Two years ago, the Cleveland Indians earned one of the American League’s Wild Card nods on the strength of a 10-game winning streak to end the regular season. The team went 92-70 and hosted the postseason game that the Tribe would go on to lose 4-0 to Tampa Bay.
From that point forward questions have persisted as to whether that 2013 club was a true playoff team or the beneficiary of getting extremely hot at just the right time against a weak schedule. The two seasons that have followed have done little to answer that question. Cleveland, over the course of 2014 and 2015, has had stretches looking as good as any team in baseball and stretches looking like a last-place squad. In other words, the Indians have been all over the place since their one-game postseason appearance.
Last year and this year have been maddening being an Indians fan. Expectations were high both seasons. Entering this year, some thought the Indians to be World Series contenders. Both 2014 and 2015 saw Cleveland get out of the gate slowly before getting just hot enough in the second half to enter Wild Card picture.
A year ago, the Indians fell short. Despite their best efforts over the last month, the Indians seem destined to fall short again this year. It will be two seasons. without a return trip to October baseball – not counting the three games against Boston to end this year’s regular season.
Granted, some players have left town since the 2013 season-ending loss. There also some new faces. However, the core of that 2013 club remains unchanged. Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana still headline the offense.
The top two pitchers from that 2013 seasons – Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson – are gone. In their place is reigning Cy Young Corey Kluber, who is backed by a starting five as good as almost any in the game.
The argument can be made the Indians boast more talent now than they did when they went to the postseason. Still, it has only been good enough for 85 wins a season ago and a struggle this year to get to .500 after a poor start to the campaign.
Inconsistency has plagued the Indians ever since that postseason loss. It can be argued that inconsistency was a problem for the Tribe in their 92-win summer. At 82-70 the Indians were pretty good, but it took them until the final week-plus to really kick it to the next level. The team had to win all 10 of those games to play in one postseason outing.
The following offseason, the club talked the talk about needing to ratchet things up from the get-go. Yet, the Indians found themselves 11-17 after April and spending all season clawing back to .500 and getting to a point to be in striking distance of the Wild Card by the final week.
This season has followed a very similar script. The Tribe was a disappointing 10-17 after April. They were a low-water record of 49-59. It was at that point, after trading away several veterans, that the Tribe finally took off and hit its stride this year. As dead as the Indians looked through those first 108 games, it is a bit of a wonder that they found themselves at .500, 70-70, after Monday’s win and within reasonable striking distance of the A.L.’s second Wild Card spot.
Cleveland’s biggest issue the past two seasons, of course, has been getting off to a good start. The Tribe has gotten into a hole and then had to fight just to get back to respectability, let a lone postseason contention.
The Indians need more consistency and they may need more help to get over the hump and go from talented, inconsistent team to true playoff contender.
Cleveland management has largely stood pat after the last two seasons, with the belief that there was already good talent in place to compete and little by way of change had to happen.
One has to wonder if the team would have felt that way with a 5-5 finish to 2013 and sat at home that year rather than playing a Wild Card contest. Little was done after falling short last year, believing a young team just need a little more maturation.
While there is room for current players to grow – the Indians are the second youngest team in baseball in average age – there is also room for a power bat in the lineup and upgrades to the bullpen. This team is far from a finished product.
Problem is, with another strong end to a season, the Indians could again be making management feel more at ease. The team could again win 85 games – a decent season. It would be below expectations, but could be viewed as something to build on.
Cleveland turned to the future during the rough parts of this year and that future has made the now a lot brighter. Guys like Francisco Lindor – a Rookie of the Year candidate, Abraham Almonte, Giovanny Urshela and Cody Anderson have come on the scene to help a sluggish team out of the doldrums. Even Lonnie Chisenhall seems to have reinvented himself into a useful utility outfielder.
Still, can the Indians count on what they have seen since the second week of August to carry into next year. Surely, we have not forgotten how bad the first four months were when the team couldn’t hit a thing.
This is now two years straight that Santana has contributed late in the year after doing little for the first several months. Chisenhall has had good stretches before only to fall off the map. Even Kipnis has slumped since leading the league in batting average as late as the latter part of August. He is in danger of not hitting .300 now.
If the Indians are going to become a real threat to win the American League Central or to be a yearly playoff contender, they need to find consistency. It can happen with a young team simply growing up and learning how to play more consistently. However, that can no longer be an expectation has it has been the last two seasons. Clearly, that plan has not worked.
The Indians are not far off from being among the league’s elite. They have talent. This year’s youth movement will pay off in the long run. With a promising top of the batting order and strong starting pitching, there is a good core and base in place.
With limited funds, the Indians will have to be creative on the trade and free agent markets to improve. However, even a strong finish should not signal the status quo as being fine. No longer should two months of strong play be able to erase the memory of four months of horrible play. It is obviously not good enough. The answer to the true identity of the 2014 and 2015 Indians is somewhere in between the terrible and great they have spent stretches playing as. They are around average, overall – maybe slightly above it. They will not get better until they find more players who can put up strong seasons for a consistent time – not just some of it.
Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press