Well, isn’t this a surprise.
While it seems like the Cleveland Indians have been here before, it still seems like a shock. Just a month ago after play on July 31, the Indians were 53-55 overall and 6.5 games back in the American League Central Division, stuck in third place. In the two days previous Cleveland had traded Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Masterson to contenders for young players that may help them now, or into the future.
While Indians manager Terry Francona professed that his team would never quit, it seemed obvious that the Tribe was likely out of contention. They weren’t going into any kind of long, rebuilding mode, but more of an approach to prepare themselves to be competitive in 2015. Cabrera and Masterson were no longer in their long term plans, so dealing them for a piece that could help in 2015 made sense, but a serious contender wouldn’t trade away two veterans.
However, a month later, after going 17-9 in August and closing the gap in the division to just 3.5 games (and last night’s suspended game three outs from another victory), the Indians enter September as sudden, serious contenders for the division. Detroit is struggling though injuries and the Indians have just swept the Royals to make ground in the standings. For the Indians, the obvious addition by subtraction is clear to see. Masterson struggled all season in Cleveland and things have got worse in St. Louis. Cabrera has been below average defensively for the last two seasons, and offensively, increasingly mediocre over the same stretch. In addition to the Tribe’s two trades, Nick Swisher has been shut down for the season due to ailing knees and Ryan Raburn and David Murphy have each been sidelined with their own injuries.
Meanwhile, the door left open by the injured and jettisoned veterans has allowed unseasoned young players to walk into an opportunity. After two, small chances at the big league level, Jose Ramirez has been a spark in his third chance. Since his recall in late July, Ramirez has hit .304, scored 12 runs and stole five bases while hitting second in the lineup most of the time. Despite some poor play in the eighth inning on Saturday night, Ramirez has played strong defense since taking over for Cabrera at shortstop. Zach Walters—acquired for Cabrera—hasn’t hit for a high average, but has provided offensive pop at the right time. All six of his home runs since being acquired have either tied the game or given the Indians the lead. Seven of his 11 hits are for extra bases. Tyler Holt has been a spark in a lesser, but similar role, as Ramirez and Mike Aviles has played well in a larger, every day utility role.
Ramirez, Holt, Walters and Aviles—along with the healthy return of Michael Bourn—has transformed the Indians. No longer are they the veteran bunch that printed, “Unfinished Business,” t-shirts in March, but instead a group of gritty, upstarts who play small ball and bunt enough to make a Sabermetricians go mad. It seems no surprise that improved defense has helped a young starting rotation improve to the best ERA in baseball in the month of August (2.40). Strong pitching and defense leads to wins, no matter how you go about scoring runs.
Combine that effort, with Francona’s continuous matchups and use of his bullpen and suddenly it feels as if the Indians aren’t trying to win a series or even a game, but just win one inning at a time. Win enough innings, then see where it takes you seems like the current approach.
As the waiver trade deadline has expired, and rosters now expand, hopefully Francona and the Indians brass recognize the August formula that has led to their September opportunity. Players like Ramirez, Walters, Holt and Aviles may not be major pieces of the Indians future puzzle—although they could serve to be role players—but they’re key players in the present.
Rosters will expand beginning today and DTTWLN has reported that Austin Adams, Bryan Price and Jesus Aguilar will be recalled. Zach McAllister was recalled prior to Sunday’s game when Josh Tomlin was placed on the paternity list. Chris Gimenez could be activated from the paternity list as early as today. Jason Giambi and Raburn are on rehabilitation assignments and Murphy could soon follow the same route while the Tribe has three minor league teams in the playoffs.
While an expanded roster is nice and allows Francona additional flexibility to take advantage of matchups, the Indians should not revert to their veteran ways. Albeit, a small sample size, Ramirez, Walters, Holt and Aviles all have positive WARs for the season. Swisher, Giambi, Raburn and Murphy each are in the negative. WAR (Wins Above Replacement), is designed to assign a value to a player’s production, with zero being a replacement—or Triple-A—level player.
Consider the veterans replaced.
To fairly credit Ramirez, Walters, Holt and Aviles for a part of the 18-9 August, you have to also blame Swisher, Giambi, Raburn and Murphy for part of the 53-55 that took place before the trade deadline. Swisher is supposed to be out for the season, and for the sake of the remainder of his Indians’ contract, it’s important he return healthy. However, when Giambi, Raburn and Murphy are each eventually added to the roster, they should not sideline any of the upstarts that have played the Indians back into contention.
With two open spots on the 40-man roster, it’s likely the Indians add two more players and purchase their contracts once minor league teams are eliminated from playoff play. The first name to come to mind will be the organization’s top prospect, shortstop Francisco Lindor. After a breakout season, third baseman Giovanny Urshela could be next or James Ramsey, acquired for Masterson. Adding any combination of the three, is still a positive move, but none should be handed substantial playing time, but instead be role players. Even Lindor, who prides winning over everything else, and is still the shortstop of the future, shouldn’t replace Ramirez after his August play. Lindor should start on Opening Day 2015, but Ramirez is the hot hand and has earned the right to play September.
It’s the young, unproven position players, growing starting pitching, bullpen and a never-say-die manager that got the Indians into contention this August. If the Indians want to finish their business in September, stick with the formula that’s worked, not the veterans that printed the t-shirts and struggled for the first four months.
Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo