Solving the Tribe’s Woes, or Pushing the Panic Button?

It’s not early any more.

No matter where your measuring stick may be—whether it’s 40 games of the season or Memorial Day—the Indians have passed the quarter mark of the season and are heading into the summer months no where close to the expectations they set when they printed, “Unfinished Business,” t-shirts in March. Mired at 19-25, the Indians open their first home, three game series with the Detroit Tigers tonight.

The Indians entered the season with hopes of competing with the Tigers for 162 games and challenging for a Central Division crown. The Indians are 10.5 games in back of Detroit and not just chasing the Tigers, but every team in the division. It’s cold and lonely in the basement where the Indians currently reside.

Some think it could be time to push the panic button.

Not much has gone right for the Indians through 46 games. The offense is struggling as Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana have all produced below expectations. Sunday, Indians manager Terry Francona moved Swisher and Santana down to sixth and seventh in the batting order, but is there a good place to move a hitter struggling to stay above .200 and another dreaming to see it?

The injury bug has bit the Tribe pretty hard, too. Jason Kipnis is in the process of missing a month due to an oblique injury. He’s hopeful to go on a rehab assignment as early as this week, but at minimum, it seems to be another 7-10 days before he returns to the lineup. Nyjer Morgan looked like a spark before spraining his knee and heading to the 15-day disabled list and Bourn has lacked that dynamic, top-of-the-order presence the Tribe thought they had acquired when they signed him in February 2013.

Worse yet, the starters have struggled with Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar each leaving the rotation in less than two months. Carrasco didn’t take advantage of his most recent chance to solidify himself as a big league starter and after four years of attempts, one has to wonder how long it is before the Indians have to officially give up on him. Salazar, the pitcher they banked so heavily on assuming the role of Ubaldo Jimenez or Scott Kazmir, has struggled to go deep into games and command pitches other than his fastball. The most egregious error to the rotation may have been choosing to go with Carrasco out of spring training over veteran Aaron Harang. Harang has a 2.98 ERA in nine starts for the Atlanta Braves.

But when discussing errors and the Indians, none is bigger than their defense on a daily basis. They’re 45 errors is the most in Major League Baseball. They’ve made more errors at catcher than any team and tied for the most at first base. Tribe third baseman and pitchers are each tied for second worst at their position. Cleveland has made eight errors in their last four games—all losses. You don’t need defensive metrics to know that’s bad. That’s really bad.

What’s most disparaging about the Tribe’s defense is that it’s affecting their thin pitching staff. Extra outs are leading to extra pitches, and eventually, extra mistakes. Worse yet, defense doesn’t slump, or get off to a cold start. Unfortunately, the Indians defensive woes are likely here to stay. The team is on pace to make more errors than any Indians team in the last 70 years.

However, Cleveland is quick to remind you that they got off to a cold start in 2013, but found their stride and still won 92 games. It sounds good, but Cleveland was never six games under .500 this late in the season and never more than 8.5 games back. Because they did it last year is a pretty poor excuse and defense for bad play.

Worse yet, the cavalry isn’t coming to save the Tribe. Cleveland has already had to dive into their minor league system, probably more than their liking. Jose Ramirez, Jesus Aguilar may someday be parts to a good team, but they are role players. They aren’t saving a season. Kyle Crockett has potential to be a quality left-handed reliever, but those guys don’t turn around seasons either. Josh Tomlin has pitched well since his promotion and Trevor Bauer has every opportunity to settle into the rotation and maybe be this season’s Salazar. Shawn Armstrong may soon receive a promotion from Double-A Akron to help the bullpen, but after that, the cupboard gets bare fast.

Some will point to top prospect, 20-year old Francisco Lindor as a possible spark. The heir apparent to the Tribe’s shortstop position could be an ignitor, but he’s still very young and still has played just 60 games at Double-A. That’s a big burden to place on a young player. Also, the organization has to consider if it is worth playing Lindor at the big league level much in 2014 if the season has already slid away. Playing the best prospect the team has had since C.C. Sabathia, in a lost season, just starts MLB service time clocks toward salary arbitration and free agency.

Help is not on the way. If the Indians are going to get back to .500, climb up the standings and still try to steal a playoff spot, the formula is simple: Veterans signed to fill major roles have to play better.

Swisher has to produce at the plate. Santana has to produce at the plate. Swisher has to catch the ball. Yan Gomes has to catch and throw the ball. Santana has to catch the ball. Michael Bourn has to produce better at the top of the lineup. Ryan Raburn has to produce at the plate. Asdrubal Cabrera has to catch the ball. John Axford has to get hitters out in some kind of role in the bullpen and the same for Carrasco. Zach McAllister needs to be consistent. Justin Masterson needs to pitch like a starter asking for $17 million.

It’s no longer early, but it could get late pretty quick if the Indians don’t start playing better—quickly.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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