Addition by Subtraction
Bob Toth | On 31, Aug 2014
If you were told that a team had traded away two former All-Stars, their closer, and their former setup man, all within the span of a little over two weeks, it generally is safe to say that the fire sale was in full effect and the hopes for the rest of the season would be on watching young prospects fight for their futures while the team played out their remaining schedule.
The Cleveland Indians did exactly that over the last month and have responded with their single best month of the season. In doing so, they have shrunk the gap in both the American League Central and the AL Wild Card race to just three and a half games.
It is stuff like this that makes baseball such an incredible game to follow.
With Saturday night’s dramatic 11th inning win in Kansas City, the Indians improved to 17-9 in August. Only the Royals (19-9) and the Baltimore Orioles (18-9) have had a better month in the AL than Cleveland.
The Indians are 18-10 since the trade of starting pitcher Justin Masterson, a move that began a roster adjustment that could have been perceived as the Indians giving up on the season. At the time of the trade, Cleveland was 52-54, six and a half games out of first and stuck in third place. The Indians won that night, winning 2-0 over Seattle, but would lose the series the next night on the same day longtime starting shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was shipped to the nation’s capital for an unknown utility player.
That series loss is the last time the club has lost a home series. They have won three home series since and split a pair with Cincinnati and Arizona. With Saturday’s win, the club will finish the month with seven series wins, two splits, and just one series loss in a two-game set in Cincinnati.
The Indians return home on Monday to open up a stretch of eleven straight games at Progressive Field. Cleveland is 39-25 on their home field this season, one of the best marks in the American League. They will play 17 of their 27 September contests at home. They will make one final road trip in the middle of the month, with stops in Detroit, Houston, and Minnesota.
Somehow, amidst a roster shuffle via trades and trips to the disabled list, the Indians find themselves still very much entrenched in the playoff picture, even if they are not getting much consideration or attention from the national media. Their starting rotation is clicking on all cylinders and the youth movement provided by the Columbus kids has injected new life in the lineup.
Masterson was dealt to St. Louis. He was, by all accounts, having an awful contract-year season in the rotation, posting a 4-6 record in 19 starts with a 5.51 ERA before his trip to the disabled list. The numbers have not improved in his new home in the NL Central, as he is 2-3 in six starts with a 7.90 ERA and may have started his final game for the Cardinals. While his trade did not add a player (Triple-A and Futures Game outfielder James Ramsey) who would impact the 2014 Indians team, it opened up a spot in the rotation for any of the slew of arms who had been shuttled back and forth between Cleveland and Columbus throughout the season.
And the Indians starting rotation since the trade, you ask? What have they not done?
In 26 games in August, Cleveland starters have pitched the team to that 17-9 record. While the starters have ten no decisions in the month and just a 9-7 record overall, they have done everything in their power to keep the Indians in each and every game.
Starters have logged 150 2/3 innings in those 26 games. They are averaging more than three strikeouts per walk (155 strikeouts versus 50 walks). They have given up 44 earned runs, good for a 2.63 ERA for the month. In 14 of the 26 games, the starter has been credited with a quality start.
Even better, since the Indians dropped three straight to Cincinnati and the first of their series with New York, the rotation in 18 games has posted a 2.01 ERA with a 3.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Starters registered quality starts in ten of those outings.
The Indians are 13-5 in those 18 games since ending their four-game skid.
It brought in a surprising young bat in Zach Walters, whose homers have all either tied or won games for the Indians. He is a switch hitter with plenty of versatility, having played three different infield positions and left field in his brief Major League career. His flexibility and bat are traits that Terry Francona would like to have off of the bench, but he will need to cut down on his 34% strikeout rate this season, entering play on Saturday, and increase his contact. Seven of his eleven hits prior to Saturday’s game were for extra bases, showing he can contribute at the plate, as long as he gets the bat on the ball.
The trade also created playing time for Jose Ramirez, who has done nothing but impress in his time in the lineup. The 21-year-old is young and raw and will infuriate fans with the occasional boneheaded mistake, such as attempting a double play in the bottom of the eighth inning in a tie game with a speedy runner at the plate, instead of preserving the tie and leaving the bases loaded with two outs.
Ramirez has injected life into the lineup and has been productive in the second spot in the batting order. His defense has, overall, been an upgrade over what Cabrera provided. His speed on the base paths will keep opposing pitchers in check, and the hustle triple he hit to lead off the top of the eleventh on Saturday was the key play of the game.
The losses of Nick Swisher, David Murphy, Ryan Raburn, and Jason Giambi have gone relatively unnoticed in the lineup. Carlos Santana has made four errors at first base this season, contributing a .994 fielding percentage going into Saturday’s game, and his bat woke up after a disabled list trip earlier in the season. He has hit .275 with 16 home runs and 48 RBI since June 6th.
Minor league callup Tyler Holt has filled in admirably in 14 games, hitting .310 with errorless defense. Yan Gomes is hitting .321 in August and .286 on the season with 17 home runs and 53 RBI, and when he has been out of the lineup, Roberto Perez has been one of the best ball-blockers in all of baseball behind the plate. Walters has plugged in nicely at designated hitter, with some room yet to grow.
Michael Bourn returned in mid-August from his most recent disabled list trip and has been more of a threat in the lineup. He is hitting .269 in August with five extra base hits, including a two-triple game on Friday night, his second of the season. He stole his second base since his return on Saturday and seems to be running healthy and with strong legs underneath him again. In the field, he has not made an error since June 22nd.
Cleveland moved on from a new mustachioed face in John Axford and a fan favorite in Vinnie Pestano in the bullpen, which has given more playing time to guys like Kyle Crockett, Nick Hagadone, and C.C. Lee.
The stability of Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, and Marc Rzepczynski allowed the team to usher in young arms and gamble on a guy like Hagadone, who has had multiple chances to prove he belonged on the MLB roster and has just finally shown it this season in his fourth year at the top level with a 1-0 record and a 1.37 ERA in 26 games. Crockett has been just as useful and reliable, earning a 3-0 record with a 1.82 ERA in 33 games. The “losses” of Axford and Pestano freed up money for the present and the future and allowed the Indians to focus on developing the young arms that will make up the bullpen of tomorrow while contributing greatly to that of today’s.
With all of the additions and all of the subtractions over the last month, the team has endured and played better than ever. Now, with the September roster expansions delivering another batch of additions, presumably including the likes of Jesus Aguilar, Giambi, Murphy, Raburn, or Sellers and another bullpen arm or two (including a potential return of Zach McAllister or Austin Adams or the first trip to the Majors for Bryan Price), the Indians will only be that much more able to provide some rest to the veterans on the roster while keeping their eyes focused on a legitimate opportunity for meaningful games again in October.
Photo: Kyle Rivas/Getty Images