A Season of Missed Opportunities
Bob Toth | On 14, Sep 2014
After an exciting, but ultimately disappointing, end to the 2013 season that thrust the Cleveland Indians back into the playoffs for the first time since 2007, there were lofty expectations on the team heading into 2014.
The team that ripped off ten straight wins to wrap up an incredible month of September last year was nearly identical to the squad set to take the field this season, especially in the field. With Terry Francona at the helm and the expectation that the young team could play just as well, if not better, than they had a year ago in a division that looked very much up for grabs gave some hope to Tribe fans that last year was just a taste of what the Indians would be able to do on the field for several years to come.
Instead, plenty of things went wrong and it all started last offseason with the Indians’ unwillingness to add to the existing cast of characters.
With some new names in the free agency pool, the Indians decided not to go swimming too deeply in the waters. They brought in David Murphy on a two-year, $12 million contract, hoping to pair him up in right field with Ryan Raburn. Murphy has been consistent and sometimes clutch, hitting .267 with seven homers and 56 RBI this season, but the lefty does not provide the right-handed power the club has been looking for since the days of Manny Ramirez. Raburn hit his fourth home run of the season on Friday night and pushed his batting average up to the .200 mark. His defense has been suspect and more costly than anything, which has not helped to make up for his lack of bat.
The team brought in veterans Elliot Johnson, David Cooper, David Adams, Nyjer Morgan, Jeff Francoeur, Matt Treanor, and Bryan LaHair as potential bench pieces. Johnson and Morgan stuck with the Major League club, but neither had significant stays. Johnson spent his season in Columbus after hitting .105 in seven games, while Morgan was cut loose while on the 60-day disabled list, despite hitting .341 during his 15 games replacing the injured Michael Bourn. The remaining players were either jettisoned from the roster or spent the season in Triple-A.
Meanwhile, an affordable but calculated risk in a right-handed stick like Nelson Cruz went ignored and he signed a one-year, $8 million dollar deal with Baltimore and proceeded to destroy all baseballs, hitting 39 home runs and 101 RBI prior to Saturday’s action.
The Indians opted to let Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez test the free agent waters. With substantial money already tied up in Nick Swisher and Bourn, it was going to be a tough stretch to try to sign either of the starters back to the roster, especially with the pending free agency status of the staff ace, Justin Masterson.
The team did not offer a qualifying offer to Kazmir. With his injury history and unbelievable and successful return to the Major Leagues, giving the lefty a huge chunk of change was a risk deemed too much at the time. Kazmir signed an unexpected two-year, $22 million deal with the Oakland Athletics, ending his brief stay in Cleveland and leaving a left-handed hole in the starting rotation.
Kazmir is 14-8 this season with a 3.32 ERA and was an All-Star for the Athletics.
Jimenez, who had tortured the Indians with sub-par play from the moment of his acquisition from the Colorado Rockies in 2011, pitched himself into big money last season.
The lanky right-hander found himself after a six-run start against Detroit on May 22nd. At the time, he dropped to 3-3 with a 6.04 ERA in his first nine starts. Three of the starts failed to see Jimenez pitch into the fifth inning and in each of those three, he allowed six runs or more.
In the 23 starts that followed, Jimenez went 10-6 with a 2.41 ERA. He was the dominant pitcher the Indians had hoped they acquired and the timing was perfect for Jimenez, who was hitting the open market after the season. After a tough 1-4 record in five starts in August with a 3.10 ERA, he was lights out down the stretch, winning four of his final six decisions. The Indians won all six of his starts. He had a 1.09 ERA in that stretch and struck out 51 batters in 41 1/3 innings while issuing just seven walks and five earned runs.
Jimenez was offered a qualifying deal by the club and he passed, hoping for more money and more years. He found that eventually with the Baltimore Orioles, who signed him for four years and $50 million.
With a 4-9 record and 4.96 ERA in 22 games away from the tutelage of Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway, Jimenez is now a member of the Orioles bullpen.
While the Indians let both pitchers walk, they did not add anything substantial to their rotation, hoping that Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar could join Masterson, Corey Kluber, and Zach McAllister in the rotation.
The new rotation was a disaster.
Masterson, in his walk year, went 4-6 with a 5.51 ERA before landing on the disabled list. He was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline and was 2-3 with a 7.53 ERA in eight games there entering play on Saturday. He, like Jimenez, is now pitching out of the bullpen.
McAllister struggled with ineffectiveness and injury. He posted good numbers in Columbus after being demoted there, but is now a long man for the Tribe’s playoff push. As a starter in Cleveland, he was 3-6 with a 5.91 ERA in 14 games with a predictable assortment of fastballs.
Josh Tomlin, who replaced Carlos Carrasco in the rotation, tired out, became home run happy, and is a long man. He was 4-8 in the rotation in 16 starts and has given up 18 homers in his first 104 innings.
