We have arrived at baseball’s All-Star break. The Cleveland Indians sit at 51-44, a game and a half out of first place in the AL Central. It has been quite a ride since GM Chris Antonetti hired Terry Francona to manage this club. The shot had been fired – a change in culture was about to arrive in Cleveland. We expected some changes, but nobody could have expected that this team would be as good as it has been.
Yes, they have been up and down and have the nickname “Team Streak,” but this start has a completely different feel than the last two years. This seems real.
In part three, we will look at the position players.
Michael Brantley – 91 GP – 333 AB- .279/.333/.378/7 HR/48 RBI/46 R/10 SB/.366 with RISP in 71 AB
Michael Bourn – 68 GP – 279 AB – .290/.331/.366/2 HR/19 RBI/39 R/13 SB/.316 vs. lefties/.291 with RISP in 55 AB
Drew Stubbs – 90 GP – 287 AB – .244./296/.386/7 HR/35 RBI/37 R/10 SB/.224 vs. righties/.286 vs. lefties/.268 with RISP in 71 AB
Nick Swisher – 79 GP – 289 AB – .242/.352/.398/9 HR/31 RBI/42 R/.280 vs. lefties/.222 vs. righties/.224 with RISP in 85 AB
Jason Kipnis – 84 GP – 319 AB – .301/.383/.514/13 HR/57 RBI/53 R/21 SB/.312 vs. lefties/.293 with RISP in 82 AB
Asdrubal Cabrera – 71 GP – 271 AB – .255/.315/.421/7 HR/34 RBI/39 R/5 SB/.267 vs. lefties/.249 vs. righties/.239 with RISP in 67 AB
Lonnie Chisenhall – 48 GP – 169 AB – .243/.289/.414/6 HR/25 RBI/15 R/.091 vs. lefties/.279 vs. righties/.235 with RISP in 51 AB/.280 with 14 RBI in 75 AB since recall
Mark Reynolds – 89 GP – 308 AB – .218/.037/.386/15 HR/47 RBI/38 R/113 K/.223 vs. lefties, .215 vs. righties/.245 with RISP in 94 AB/.177 since May 10th
Carlos Santana – 88 GP – 305 AB – .275/.382/.466/11 HR/43 RBI/41 R/53 BB/.282 vs. lefties/.272 vs. righties/.292 with RISP in 72 AB
Mike Aviles – 72 GP – 216 AB – .259/.295/.375/5 HR/26 RBI/37 R/11 BB/7 SB/.242 vs. lefties/.272 vs. righties/.228 with RISP in 57 AB
Ryan Raburn – 55 GP – 150 AB – .267/.316/.540/10 HR/28 RBI/25 R/21 BB/.270 vs. lefties/.264 vs. righties/.295 with RIP in 44 AB
Jason Giambi – 41 GP – 115 AB – .200/.309/.409/6 HR/23 RBI/16 R/16 BB/.212 vs. righties/.359 with RISP in 28 AB
Yan Gomes – 39 GP – 130 AB – .260/.293/.477/6 HR/20 RBI/20 R/7 BB/.263 vs. lefties, .260 vs. righties/.281 with RISP in 32 AB/has thrown out 52% of runners trying to steal
Things changed dramatically this winter when Francona, Antonetti, and Mark Shapiro, along with the Dolan Family ownership, decided to reverse course and pursue a big name free agent. After reportedly offering a four-year deal to OF Shane Victorino (who eventually signed with Boston), they were able to reel in the perfect big fish to become the new face of the franchise; Nick Swisher. His excitement was oozing at the welcome to Cleveland press conference. With Swisher and 1B/DH Mark Reynolds on board, Drew Stubbs and Mike Aviles acquired via trades, coupled with the young talent already in tow, the Tribe’s lineup was really taking a nice shape. Then just before Spring Training, almost completely out of nowhere, All-Star Center fielder Michael Bourn stunned the baseball world by signing a four-year, $48 million deal with the Tribe. All of a sudden, an improved lineup became that much better with the addition of one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.
