The 2015 Cleveland Indians don’t have to believe in Sports Illustrated jinxes, but one look at the standings and they’ll quickly have to believe that their playoff chances are about done.
At 33-41, the Indians are eight games under .500 and 12 games back of first place. The 12-game deficit behind the Kansas City Royals is the most they’ve trailed by all season and only on May 12, when they were 11-20, were the Tribe farther under .500. At that point, the optimistic fans were still telling the pessimists that it was early. Unfortunately, “early” left town a while ago and the Tribe is just one game ahead of the worst record in the American League, the Chicago White Sox.
And like most underachieving, disappointing teams, the reasons behind the Tribe’s falters are quite plentiful. Aside from the starting rotation, there is blame to go around for everyone. The offense is somewhere between inconsistent and poor and the defense is on its way to finishing 24th or lower in Major League Baseball for the seventh straight season. That’s right, the last time the Indians had an “average” defense was 2008.
While the bullpen has been messy at times, the majority of the blame has to be placed on the position players—the guys who don’t hit and don’t catch—along with Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, the $30 million in salary that is injured and ineffective when on the field.
To the Tribe’s credit, they’ve finally made a move toward their youth and improving their defense in the last couple weeks. Giovanny Urshela and Francisco Lindor have been given the reigns to the left side of the infield. It appears the second chances for Lonnie Chisenhall have run out and whenever Jose Ramirez returns to the big leagues it will be in the role he should always have been in, a utility man. After giving T.J. House, Bruce Chen and Shaun Marcum every chance to succeed, they’ve been left no choice but to rely on homegrown youngster Cody Anderson. He’s only pitched one game at the big league level, but it’s been the best game from the fifth starter’s role all season.
Turning around the Indians 2015 season is probably a lost cause, but if they want to turn around this year, or have any chance at a successful 2016, the team must continue making roster moves to the position player side. The Indians should build around a core of Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes, Lindor and Urshela. Each are either strong offensive players or defensive players, with potential to be both. A new look Indians roster can no longer have players with poor defenders that can’t hit .250.
Unfortunately, what’s left after that core isn’t much. David Murphy and Ryan Raburn are having nice years in a platoon role, but each are poor defenders. A contending team may be interested in either, but the Indians won’t be bringing back any players that help the roster for them. The same is true for Mike Aviles, a utility man who can play all over the field, but doesn’t really play any position well. Murphy and Raburn have team options on their contract for 2016 and Aviles is a free agent. It seems likely this could be their final seasons with the Tribe.
But ridding each of them from the roster will not cure the Tribe’s ills. Cleveland is going to be faced with a couple major decisions in the next six to eight months. Should they give up, admit the wrong, and designate Bourn and/or Swisher for assignment, and should the Indians consider trading Carlos Santana?
Bourn and Swisher’s Indians careers have been bad to say the least. Each are signed through 2016 and no team is absorbing any of their remaining contract. The Indians options are to ride out the rest of their contract—thus riding out a poor roster—or cut them and move on. The money committed to each was lost long ago. It seems highly unlikely that Bourn will become younger and faster at this point and revert back to the best defensive center fielder in baseball, like he was in 2012. It’s even less likely that Swisher’s knees will heal and he’ll find his offensive stroke again. Instead, it seems much more likely that if the Indians keep Bourn and Swisher around, they’ll continue to try and compete with just 23 players on the roster while dragging them along. Taking away the $15 million dedicated to each player, the Indians have competed on a $55 million payroll for the last two seasons. Soon, they have to consider using those roster spots on two more young players that could produce offensively and defend, while doing it at a league minimum cost.
And finally, Terry Francona, Chris Antonetti and the rest of the new age statistical gurus will have to seriously consider dealing Santana. While he draws walks at a better rate than any in baseball, and sabrmetricians will tell you he’s still one of their best offensive players, he doesn’t produce runs like the Indians thought he would when he was brought to the big leagues in 2010. His batting average continues to fall and he doesn’t produce with runners in scoring position. Worse yet, he’s the worst first baseman in the American League and only Pedro Alvarez keeps him from being the worst in all of baseball.
Santana is a good offensive player and signed through 2017, making him one of the few players the Indians have that other teams would be interested in via trade. On a different team, one with good defenders or .280 hitters around him, Santana would be a great fit to help set the table for an offense. But the way this Indians team is constructed, he just doesn’t fit in the role they’re asking him to fill.
Making major moves in the middle of the season isn’t impossible, but it’s tough. It’s likely Antonetti and the boys will face the Swisher, Bourn and Santana questions this winter, but one thing is for sure, the front office has to change the composition of the position player roster. This group has been kept together for the last three years and nothing has improved.
They need an infusion of new offensive and defensive blood, whether it comes from trades or the minor league system. If the Indians front office continues to keep this collection of players together for another season, they won’t have to believe in jinxes in 2016, either. They’ll be at the bottom of the standings again.
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