With Eyes on Tribe’s Present and Future, Some Ask “What If”?
Bob Toth | On 30, Aug 2015
Believe it or not, the final full month of the Major League Baseball season is upon us.
Take a moment to dry any tears you may have experienced from reading that statement.
For some Cleveland Indians fans, those tears shared may have been tears of sadness in knowing that the potential for a long and question-filled offseason is rapidly approaching, along with those brutal cold winter months in northeast Ohio that accompany it while having to rely on the Cleveland Browns for “entertainment”. For others, they may have been tears of happiness, knowing that the end of a disappointing season is on the horizon.
The Indians are currently in an interesting place with five weeks to go in the regular season. With a win on Saturday night, the club has won four straight, five of six, and seven of nine. After a curiously long stretch of horrid play at Progressive Field, they are a win away on Sunday from finishing the month of August with a 9-2 record on their home field, a marked improvement over the 20-32 record they had in Cleveland through the season’s first four months.
“What if” this confounding and infuriating Cleveland club makes a push similar to that of the fabled 2013 season that saw an incredibly hot team, powered by lights-out dominance from its pitching staff, sneak into the playoffs (or into the 163rd game of the season for those who senselessly argue that the Wild Card game is NOT an actual playoff game)?
The biggest obstacle for the Indians is that they are still four games below the even mark. Recent better play has helped the team gain ground on some of those standing between them and the Texas Rangers for the second Wild Card spot available. Unfortunately, the Indians have not been able to gain much on the Rangers as Texas has won three straight of its own. A ton of clutter remains between the Indians and the Rangers in the standings, with Minnesota, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay each above Cleveland. However, all four teams lost on Saturday, cutting the gap between the Indians and both the Rays and Orioles to just a half game. The margin is two and a half games between them and the Angels and three and a half games between the Tribe and Twins.
Plenty of questions surround the Indians as they head into September on Tuesday, ripe with the expansion of the 25-man roster to a 40-man one to conclude the season. These queries hit every level of the franchise.
In the playoff picture:
“What if” the Indians continue their improved performances in all facets of the game? Could the Indians have an October to remember once again?
They have guaranteed themselves at least a break even month of August, which would make two straight months at .500. They could finish as high as 16-12 for the month if they extend their winning streak to six straight, which would be the club’s second-best month of the season. They were 17-12 in May.
Their pitching has continued to keep the offense in the ball game. There has been increased effort on the base paths, better overall defensive play, and the offense has come to life, scoring 124 runs in 26 August games after scoring 93 in the same number in July while allowing a nearly identical tally of runs scored (99 in July; 98 in August).
The Indians can only control their own play at this point and have to hope for the best. After Sunday’s finale with Los Angeles, they head on the road for a three-city trip through Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago for three games each before returning home for a three-team homestand against Detroit (four games), Kansas City (four), and Chicago (three). A six-game road trip through Minnesota and Kansas City follows with three games in each town before they return home to Cleveland for four against Minnesota to conclude the month and begin October and three more with Boston to close out the season.
They will have to find a way to win in the division. Of non-divisional opponents remaining on the schedule, they are 3-2 against Los Angeles; 2-2 against Toronto; and 1-2 against Boston. Within the Central, they are just 3-9 against a much different looking Detroit team now; 5-8 against a reeling Chicago club; 5-7 against Kansas City, who could be resting some guys before the playoffs begin; and 5-7 against the first team currently outside of the playoff picture in Minnesota. They have not played Kansas City, Detroit, or Chicago since July and Toronto since May, long before they rebuilt their roster with the likes of Troy Tulowitzki and David Price before the trade deadline.
For the Indians on the field, the expansion of the roster to 40 men will bring forward some reinforcements from the minor leagues, but fans should use some caution if they are expecting other top prospects to come to Cleveland to start their service time clocks with little playing time available in an already crowded mix.
Each season, rosters expand and teams around the leagues can carry as many as 40 players. Some teams, especially those out of contention, will spend that final month getting a look at younger players who could contribute to the roster the next year. Other teams will bring up additional bullpen arms and veteran journeymen to give some of the regular starters a breather as the long marathon comes to its conclusion.
On the field:
“What if” the Indians are still playing for 2015?
They cannot afford to gamble on unknowns from the Columbus level or lower. Players who were capable of making significant changes to the big league roster, namely rookie prospects Giovanny Urshela and Francisco Lindor, already got the call when the Indians dealt five pricey veterans off of their rosters within the last month. There is a litany of reasons that Lindor should have gotten the call much sooner than it was placed.
Based on the way they have played of late, the Indians have not rolled over and played dead on the 2015 season. At least, not yet.
While it is important for the Indians management to get a good look at some of the potential pieces for the 2016 roster against Major League pitching, many of the players worthy of that shot have already joined the roster as a result of the team’s prior activity on the trade market. Some of those guys already in Cleveland getting an extended look are Abraham Almonte, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jose Ramirez, and Jerry Sands.
Almonte, acquired from San Diego for Marc Rzepczynski, has seen an extended look through August after the club was able to deal Michael Bourn to Atlanta. The Indians have gaping holes in center field and right field after Bourn, Nick Swisher, David Murphy, and Brandon Moss were dealt away and none of the options at Triple-A have blown down any doors to try to get out of Columbus with any sense of urgency. Almonte has taken advantage of the opportunity after being lost in an expensive rebranding of the Padres outfield last offseason and has hit .257 with ten extra base hits in 20 games, all while defending well in center.