Gone were the days of Shelley Duncan hitting cleanup, Jack Hannahan playing every day, and a six through nine that looked like a Columbus Clippers game had broken out. Bringing Bourn to Cleveland moved shook things up. Swisher, signed to play right field, would move to first. Reynolds, brought in to play first, became the regular DH. Stubbs was supposed to be roaming in center, but moved to right with Bourn on the roster. Last year’s center fielder, Michael Brantley, moved back to left field. They stayed strong up the middle with the Jason Kipnis/Asdrubal Cabrera double play combo, and Carlos Santana behind the plate. Lonnie Chisenhall could hang in the bottom of the order with no pressure on him at third.
What is amazing in baseball is how different things can look from month to month. In April, the Tribe’s hottest and best hitter was unquestionably Reynolds. It looked as though the Tribe got themselves an absolute steal for one year and six million for the power hitting DH. He led the Indians in homers (eight), batting average (.301), RBIs (22), and OPS (1.019) and people around town talked about wanting to extend him. On the other side of the ledger was Kipnis, who could not seem to get things going his way. He finished the month .200/.269/.286 with one homer and four RBIs. He struck out 21 times in 70 at-bats and looked completely lost at the plate.
Fast forward to the break and Kipnis is an All-Star who was named AL player of the month in June and sits at .301/.383/.514 with 13 homers, 57 RBIs, and 21 steals. His 1.216 OPS in June is an amazing number. Jason has played stellar defense and has settled into the three-hole in Francona’s lineup. It is not a coincidence that his play elevated at the same time the team turned it on.
In the meantime, Reynolds hasn’t been able to get out of his own way since his incredible start. As good as he was in April, he has been on the opposite end of the spectrum. Since May 10th, Reynolds has played in 58 games and ranks dead last in the majors in batting average (.177) and slugging percentage (.242) for all qualified hitters. We knew he would strike out a ton, but as long as the power was there, nobody would care. Mega Mark only has two homers since May 30th – his only two extra base hits. He heads into the break in the midst of a 3-37 skid. It wouldn’t shock me one bit to see less of Reynolds in the second half unless he can get hot again.
It’s not like Francona doesn’t have options.
While Swisher is still one of the more likeable players we have ever seen in Cleveland, his performance on the field hasn’t been as advertised. I touched on this in late June, but Swisher has yet to break out for a hot streak. He is still riding a honeymoon period with the fans, but the numbers don’t lie. .242/.352/.398 just isn’t going to cut it for a middle of the order bat. .224 with runners in scoring position is the worst of any regular on the team. His numbers are more Drew Stubbs than Jason Kipnis. No doubt Nick battled some shoulder issues and continues to play through them, but a big second half out of Swish would make a huge difference for a hot and cold offense.
Speaking of a guy who could use a big second half, Cabrera has been a guy who has collapsed the last two years, which has been well documented. The 2013 season has been spotty for Asdrubal, who spent the better part of June on the DL with a quad injury. After a slow April, he picked things up in May. He came off the DL firing with 10 hits in his first five games, but fell into a 0-20 skid. He did go 4-8 in the last two games against KC and welcomed the break. The thing is Asdrubal looks as good as he ever has physically. With Kipnis raking the way he has, Cabrera has moved back into the two hole. Defensively his range leaves a little to be desired, but he still has the great hands and has made just three errors. Also playing in Asdrubal’s favor is the fact that he won’t be as worn down as he was the past two seasons with Aviles around to spell him. In addition, he doesn’t have to carry the offense the way he used to.
