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.
There has not been a lot of good news for Michael Brantley and his injured right shoulder since a fateful, late-season attempt to dive for a ball at Target Field on September 22, 2015. Since then, he has undergone two surgeries, multiple setbacks and appeared in just 13 games. Things seem to be headed in a better direction for Brantley these days, however.
Two of those 13 contests he has played in since the initial shoulder woes began came at the end of the 2015 campaign. He missed 10 of the final 12 games that season. Last year, a comeback attempt lasted but 11 games as the one-time All-Star and MVP candidate could not get his ailing shoulder to a point where there was not pain when he swung the bat.
His 2016 numbers – 43 plate appearances, nine hits, two doubles and seven RBI – were more a tease for Tribe fans than anything else. It was a window view of the player the Indians missed during an otherwise unforgettable year that saw the club get so agonizingly close to its first World Series title since 1948.
The Cleveland Indians are going to need one extra outfielder and perhaps two when the regular season starts in April.
Right field is the only spot among the three positions currently fully settled. Lonnie Chisenhall will roam the spot when the opposition sends a right-hander to the mound, while it will be Brandon Guyer who will take over against an opposing lefty. That outfield position is known and well-manned.
The other two spots in the Tribe outfield have question marks. Tyler Naquin, who finished third in last year’s American League Rookie of the Year balloting, has done nothing this spring to suggest he is in danger of losing his spot in center field. However, he mostly plays against right-handed pitchers and was used in a platoon last year. His platoon partner was Rajai Davis, who is now gone to the Oakland Athletics. There is a door open there.
The word “platoon” can sometimes be a red flag word when referring to a player. A manager can oftentimes see that word as a burden. However, when it comes to the Cleveland Indians right field situation, it is more the term for something of a perfect marriage.
On August , last season, Brandon Guyer and Lonnie Chisenhall became joined at the hip as the co-right fielders for the Tribe. Alone, each has a fatal flaw. Together, they form something of the perfect right fielder for Indians manager Terry Francona to trot out to the position each day.
Chisenhall, a left-handed hitter, has been with the Tribe organization since he was tabbed as a highly-touted 19-year-old prospect in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft. He started as a third baseman, where he could barely cut it in the field. Late in 2015, the Indians converted Chisenhall to right field, where he has seemingly found a comfort zone. He’s not the most graceful of athletes, but covers a lot of ground.
Over the last couple of years, the Cleveland Indians have done well in finding veteran free agents no one else wanted and watching them become diamonds in the rough, so to speak.
Dan Otero last year and Jeff Manship in 2015 were both free agent relievers the Tribe was able to bring to spring training on minor league contracts. Both had histories of past success but were trying to rejuvenate careers that had fallen off in the seasons before joining the Indians.
Both veteran relievers proved to be strong contributors to Cleveland’s bullpen. Manship spent two seasons with the Indians before being casualty of management deciding not to make him an arbitration offer this past winter. Part of the reason was the emergence last year of Otero, giving Cleveland a deep bullpen without Manship. Both hurlers were important parts of an Indians club that went to the 2016 World Series.