Posts By Craig Gifford
Any questions as to whether Cleveland Indians outfielder Michael Brantley could get back to his former All-Star status were certainly laid to rest this past Tuesday. The second reveal of balloting for the Midsummer Classic was announced and the left fielder had cracked the top three vote-getters among American League outfielders.
If voting ended today, Brantley would join Yankees’ rookie sensation Aaron Judge and Angels’ two-time MVP Mike Trout in the AL lineup in Miami for the annual exhibition. It is quite the comeback story for a player whom many wondered, just a couple months ago, if he could even get through April without a setback to his surgically repaired shoulder.
While last year was quite the journey and quite the memorable one for his American League Championship-winning teammates, Brantley was forced into the role of spectator.
No player or team ever hopes or wishes for an injury. However, it may come to be that Corey Kluber‘s recent stay on the disabled list was actually something of a blessing in disguise for the Cleveland Indians and the ace of their rotation.
The 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner was put on the shelf on May 3, a day after exiting a start against the Tigers early with a lower back strain.
Questions persisted throughout the offseason about what kind of shape Cleveland’s No. 1 starter would be in after pitching more innings in 2016 than ever before. It was not just the quantity, but the fact that he was pitching on short rest, in high-pressure situations, and carrying a beleaguered starting pitching staff in October all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
Over the first five weeks of the season, Trevor Bauer was not having a lot of luck. In five of his first six starts, Bauer gave up four or more earned runs. That would mess with a lot of pitchers, mentally, but not Bauer.
After his sixth start of the season, a 4-2 loss in Toronto where he gave up four earned runs in six innings, Bauer said he was making good pitches all season, that they were just being hit. He felt it was a case of bad luck rather than bad pitching. The start before that, he had surrendered seven scores to the Detroit Tigers.
Perhaps the 26-year-old was on to something. Over his last three outings, Bauer has fared much better. He has given up three runs or less in each of those contests. Bauer has pitched into the sixth inning in all three as well. Two of those starts came against first place teams in the form of the surprising Minnesota Twins and the Houston Astros, who have the game’s best record. He gave up six runs in eleven and two-thirds frames to two of the American League’s top ball clubs.
Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis has shown in years past that a move to the leadoff spot can be a good cure for what is ailing his bat.
In a small sample size, the Indians have seen a good uptick in production from their two-time All-Star since manager Terry Francona inserted him into the leadoff spot of the batting order last Sunday.
That same lineup restructuring worked wonders for Kip in 2015 when he got off to a slow start. That year, his second season as an All-Star, Kipnis hit .311 when leading off and just .245 in other spots in the lineup. Needless to say, after a late April move, Kipnis batted leadoff most of the year thereafter.
What was supposed to be a major strength for the Cleveland Indians this season has so far been a bit of a weakness through the first six weeks of this season. That weak spot has been a starting pitching rotation that many hailed as being among the league’s best before a single meaningful pitch was thrown in 2017.
The only one of the starting five who has met or exceeded expectations thus far is Carlos Carrasco, who has been dominant. That has been needed as ace Corey Kluber has struggled with back problems and is currently on the disabled list. The other three starters in the rotation have simply failed to live up to what the back of their baseball cards say they can be.
When Mike Clevinger made his debut last May against the Cincinnati Reds, it was unknown what kind of chance he would get to stick around the Majors with the Indians. As it turns out, the 2016 rookie was in the big leagues for much more than just a cup of coffee.
As injuries persisted in the starting rotation and ineffectiveness plagued more-established relievers, Clevinger had ample opportunity to show the Tribe what he could do. He became a valuable pitching commodity in his ability and willingness to work back and forth between the starting rotation and bullpen. He started ten games and relieved seven for the Tribe. In the ten starts, Clevinger was up and down in going 1-3 with a 5.93 ERA in 41 innings pitched. In a more-controlled relief pitching climate, he was 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 12 frames.
Clevinger’s starting numbers may have been hurt by having to make four late-season starts when his arm was not stretched out to do so. The Tribe had made him a full-time reliever mid-season. Then disaster struck the rotation in September as Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar both got hurt. Cleveland needed somebody to try and eat up starters innings as best they could at that point.
