How does a 7-14 record sound? OK, 11-17? Perhaps 11-13 will suit you a little better?
Those have been the records put up by the Cleveland Indians during the first month of the season over their three years under manager Terry Francona – not exactly starts to the season to remember. Due, in part, to their slow April starts, the Tribe has not had many memorable finishes to their campaigns, either.
Of course, that is not the case in 2013 when an 11-13 opening month ended up with a 92-70 record and a trip to the American League Wild Card game. Of course, a slightly better start to that year and the Tribe may well have won the A.L. Central Division and experienced an October to remember rather than being one-and-done after the postseason ouster at the hand of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Each of the two seasons since, Cleveland has finished over .500. Francona has guided the Indians to three positive seasons in his three years with the club. By all accounts, the Tribe has been successful under the watch of the two-time World Series winning skipper.
However, this a club that is built to do more than have decent seasons. With some of the most talented pitching in the game and some good pieces on offense, the Tribe should be a playoff contender and should have been in the postseason mix the last two years.
Last year, Sports Illustrated pegged the Indians as favorites to win the World Series, a title that would have been the club’s first since 1948 and the city’s first major sports championship since 1964. The Tribe may have had a better chance to fulfill that dream in 2015 had it not had to dig out from seven games below the break-even point in April. Cleveland had to finish with a flourish just to get to respectability at 81-80. A solid start could have meant better things later in the year.
Of course, it hurt the Tribe that Yan Gomes was lost for six weeks in the first week of the season and was never the same hitter he had been in 2014. No one could have predicted it would take a midseason youth movement to really get the Indians rolling, either.
Likewise, two years ago Cleveland finished at a good 85-77. The squad missed the postseason a year after qualifying as a Wild Card. Oh, what might have been with something more than an 11-17 April. That talented team may have been a World Series club with an average first month, as opposed to the forgettable one it had.
That leads us to what is now Francona’s fourth season at the helm. A new year, once again filled with postseason hopes, dawns upon the Indians on Monday. Getting off to a good start feels crucial to a club that very well could be a viable contender this year.
Simply winning the home-opening lid-lifter in two days would seem like a positive start. Since 2008, Cleveland has won its first home game just once, in 2014. The Indians have sold out their first home game of the season every year since Progressive Field opened in 1994. Electrifying that sellout crowd on day one would be a very good way to get a promising season off to a strong start.
Cleveland does have a good chance to get off to a better start this year than Aprils past. The schedule, for one, stacks up in the team’s favor. Outside of a three-game interleague series against the 2015 National League Champion Mets, the Indians do not play a postseason team from a year ago in the first month of 2016.
The Indians play every division foe besides the reigning two-time AL Champion Royals in the coming month. The slate opens with an improved, but still flawed, Red Sox team, at home. April also sees the Indians play low-expectation clubs in the forms of Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.
Then there is Cleveland’s pitching. The Tribe’s starters give the team a chance to win almost every night. The question will be whether or not this Indians offense will hit enough. That, unfortunately, will be a key question early in the year with outfielder Michael Brantley, arguable the team’s best hitter, on the disabled list. He could be out up to a month after a spring training setback to his surgically repaired shoulder.
Despite the temporary loss of their star left fielder, the Indians still need to find a way to win early. Offensively, the Tribe should figure to have Gomes this April, unlike last April. Last year’s rookie sensation, shortstop Francisco Lindor, was not on the Major League roster until June. He will be there on Opening Day this time around. Free agent signings Mike Napoli, Marlon Byrd and Rajai Davis also give the Tribe offense more punch than it had a year ago. Add in the promise of rookie Tyler Naquin and the Cleveland offense really should be better now that it was at this time last year.
That should be good news for guys like Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, who anchor one of the top rotations in baseball. Give them just a little bit of run support and they should win more games than they lose.
Of course, getting off to a strong start does not necessarily mean a great finish. Just ask for Indians manager Manny Acta. His Tribe squads of 2011 and 2012 saw April records of 18-8 and 11-9, respectively. Both seasons ended under .500 as a young roster faltered as the season wore on.
Francona has guided a more experienced group of players who have simply not started out strong. Beyond April, seasons under Francona have been pretty positive. This seems to be a group that prospers more when things start rolling in the right direction. It would be nice to see what could happen if things start rolling that way early. If this club can turn around its April fortunes, then it really has a chance to be in contention in September.
The team has flirted with or been in contention each of the last three season, despite bad opening months. If they do not have to dig out of an early hole, perhaps the Indians could spend May to August enjoying success and maybe even larger crowds, rather than explaining why the record is not equal to the sum of their talented parts and playing in front of sparse crowds.
It has been said a season is not won or lost in April. However, a strong base can definitely help to build up a more sturdy middle and end.
Photo: David Andersen/The Plain Dealer