Moving to the hot corner, Chisenhall was handed the job and was given every opportunity to succeed as an every day player. The knocks on Lonnie were always his inability to hit left-handed pitching and his shaky defense. In the field, Chiz did a good enough job. At the plate, a .222/.253/.403 April spawned a .182/.250/.182 May and a demotion to Columbus to find his swing. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter because of the way Reynolds was crushing the ball. Francona made Reynolds his regular third baseman with veteran Jason Giambi getting more at-bats at DH. Lonnie spent just over a month in Columbus, didn’t complain, and did nothing but rake. In 27 games, Chisenhall hit .390/.456/.676 with six homers and 26 RBIs. With Reynolds crashing back to earth both at the plate and with the glove, Lonnie came back up and has done a nice job, hitting .280 in 75 ABs with 14 RBIs. The problem area against lefties has not gone away. 3-33 (.091) is just brutal. I’ve said this many times, but Chisenhall figuring it all out is about as important to this team’s long term success as anything. They have no real backup plan at third base should he fail. Aviles or Reynolds will play third against tough lefties the rest of the way, but it would be nice to know Lonnie could be the guy every single day.
Aviles has been the type of utility man this team has sorely lacked and hoped Jason Donald would be. He filled in nicely when Cabrera was on the DL and plays a quality short. If Kipnis gets a day off, Aviles plays second. He has also made 10 starts at third base and three in left field. Aviles played for Francona in Boston and fits in perfectly with this club. The versatility and reputation for being a great teammate has certainly preceded him. A free swinger, Aviles has shown a nice ability to go to all fields. He is the perfect bench player and invaluable to this club. Imagine Cord Phelps in his role, because that would be the next best option in the organization. Scary thought.
The most tantalizing bat in the order still belongs to Santana in my opinion. The ball just stings off his bat. While the home run power is right around where it was last year, he has almost as many doubles (23) as he did all of 2012 (27). Once again, he leads the Indians in walks and keeps his strikeout numbers down. Of the regulars, only Brantley has less. His on-base and OPS numbers are right there with his All-Star teammate Kipnis. Other than a slow May, Santana has been pretty solid throughout. In years past, he has been extremely pull happy, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in 2013. That is something he has worked on to correct with hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo. Nobody questions Carlos’s bat. His defense behind that plate is another story.
Over the past few years, it is almost as if he has regressed defensively. At times, it seems like a lazy approach. Blocking balls in the dirt can often be an adventure and he has thrown out just five of 44 runners on stolen base attempts (11%). By comparison, backup Yan Gomes has thrown out 10 of 19 would be base-stealers (52%). With Reynolds hitting the way he has, Santana can see more time at either first base or DH with Gomes getting more run behind home plate.
The Yanimal has been something of a revelation for the Tribe. His defense was not supposed to be his calling card and the Indians started him in Columbus to work on that aspect of his game. Once Lou Marson was hurt the first week of the season, Gomes was recalled and essentially grabbed a bench spot by the throat and refused to let go. He has handled the staff beautifully and has shown a cannon for an arm. With the stick, he burst onto the scene in May, hitting .370 with an OPS of 1.010, driving in 11 runs in 46 ABs. The capper was his walk-off, extra inning three-run homer on May 20th to beat the Seattle Mariners. That hot month made him something of a cult hero in Cleveland. Gomes has somewhat slowed down and is in the middle of a 1-14 slump, but needless to say Yan has made quite an impression with the organization. The Gomes/Aviles for Esmil Rogers trade has turned out to be a big win/win for both the Tribe and the Blue Jays as Rogers has become a member of the Toronto rotation.
Moving to the outfield, you have to start with Brantley. Dr. Smooth will never put up huge power numbers, but he has easily been the most consistent Indian throughout the first half. Most importantly, he has been the most clutch. No matter where Francona puts him in the lineup – he has hit in every spot except for ninth – he seems to come through when his team needs it the most. With runners in scoring position, Brantley is hitting .366 (26-71) with 39 RBIs. Think that’s impressive? With runners in scoring position and two out, he is hitting .390 (16-41). Defensively, Michael glides in left field and makes it look easy. He has shown off his arm as well, ranking second in the AL in outfield assists. I think my favorite thing about him is his unassuming way. Brantley plays hard and does so with a calm, quiet demeanor. The Dr. Smooth moniker fits him like a glove.
