Just as things appeared to be spiraling into the abyss, the Indians won some big games against some of the top competition in the American League over the last few weeks.
While stories across the country have focused on which players the Indians should look to purge by the July 31 deadline, the team has instead showed surprising signs of life after dealing with a slew of injuries to their starting rotation and operating an offense as inconsistent as they come. Buried still deep behind the Minnesota Twins, who have an 11-game lead in the American League Central (just a half-game short of the Indians’ biggest deficit to Minnesota this season), the Tribe has a giant mountain to climb in a division that they were supposed to run away with. While the magic eight ball may indicate “Outlook Not So Good” for the Indians’ chances of chasing down the still surging Twins, the team is only 1.5 games in back of the Texas Rangers for the second American League Wild Card spot.
The Twins have not had a significant cold spell to date, despite a pitching staff that some would have considered prior to the season to be too unproven or inconsistent for a team hoping to contend. Both the starting rotation and bullpen have performed well beyond expectation. That offense, scary enough on paper, may carry them well through the year (as well as the next few) and is already doing so, as the bats lead all of baseball in runs scored, doubles (tied), homers, batting average, and slugging. Minnesota has lost back-to-back games just four times on the year and has yet to post a three-game losing streak or more. They own the best winning percentage in baseball (.672) and the top run differential (+115), but this damage has come via a friendly schedule that has seen the Twins play just 25 of their 67 games against teams over the .500 mark, or 37% of their contests (that said, the Indians have played just four more games against winning clubs).
A 5-3 homestand against a pair of playoff contenders in Minnesota (2-1) and New York (2-1), as well as a split against a Cincinnati team performing much better of late, was an encouraging sign for the Indians over the last week and a half. Taking two of three in Boston prior to that homestand during the team’s previous road trip was a plus as well, giving them three straight series wins over winning clubs (after losing six of seven games to Oakland and Tampa Bay during an eleven-game homestand towards the end of May).
With 21 games remaining on the docket before the city hosts the All-Star Game, the pressure is on the young Indians to step it up and force the front office to see a team truly capable of contention (either somehow for the Central or the Wild Card) or to continue to perform at a level right around .500 and fail to catch the Twins, the Rangers, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Boston Red Sox, or any of the others standing in the way.
The big question remains. Can this Tribe team do enough to rationalize addition instead of subtraction over the next month and a half?
The rotation, a strength of the team, has lost Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber, Jefry Rodriguez, and most recently, Carlos Carrasco. Clevinger will return next week and Kluber is working his way back from a broken arm, although he has much more time remaining on the shelf than Clevinger. Carrasco will hopefully return from his blood disorder, but there is little clarity on his situation at present. Shane Bieber has been solid overall in avoiding a sophomore slump, Zach Plesac has been impressive in three of his first four Major League outings, and Trevor Bauer has battled through some ups and downs but has been able to eat up innings in bulk. Results have been mixed from Adam Plutko, but he could serve as a useful fifth starter, while Cody Anderson’s opportunities to start left something to be desired before he underwent surgery to address a right flexor tendon issue in his pitching elbow.
The relief corps has been an unexpected positive, anchored by Brad Hand, who may just be the team’s most valuable and reasonable trade chip at the present (ignoring Francisco Lindor). A light’s out closer is an unneeded commodity for a .500 team that does not have playoff aspirations, so with the Indians’ October plans still being pondered, Hand’s status as a Clevelander remains in flux. Other teams in the mix for playoff baseball, including the likes of Minnesota, Boston, Atlanta, Milwaukee, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Chicago Cubs (even after the addition of Craig Kimbrel), could all be looking for relief upgrades. It is hard to see an Indians bullpen going far without Hand, even as the current group is tops in all of baseball with a team 3.28 ERA, is tied for second in the AL with 20 saves, and is third in the league with a 2.8 team WAR. The staff’s three blown saves are fewest in MLB. But despite their success, removing Hand (3-2, 19/19 on saves, 0.91 ERA, 0.74 WHIP) from the mix leaves a dramatic void at the back end, not to knock the likes of the injured Dan Otero, Adam Cimber, Nick Wittgren, and others.
The offense was the biggest concern coming into the season and remains still. Lindor and Carlos Santana have played to levels expected, with Santana providing a bit more overall at the plate early with a strong start to his 2019 campaign and Lindor making up for time lost on the injured list to open the year. Jose Ramirez has not, and it is hard to see the lineup improving enough to contend if he cannot find a way to end a slump rapidly approaching a year in length. The kids have been alright, as Jake Bauers and Jordan Luplow have shown flashes of being capable and reliable players, while Oscar Mercado has made his mark in his short time on the roster. Roberto Perez has stepped it up with an impressive display of home run power of late, but other veterans around the roster like Jason Kipnis and Leonys Martin have left notable voids in the starting nine’s ability to put up the numbers that they need to win games regularly.
The lineup has been unable to protect a pitching staff that has accounted for the fifth-fewest runs (285) allowed in all of baseball this season. The bats have provided the sixth-fewest runs in the game with 275, leading to a -10 run differential. With a 34-33 record, they are the only team in baseball with a winning record to have a negative difference in runs scored to runs allowed.
The projections are not favorable for the Indians by the prognosticators. Fangraphs gives the Indians a 4.8% chance to win the division and a 30.4% chance to win the wild card for a 35.2% chance to make the playoffs. Baseball-Reference sees things a bit worse, giving the team a 1.9% chance of winning the division and a 26% chance of sneaking into a wild card matchup (the team has had the third-largest improvement to their odds over the last week). FiveThirtyEight.com also has the Indians on the outside looking in, with an 8% chance to win the division, but a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Their simulations have the Indians finishing 13 games in back of the Twins.
The Indians, who are just 12-17 against teams with winning records, are entering a favorable stretch of the schedule. The second half of June pits Cleveland against three different teams with losing records in the Detroit Tigers (three on the road, three at home), the Kansas City Royals (three at home), and the Baltimore Orioles (three on the road). The Indians’ only games against a winning team to end this month will be against the surprising Texas Rangers (four games in Arlington). Cleveland will have two off days in the first week of July as it faces sub-.500 Kansas City for three and Cincinnati for two before the All-Star Game on July 9.
The team has already initiated a youth movement, so significant additions of veterans seem unlikely. If the team adds for the present, it will be controllable young players done with an eye to 2020 and beyond. The pressure is on the 25 men representing the Indians now, starting Friday night at Comerica Park. A good stretch over some bad teams could get the Tribe back into the playoff mix, but a poor showing in those 21 games could be the proof that the front office needs to move its focus from the present to the future.
Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire (via Getty Images)