As is the case with most pennant-winning baseball teams, the Cleveland Indians came into the 2017 season with very few question marks. The biggest one may have been whether or not left fielder Michael Brantley could return to his old All-Star form following two shoulder surgeries and a 2016 campaign that was essentially lost, aside from 11 games played.
While the rest of his teammates were celebrating a division title and trip to the World Series last season, Brantley was forced to be a spectator. The club’s best hitter and a team leader the prior two years, Dr. Smooth simply could not work his way back from a right shoulder injury he suffered diving for a fly ball near the end of the 2015 season. He attempted to come back twice, but otherwise, he was resigned to be a cheerleader from the dugout during the Tribe’s amazing American League championship run.
Last season, Jose Ramirez took the baseball world by surprise. After struggling for a couple of years to get his footing at the Major League Baseball level, Ramirez enjoyed one of the game’s bigger breakout performances in 2016.
Some feel he may have been the MVP of last year’s Cleveland Indians – a club that won an American League Central Division championship, the AL pennant, and was one run away from a World Series crown.
Statistically, Ramirez had a breakout season a year ago. He put up career highs across the board with a .312 batting average, 11 home runs, 76 RBI, 22 stolen bases, and 152 games played. Not only did he do all that, but he picked things up where others the Tribe was counting on faltered.
In 2016, there were two distinct versions of Cleveland starting pitcher Danny Salazar. This year’s Indians need the one that pitched in the first half of last season in order to get their season going in the right direction and accomplish their mission of the ball club’s first World Series title in 69 years.
Salazar’s 2016 campaign, his fourth in the big leagues, got off to such a good start that he was named to his first All-Star squad. Soreness in his right forearm forced him to be spectator for the festivities in San Diego rather than a participant. That is really where his second half troubles began.
Before the Mid-Summer Classic, Salazar was brilliant, enjoying a breakout season. He had shown promise, with good numbers as a rookie in 2013 and then a promising 2015 campaign. However, he was hitting a special kind of level in helping the Indians be the surprise of baseball at the annual summer break.
A season ago, the Cleveland Indians made a habit of winning games late and in their last at bat. They had 11 walk-off victories. Wins of that variety can be both very stressful and very exciting for the fans. They can be galvanizing for a baseball team.
Winning in a late fashion can pump life into a ball club that a blowout win just can not. You do not see postgame Gatorade baths or pies in the face – though those are now banned – for players who hit a home run in the middle frames of a 9-2 victory, for example. However, hit an eighth- or ninth-inning bomb or get a big RBI in the final couple stanzas and the postgame celebration has some sizzle and entertainment.
In 2016, the Indians got to within one win of the World Series. They were known for being a tight-knit group that had each other’s backs. When the going got tough late, the Tribe really got going and was at its best. Late inning comeback wins seemed to forge a bond and a resiliency with the unit that nothing could break the squad.
Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber has spent his career proving doubters wrong. So, why should this season be any different?
First, he had to prove that he could be a consistently effective Major League pitcher. Tabbed as a fourth round draft pick in 2007 by the San Diego Padres, Kluber was merely decent, at best, in their minor league system and then in the Tribe’s farm system after his 2010 trade to Cleveland.
When the Padres traded Kluber three years after drafting him, he had to prove to the Indians that he was worth receiving in a three-team deal that saw the Tribe send dependable veteran starter Jake Westbrook to St. Louis.
A lot of years it seems as though the Cleveland Indians go into spring training with countless veteran and minor league pitchers looking to fill the void of several open bullpen spots.
This 2017 spring camp is not exactly like a lot of years.
As in past offseasons, the Tribe did invite a good number of veterans looking for work, as well as young hurlers, to Goodyear, Arizona, for spring training. Part of the infusion of a large number of arms was due to the recently ended World Baseball Classic and the need to fill the void left behind by players going off to represent their countries in the event that goes on every four years.
Unlike past Februaries and Marches in the Arizona sun, there is not much of a void for the Indians to fill in a loaded bullpen that rates among the best in the game. There are a lot pitchers in camp looking for a job, but that opportunity is very elusive.