In what has been the first month of the season, we have watched our Cleveland Indians kick the ball around the field, hit sub-Mendoza line with runners in scoring position, fail to pitch deep into games, and lose six in a row in California. Other than that, they were great!
Baseball is a six-month trek. It’s a marathon season, not a sprint. How many times have we seen teams struggle out of the gate, only to catch fire mid-summer and get right back into the mix for a division title? I’m not saying this version of the Indians can do that, but they are certainly capable. The core of this team is, for the most part, the same group that won 92 games a season ago. But judging by the first month on the field, you probably couldn’t tell.
Terry Francona is going to earn his money over the next couple of months. The majority of the games the Indians have played in thus far have been close. Pitching and defense are going to be a huge part of said games. The 2014 Indians have been reminiscent of my son’s little league team when it comes to defense—they rank dead last in in the American League. Worst of all it is the timing of these errors.
Take Monday night for example. Nick Swisher boots an easy grounder in a tie game in the eighth inning, which turned into the winning run when Mike Trout’s RBI single put the dagger in the Tribe’s heart. Making matters worse in that loss was Francona’s head-scratching decision to pitch to the best player in baseball with first base open and one out in the eighth inning.1
Swish’s error was par for the course. Between The Bro and his ground ball issues, Jason Kipnis’s yips on throws to first2, Asdrubal Cabrera’s usual lack of range, and Yan Gomes’s regression behind the plate, the defense has truly killed the Indians this season. While Michael Bourn has great range, he has missed cut-off men too many times thus far. I cannot recall an Indians team that was so poor defensively. I know it has only been a month, but errors are a problem seemingly every single night.
The fundamentals of this team have been putrid. They aren’t moving runners in key situations. Gomes’ eighth-inning at-bat Tuesday night after David Murphy lead off the inning with a walk in a one-run game was awful—he struck out on three pitches. The base-running leaves a lot to be desired as well. Then there are the response runs.
Watching the Indians offense score runs this season has been an adventure to say the least. When they actually do come through putting a crooked number on the board, the other team seems to be immediately returning the favor. When your offense delivers, it is of the utmost importance that whoever is on the mound needs to respond by shutting down the opponent right away. Instead Indians pitchers have given up 47 response runs in 28 games.
This team if rife with issues right now, there is no denying it.
For this team to succeed, it has to get more from the middle of its order and from the starting rotation. Offensively, Francona is getting next to nothing from his biggest bats. Carlos Santana (.151/.313/.593) did hit two homers this week in Anaheim, but heading into that series, he was in the midst of a 3-for-50 slump. Imagine if he wasn’t drawing walks. I believe Carlos will be fine. The position switch has definitely affected him. Who would have though the problem with Santana would be the bat, not the glove?
Kipnis (.234/.354/.748) started slowly last April before having monster months in May and June. The hope is that we will see that again, assuming his side injury doesn’t require a DL stint3. Swisher (.211/.287/.617) thrived in New York when he hit down in the order in a New York lineup loaded with All-Stars. Last year he got a pass because he actually came here to become a major part of the culture change. The shoulder injury that plagued him is supposed to be in the rearview mirror. However, things don’t look any different for Swish at the dish. I see lots of strikeouts and frustrating at-bats.
These are the two- three- and four-hitters in your lineup and the Indians are getting essentially next to nothing from them. I can’t even get worked up about Cabrera’s lack of production (.220/.297/.627) because at this point, he is what he is–a declining player on the final year of his deal. We all know he won’t be back next season as the future (Francisco Lindor) will take over at short. You also knew a regression from both Gomes (.250/.289/.706/seven errors) and Ryan Raburn (.164/.217/.398) was coming.
For the month of April, the Indians offense went .232/.313/.668 with just 19 home runs while averaging 3.8 runs per game. In four less games last April, they hit 36 homers and averaged 5.0 runs per game4.
Imagine where this offense would be without the contributions of Michael Brantley and Murphy. Even Lonnie Chisenhall has surprised us all, looking terrific at the plate (.362/.412/.901). Francona is still cautious about over-using Lonnie, almost in the same way he did with Raburn a year ago. He has moved him up in the order a couple of times, but Tito won’t use Lonnie against lefties. He has been only given one at-bat against a southpaw and got a hit. With the offense struggling so badly, you would think Chisenhall would be getting more of a chance, but so far Francona has resisted.
It has only been a month, but the Indians have no chance if the offense continues down this same path.
As for the rotation, the back end has been a mess and the so-called “ace” has been completely inconsistent. It took one month for Carlos Carrasco to flame out and get replaced. The heir will most likely by Trevor Bauer who has been dominant in Columbus and thrived in a sport start against San Diego three weeks ago. Not far behind is Josh Tomlin hasn’t allowed a run in his last two Triple-A starts, including Thursday night’s complete game, three-hit shutout in Durham. Danny Salazar was expected to take a big leap as the future of the Tribe rotation, with that future being now. That hasn’t happened as Danny has been just as shaky as Carrasco. In his last start in San Francisco, however, the Salazar we all expected to see reappeared as he held the Giants to one run in seven innings. We need to see more of that.
Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber have given Francona exactly what he expected from them—solid starts deep into games which have given his team a chance to win. The same can be said for Justin Masterson I suppose, but when you are the team’s alleged No. 1 starter, you have to be better what he has shown. Masterson has made six starts and has yet to register a win. This has nothing to do with run support; Justin just hasn’t been that great (4.84 ERA/1.50 WHIP). His problem against left-handed batters has resurfaced as well; they are hitting .314 against him, while righties are at .208. There has been a documented slow-down in his velocity that hasn’t helped, but I also believe the pressure of pitching for a big contract may be weighing on him. He still has yet to put together back to back quality seasons and this is a big year for him. It hasn’t gotten off to a great start.
Yes, the Indians are 11-17 and in last place in the AL Central, but nobody is running away with anything. You know who else is in last place and under .500? The Tampa Bay Rays, a team that many picked to go to the World Series. There are some positives signs: Murphy has been a huge addition (.282/.360/18 RBIs); Brantley has kept up his knack for hitting with runners in scoring position (.310/17 RBI); the bullpen anchors–Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Marc Rzepcynzski, and closer John Axford have all been excellent; veteran Scott Atchison has taken over the Matt Albers role and handled it well; Kluber and McAllister have anchored the rotation.
This off day couldn’t have come at a better time for the Indians. We turn the page to May and get a refreshed Tribe coming home to face off with the upstart Chicago White Sox. It should be interesting to see if they can respond and turn things around quickly. It will be Salazar’s turn again as he faces off with lefty John Danks, who is usually a Tribe punching bag, but beat the Indians on April 10 with six innings of three-run ball.
Yeah, I know who was on deck (Albert Pujols) but I’d rather take my chances on getting a ground ball with a slow runner at the plate then pitching to Trout. [↩]
This is a real budding problem that nobody seems to be talking about [↩]
Which appears to be coming with the rumors that Jose Ramirez is on his way to Cleveland [↩]
Remember, Mark Reynolds looked like the AL MVP that first month, then was cut later in the season [↩]