Salazar struggled with his own inconsistencies and pitched a lengthy amount of time at Triple-A. Bauer did not make the club out of spring training, but has looked good at times in his opportunities in Cleveland and may have locked down a spot for the future.
While the pitching staff had their own struggles, the veteran fielders on the club did little to compensate and pick up the slack.
Swisher has not come close to providing the same value as his contract would stipulate. This season, he was more mascot than middle-of-the-order hitter, and his defense made him a liability in the field. He appeared in 97 games before the injury bug bit both knees, taking his .208-hitting bat out of the lineup for good. His eight home runs and 42 RBI were career lows, with the exception of his 20-game rookie season in 2004. He did not push past the Mendoza line for good until July 9th.
Bourn has repeatedly found himself on the disabled list and, until recently, had looked like a shell of the former two-time All-Star and Gold Glove center fielder. The art of stealing bases, one of his assets throughout his career, seems to be a lost one.
Jason Giambi is at the end of his road, spending the majority of the season on the disabled list with knee problems. He has hit just .148 entering play on Saturday night in 20 games with a pair of homers and five runs batted in. He has been reserved to more of a coaching role than a player who can make a contribution in the lineup.
Former All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis has never seemed to recover from an oblique injury that sidelined him for a month in the early portions of the season. His power is gone and so too seems to be his ability to find the gaps consistently.
And the defense. Oh, the defense… The Indians have put on a display this season with the glove and the arms and for all the wrong and worst reasons. Their woes and miscues have accounted for 73 unearned runs this season. Last season, they had just 51.
As a team, the Indians lead all of baseball with 110 errors. As would be expected, they have the worst fielding percentage in the MLB with a .980 mark. Their saving grace may be that their catchers have thrown out the second-most runners in the AL.
For all the growth that Lonnie Chisenhall has shown with the bat, he has lost in the field. His .940 fielding percentage and 17 errors place him amongst the worst defenders at the hot corner in all of baseball. He has done that while logging 200 innings fewer than the next third baseman behind him in the AL, Mike Moustakas, and 300 innings fewer than the lone corner man above him on the AL list, Josh Donaldson.
Swisher committed nine errors in just 52 games. He is third on the AL error list at first base, despite playing more than half as many games as Eric Hosmer, who leads the league with just one more error.
Asdrubal Cabrera, who has been out of the AL for nearly a month and a half now after his deadline trade to Washington, is still seventh amongst AL shortstops with his 14 errors.
Yan Gomes has settled behind the plate, but still leads the AL with 12 errors. The majority of those came in the first few months of the season.
All of these failures, inconsistencies, and ineffectiveness did not help the Indians claim a spot at the top of a wide open AL Central. Coming down the stretch, it is a three-team race, largely dominated by the return of the Kansas City Royals and an aging Detroit Tigers team. While the Royals and Tigers have slugged it out with one another, the Indians have remained in the weeds, hiding and again needing a perfect storm to occur for them to slip into the AL Central crown or even the AL Wild Card race.
The Indians have kept it close thanks to the production of the much discussed duo of Kluber and Michael Brantley. The league rewarded Brantley with an All-Star berth, while Kluber was slighted. He could be vindicated at the end of the season with a Cy Young Award, which is very much in play for the Tribe righty.
Carlos Santana’s bat woke up after sleeping through the first two months of the season. Prior to Saturday’s game, he was leading the club with 27 home runs and was second with 77 runs batted in. His 101 walks lead the league. He became just the fifth Indians player ever to top 25 home runs and 100 walks in the same season, joining Jim Thome, Travis Hafner, Andre Thornton, and Al Rosen. He has hit .275 since returning from the concussion disabled list in early June; he was hitting .159 at the time of the injury.
The Columbus kids have injected new life and new energy into the lineup with their speed and improved defense in the field. Guys like Jose Ramirez, Tyler Holt, Roberto Perez, and Zach Walters have each contributed with the glove or with the bat, making up for the lack of bat and the void on defense.
The stellar pitching, not just the starters, beginning a week into August has been a boon for the lack of offensive production from the starting nine. For the entire month, the Indians pitching staff led all of baseball with a 2.39 ERA. The club was 17-9, despite posting just six saves. They struck out 244 batters, third-best in baseball, while walking just 72. Their .220 batting average allowed was best in the Majors and their 1.11 WHIP was the third-best. It was powered by the return to the rotation of Carrasco, who is now 4-1 with a 1.40 ERA and .193 batting average against in his seven starts since exiting the bullpen.
Something has enabled this Indians roster to contend and compete despite plenty of missed chances throughout the season and numerous holes and inconsistencies on the roster. Whether it is the effect of Francona in the dugout or the resiliency of the youth on the roster is tough to determine.
If this season has shown those watching anything, it is that this Indians team is still a few pieces short of being able to really threaten within the division at a consistent level. While this season is still up for grabs, looking towards next season should remind those watching that the Indians should be active after this season to find a way to bolster the pieces they have in place so that next year, September is not a stressful, nail-biting race all the way to the finish line.
Photo: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio