Everyday when the tweet rolls through my timeline about the Tribe lineup, I instantly have to take a look and dissect it. Which starter(s) are sitting today? Is anyone batting out of their typical spot in the order? Is there a tough lefty on the mound keeping someone out of the lineup? Even though I still look at it daily, there’s far less anxiety when I do it this season. No longer are there “giveaway game” lineups getting marched out there with a pathetic backup catcher, light hitting middle infielder, and a one-dimensional fourth outfielder.
Instead Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, and Jason Giambi are giving the Indians an advantage right now that few other teams in the league have: Every single game, the Wahoos are marching a lineup out there without a hole in it. This economical and well-executed bench is helping the Tribe win at the margins, and in a tight AL Central and Wild Card race, it could make all the difference.
Just how great was that trade with the Jays?! Aviles AND Gomes for Esmil Rogers (who, granted, could be used in the bullpen right now). Raburn with his success would be playing almost everyday on a good chunk of teams with all of his success (I mean a .908 OPS and 11 homers in 60 games is FANTASTIC!). Giambi in his current role as a clutch pinch-hitter and part-time DH against right-handers is perfect because of his power and leadership if nothing else. Gomes continues to hold up with more and more consistent playing time, both offensively and defensively as his ability to throw out runners and handle a pitching staff seems superior to Santana’s. Aviles has provided flexibility at third, in left, and in the middle infield while being solid at the plate. He’s also hitting .306/.350/.417 in the month of July (45 at-bats). You’ve heard several guys on this team mention the “1 through 25” thing, and while it may be a bit of cliche, it seems like this team really takes it to heart and believes it.
I mean, look around the league. Who has a better bench than the Indians? Formerly (before last night’s trade), the Carp-Iglesias-Gomes trio in Boston was arguable, some of the National League contenders have one bopper on the bench (like Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Arizona) because they only have 8 position players in the lineup daily, and Detroit has Matt Tuiasosopo as a really nice fourth outfielder that’s hitting over .300 (and now Iglesias before the Peralta PED hammer drops), but after that, so many teams just don’t want to play the end of their roster more than the bare minimum. There’s plenty of teams out there (including some in contention) whose Sunday afternoon end of lineup reads a lot like Lillibridge, Cunningham, Damon, Donald, Phelps, LaPorta, Rottino, Lopez, and Canzler (and holy crap, that’s just from last season!!!!!)
Let’s look back at the last time the Tribe had this good of a bench. When was it? In 2008, Jamey Carroll, Shin-Soo Choo, and David Dellucci were bench players that provided a decent amount of production for that 81-81 squad. The bench in ’07 of Trot Nixon, Jason Michaels, Kelly Shoppach, Josh Barfield, and Ben Francisco had its moments. Still, I think I have to go back to the 2000 Indians bench to find a comparable group.(For recall purposes, the infield of Thome-Roberto Alomar-Vizquel-Fryman all played 155+ games. Sandy was catching, and Kenny and Manny were still in center and right. That meant that Richie Sexson got the most starts in left and Russell Branyan among others getting time at the DH slot. Diaz put up similar numbers to Sandy that season and played quite a bit for a backup. Segui hit well over .300 while alternating between first and DH. Jolbert Cabrera was what you needed to fill in around the infield. When Justice was healthy, he was in the lineup. Even Enrique Wilson and Alex Ramirez in limited action had solid numbers for that 2000 squad.
In three of the last five games in this current six-game winning streak, a member of the bench bunch has gotten the game-winning hit. Yan Gomes had a walkoff earlier in the season. As replacements themselves, this four-man group is currently 40 runs above replacement and 4.2 WINS above replacement. With the mighty slump of Mark Reynolds and the always looming potential for injuries of any length, it appears that playing time for the fabulous foursome is only going to increase.
It goes back to flexibility that I talked about just last weekend in what this team can do to win more from within. At one point well into the season, I remember the Indians having the fewest pinch-hit at-bats in all of baseball (and they STILL do with just 30, not to mention they have the highest batting average). But, in the last two nights with Jason Giambi hitting for Mark Reynolds on Monday and then Ryan Raburn batting in Giambi’s spot last night, Tito Francona has pushed the right buttons and in return received two game-winning hits. I’ve been critical of some of Tito’s bullpen and pitching staff management, but he really seems to be right on the money almost every single time with his position players.
Of course, this probably isn’t sustainable. Gomes will be an everyday catcher really, really soon (as in, maybe before the end of the season). Giambi’s in what almost certainly HAS to be his last year in the bigs before becoming a skipper himself. Aviles could move into a starting role if the team moves Asdrubal Cabrera at some point in the offseason or next year. Still, it’s fun for this particular run at it, for this 2013 summer and fall, the Indians have 13 sticks to go to battle with when most teams only have 9 or 10. They did it with a veteran pickup, a flier on a busted toy from last year, and a savvy trade, and the Tribe is going to stay in the thick of this thing with that as a contributing factor.
(Photo: Tony Dejak/AP)