New Veteran Additions Have Helped Despite Slow Starts
Craig Gifford | On 10, Apr 2016
The Cleveland Indians did not spend this past offseason making the splashiest of moves. They were not throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at a Jason Heyward or Justin Upton or trading away their great pitching depth for an All-Star power hitter like Todd Frazier.
However, the Tribe did not sit idly by, either. The team added some solid veterans to a core group that is in its prime. Mike Napoli, Marlon Byrd, Rajai Davis and Juan Uribe were not the biggest names on the market this past winter, but they can help. Each has had success throughout their careers. All have postseason and big-game experience that most of Cleveland’s core group has precious little of.
Guiding a club whose longer-tenured players have seen just one postseason game, the 2013 Wild Card loss, through uncharted, late-season waters would come later and that is putting the cart before the horse. First, the new veteran group needs to help the Tribe get off to a better start than last season.
In 2015, the Indians offense was sluggish for the better part of the season’s first four months. It put Cleveland into a hole that was just too hard to crawl out of, despite a surge over the campaign’s final two months.
In adding the veteran depth, the Tribe is hoping to get off to a better start and supply one of the game’s better starting pitching rotations with more run support that a season ago. Adding outfielders Byrd and Davis was designed to get Cleveland through the potentially troublesome waters of being without superstar Michael Brantley, who could still be out for a few more weeks following offseason shoulder surgery and a spring training setback.
So far, the early returns have been mixed. Granted, the Indians looked lost in the season opener against the Boston Red Sox and David Price. However, Price typically makes the best hitters in the game look silly. Since then, the Tribe bats have heated up in the cool climates of Cleveland and then Chicago. The Indians plated seven runs in each of their two games following Tuesday’s Opening Game. It was only three on Sunday against the usually dominant White Sox ace lefty Chris Sale.
The first four games of the year have seen some struggles, but some solid contributions from the new veterans the front office added to manager Terry Francona‘s roster. Yes, the best batting average of the quartet heading into Saturday’s game with the White Sox was Napoli’s .231. It is not as if the new guys ripping apart opposing pitchers. Still, they have contributed and should continue to do more as the season goes on.
The 34-year-old Napoli is a big reason the Indians got win number one on Wednesday against Boston. With the game tied at 6-6 in the seventh and Cleveland having squandered 4-0 and 5-2 leads, the Tribe’s newest middle-of-the-order hitter delivered a clutch home run that proved to be the difference in giving the Tribe a 7-6 win. He nearly helped blast the way to another win yesterday. A two-run bomb, his second of the young season, tied the game at 2-2 against Sale. Cleveland had a 3-2 lead before Bryan Shaw imploded in the seventh inning and the Indians fell to a 2-2 record with a 7-3 loss.
Uribe, who has just one hit early in his Tribe career, contributed an RBI in Cleveland’s Wednesday night win, an affair where every little bit was needed.
Byrd and Davis have not been totally quiet, despite getting out of the gates slowly. Byrd, hitting just .143, had an RBI on a sacrifice fly against Price and then hit safely in each of the two games after. Davis, batting .200, had an RBI in Friday’s 7-1 win in Chicago. More importantly, he has a stolen base as the Indians need to use him in top of the batting order until Brantley gets back.
The new additions have not lit it up and carried the team in the very early going, nor were they expected to. The mainstays like Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Yan Gomes and, when he returns, Brantley, are supposed to be the core of Cleveland’s everyday lineup.
The veterans, all on one-year contracts, are simply supposed to be the icing on the cake. They are in town to round out the lineup and make it stronger than a season ago. Those guys have shown the ability to do that, at the very least.
Due to track records, you can not realistically expect Davis, Byrd, Napoli and Uribe to magically turn into guys who all hit .300 with 35 home runs. All are 34 and older, meaning they are past their primes. However, each has shown to have something left and can contribute to a team that has a young core group that appears ready to contend.
While you can not expect the new guys to put up dominant numbers, you would also think they will hit better than they did in the season’s first few games. Hitting .231 or worse is not going to cut it over the long haul. Those track records say they will do better than that.
Napoli likely has more clutch bombs in him. More importantly, he has shored up the defense as first base was a weak spot a season ago. Last year’s first baseman, Santana, is now serving as the team’s designated hitter on most days. Allowing him to just focus on hitting has let Santana look like a more dominant presence at the plate and the more-consistent hitter the Indians have expected since his 2010 arrival.
Davis can be expected to continue to provide speed on the base paths. Adding his ability to steal bases to that of Kipnis and Lindor could help make the Tribe trouble for any pitcher to deal with when it comes to holding runners on base.
Byrd and Uribe, with just three hits combined through the season’s first four games, should hit more. Both may also just be holding places for younger guys. When Brantley comes back, it could push rookie outfielder Tyler Naquin back to the minors. However, Naquin is the future, while Byrd’s time in Cleveland could be a year or less. The same holds true for Uribe, who has the slick-fielding Giovanny Urshela very close to being ready to take over Cleveland’s hot corner on a regular basis. If he can put it together offensively, he is the future at third base, not the 37-year-old Uribe.
Whether the veteran players are in Cleveland for a month, a few months, a full season or more, they will all contribute in some way. Simply adding depth and experience to a roster that already had talent is a big deal. As the first few games showed, those guys may have quiet moments but are plenty capable of coming through when really needed.
Photo: Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press