Brantley shifted to left originally to make room for Stubbs, who has been a career center fielder. The former Red came with the reputation of a great speed and defense guy who strikes out a ton and has decent power. The pressure of being a former top 10 pick in Cincinnati probably hurt him when he didn’t live up to the advanced hype. Here in Cleveland though, he has moved to right field and hits ninth, a perfect place for him. I will say I have been pleasantly surprised with Stubbs. Not every lineup is going to be loaded with studs one through nine. But the Tribe could do a lot worse than having one of the fastest guys in the game with some decent pop at the the bottom of their order. Yes, the strikeouts are there, but his speed and defense are game-changing. He is 10 for 10 in stolen bases and gets from first to third on any hit. When Bourn went down for a few weeks with a finger injury, he seamlessly took over center. Drew covers as much ground as any outfielder you want to see. His big issue is that he can get eaten up by right-handed pitching at times, hitting just .224. But Francona does a nice job mixing and matching with Swisher and Ryan Raburn.
The third center fielder the Indians have is the actual center fielder. Like Stubbs, Bourn has the type of speed this team just hasn’t had in years. Not since Kenny Lofton have the Tribe had a leadoff man this dynamic. While he could definitely walk more (16 in 279 ABs), Bourn always seems to be in the middle of big Indians rallies. He is hitting .290 which is right around his numbers the past two years and defensively he has been superb. The difference in having three guys with good arms who can cover all sorts of ground has been huge for the pitching staff. Not much can get by these three. Bourn missed almost a month with a fluke finger injury and he didn’t miss a beat when activated.
Against left-handed starters, Tito makes sure that he finds a way to put Raburn’s bat in the lineup. He has a .949 OPS vs. southpaws and much to my chagrin, Francona often hits him fourth or fifth in those games. When Bourn was on the DL, it was Raburn who picked up the slack. One of the biggest highlights of the season was his 11-13 run where had back to back multi-homer games against Kansas City and Philadelphia. Not bad for another guy who was picked up for nothing after being DFA’d by the rival Tigers. Raburn has been clutch hitting .295 with runners in scoring position and a whopping .524 (11-21) with 17 RBIs with runners in scoring position and two out. The 32-year old always had decent power, but he looked cooked in 2012, hitting just .171. Francona admitted having a soft spot for him and wanted Raburn on this team. He raked in Spring Training and became a Tribe extra. He has played both corner outfield spots and second base and like Aviles, his versatility allows Francona to keep not only an eighth reliever, but a veteran DH-only guy in Jason Giambi.
We all know that Big G is not just here for his bat. There is more to it than that. Giambi is essentially a player coach. To a man, the 42-year old may be the most popular guy in the clubhouse. From Kipnis to Gomes, from Masterson to Allen, you hear how much Giambi has influenced the players. While many think Giambi’s on the field exploits haven’t been good enough, I would show you his .357 average with runners in scoring position. Yes, he can’t play in the field, but it doesn’t really matter when you consider how Aviles and Raburn can handle multiple spots. Francona calls him the “veteran’s veteran.” This club is extremely tight knit and has some good mojo working. To me, it is not worth upsetting the chemistry to exchange Giambi for either an extra bullpen arm or a bat from the minors, which the Indians don’t really have.
Now if at the trading deadline another veteran bat is acquired, that could change things. However, if the Tribe does make a move, I believe it will be for a reliever.
The biggest offensive keys during the second half are easy to point out. Reynolds has to get out of his funk. We saw what he is capable of in April, but these past two and a half months have been a real struggle. Having him regain his power stroke is essential. Getting Asdrubal going certainly wouldn’t hurt as well. He has had poor second halves the last two seasons and is looking to shake that stigma. Lastly, Swisher being the guy he was in New York the last four seasons rather than the guy he has been in Cleveland the last three and a half months would lesson the pressure on guys like Kipnis, Brantley, and Santana. He was signed to be the middle of the order run producer. So far, he has been essentially an average player.
If everything falls into place for the offense, we could be playing meaningful games down the stretch, which is all that we can ask for.