losing streaks and trying to ride the hot hands as far as they can to have any chance of tending to their unfinished business.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images