The Indians have an interesting decision to make on Chisenhall because of his contract status heading into next season. Arbitration should send the salary figure of the former 2008 first round pick towards the $2.75 – $3 million area. Ineffective at third base and inconsistent at the plate throughout his career, Chisenhall is attempting to sweep the legs out from underneath his competition while showing no mercy. He is in the midst of a ten-game hitting streak and is hitting .408 in 23 games since his recall.
Ramirez has gotten a glimpse of the big green patch of grass known as left field and may still get a shot in center before the season concludes. He has shown himself capable of playing second and short, one better than the other, and has seen more action at the hot corner as the Indians need to determine if he will be the inexpensive replacement for free agent Mike Aviles after the season. At the plate since his return, he hit in eight straight games and has hit .244 to push his average over .200 for the year.
Sands has been a conundrum throughout his entire career. He has pop and has been a streaky hitter. He is a bit of a man without a position, able to adequately play first base and corner outfield spots without doing anything too earth-shattering defensively from those areas. The Indians need to determine if he can be a “right-handed power bat” off of the bench to replace Ryan Raburn, whose playing time has all but disappeared in August with just eight appearances. After hitting .375 to start the season, Sands has hit just .172 in August.
Zach Walters, Jesus Aguilar, and Tyler Holt, who have each had opportunities at the MLB level this season, could also get return calls as versatile options off of the Cleveland bench. Michael Choice, an outfielder acquired from Texas recently, could also get a look after spending the last week in Columbus. Tyler Naquin is on the disabled list for the fourth time this season. James Ramsey has hit just .234 with 124 strikeouts in 119 games in his first full season at AAA.
Would the Indians front office consider bringing up a guy like Bradley Zimmer, their first round pick of the 2014 draft who has had a solid season for the team’s Lynchburg and Akron affiliates? While his name has been the hot topic of discussion, the Indians tend not to promote a player that quickly while making the jump from Double-A. Zimmer has hit .252 with six homers and 24 RBI in 40 games for the Aeros after hitting .308 with ten homers and 39 RBI in 78 games for the Hillcats, all while playing in 70 more games than his first season with the organization. The 22-year-old has just seven hits in his last 40 at bats (.175) over the last ten games.
Anyone who has paid attention to Indians baseball since the return of Terry Francona to the Cleveland dugout knows his penchant for having bullpen arms. While the team has frustratingly carried eight arms in relief for the majority of the season, that number should climb with the potential returns of Shawn Armstrong and C.C. Lee. When Carlos Carrasco returns from the disabled list, Cody Anderson or Josh Tomlin may find themselves bumped out of the rotation into a long relief type role. The team will also activate 32-year-old offseason signee Gavin Floyd, who completed a rocky rehab start on Saturday night in Akron. The former starter is slated to work in relief for the Tribe if he gets the approval from the Indians medical staff.
In the clubhouse:
“What if” Mark Shapiro leaves for Toronto?
The rumor seems to be gaining some traction as the long time Indians front office employee had received permission to talk to the Blue Jays for a similar position with their club. There are plenty of reasons for Shapiro to consider such a move – a fresh start, a larger payroll figure to tinker with, a franchise currently sitting at the top of the American League East instead of three deep in the AL Central, or an opportunity to revamp the Rogers Centre, just as he has been able to do with Progressive Field.
The Jays are attempting to replace Paul Beeston, who remained on with the organization for another season after their efforts to replace him last year fell short. With plenty of front office moves already taking place in recent weeks (see Detroit’s ex-GM Dave Dombrowski moving to Boston as president; Seattle’s firing of their ex-GM Jeff Zduriencik), Shapiro could be the next big name to relocate, albeit his much more willing than the other two mentioned.
Shapiro has been mum on the word, declining previous comment inquiries from several large media members since word first broke from Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. Cleveland.com reported on Friday that a source speaking on Shapiro’s situation believed a decision would be made in the coming days.
Some have speculated that a Shapiro move could have a trickle down effect into the Indians clubhouse, where Francona has an out clause in his contract in the event that Shapiro or current team general manager Chris Antonetti were to leave the front office. He commented prior to the series with the Angels this weekend, noting that while both men were integral to his return to Cleveland, he has built relationships now within the organization that he would never use either’s departure as leverage with ownership.
Antonetti could see a change in his status in the event of Shapiro’s departure as well, where he could be rewarded for his time as general manager with a promotion into the team’s presidency. While some of his free agent moves have not panned out, his many successful trades and improved results in the draft are positives on his resume.
In the Owners’ Box:
“What if” Indians owner Paul Dolan gets new investors?
Word leaked Saturday afternoon that Dolan has continued his search for a minority partner in ownership of the Indians organization. While some might hope that such a move would start the ball rolling towards a larger acquisition of a controlling interest in the club in years to come, there have been no comments made publicly by Dolan or his family that the Cleveland natives would have any desire to sell a majority stake in the club now or in the future. While the pursuit of an investor in the franchise has been in the works for years, their use of the Allen & Co. investment banking firm to assist with that search puts a new spotlight on the activity.
The Dolans have owned the Indians since 1999.
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Some of the questions looming will have an answer in short notice. Others in the fray should make for interesting conversation fodder over the course of the next six months before the Indians head back out to Goodyear, Arizona, to prepare for yet another six-month marathon, number 116 in the club’s history.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images