47-47. .500. The middle. Average. Not great, but not bad. This is what our Cleveland Indians are as we sit here at the All-Star break.
Heading into the season, Terry Francona’s group had to deal with something that was not on the docket a year before; heightened expectations. Coming off of a 92-win, Wild Card season and bringing back essentially the same core group, the Tribe now wore a bulls-eye. They were not going to sneak up on anyone. And they haven’t.
The first half has brought moments of greatness and despair, moments of disappointment and exuberance. Certain guys have broken out, while others have taken huge steps backwards. We’ve seen regression to the mean from a few Indians as well. Hall of Fame Football coach Bill Parcells famously said “you are what you record says you are,” and the Indians are 47-47. All of this has added up to what they are: An average baseball team.
On Tuesday, we looked at “The Good” things the Tribe has done. In part two of our Tribe at the All-Star break series, we will examine what hasn’t exactly gone well for the Red, White, and Blue.
The defensive is offensive. I’m 38 years old. I’ve watched the Indians closely my entire life. In all of my years, I cannot remember a team this poor with the gloves than this particular Tribe team. The errors are nightly and egregious. They come at the worst times too. Early, late, whenever, this club has an aversion to playing clean baseball.
Up the middle is where your team is supposed to be strongest. While Gomes has shaken off a poor defensive start, Kipnis and Cabrera at second and short have left a lot to be desired. Cabrera’s range has diminished in each of the past three seasons and he leads all AL shortstops in errors with 14. He had 19 all of last season. Kipnis has gone through some throwing problems and battled an early season case of the yips that nobody seemed to mention. But even he is making the routine plays a lot more difficult on himself.
Then you move over to third where Chisenhall has been patrolling the hot corner. I’ve always been told if you have nothing nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all, but I just can’t here. Lonnie is a butcher, pure and simple. He has never been known for his glove and while he is having a breakout season with the bat, Brooks Robinson at third, he isn’t. Bad throws across the diamond and misplayed hot shots are commonplace. His 13 errors in 53 games are second worst in the AL behind All-Star Josh Donaldson, but his 15 have come in 85 games. His field .893 fielding percentage is easily the worst among AL third baseman.
Over at first base was supposed to be Nick Swisher, but his defensive was so awful and his knees had become a problem that Santana, who was the third baseman on Opening Day, now has taken over regularly. Nobody thought that Carlos would become a better defender than Swish, who was decent a year ago, but that is how this season has gone. Swisher has had real problems with the easiest of grounders, making numerous brutal errors. He DH’s now more than Santana does.
So to recap, you have a former catcher playing first, replacing your first baseman who has been awful in the field. Your shortstop and third baseman are amongst the worst at their position, and your second baseman is having the worst year of his brief career with both the bat and the glove.
Other than that, the defense is terrific.
Justin Masterson, far from masterful. What exactly has happened to the Indians former #1 starter? A year removed from his All-Star season, Masterson is pitching for a new contract. The Indians brass reportedly offered him a three-year deal at an average annual value around $15 million. He passed, and it may have been the best possible thing for the Tribe.
The big right-hander is a different cat. Intensity on the mound is not his thing. He is a happy go lucky guy who sees the world in a light that the rest of us probably don’t. I see a big kid who views baseball as a means to an end, a place to provide for his family, but his family comes first. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. With all of that said, the pressure is on Masterson to pitch his backside off and cash in with a big contract in sight. That pressure may be weighing heavily on him, because he’s in the midst of his worst season since coming over to Cleveland for Victor Martinez in 2010.
I’ve said this a million times before, but the truth is Masterson has always been more of a high end three, low end two starting pitcher. But here in Cleveland, he has had to shoulder the load as the defacto ace. His delivery has always been very quirky with a lot of moving parts. You can tell early on in most of his starts if he “has it” that game or not. More often than not, he hasn’t in 2014.
After two months-worth of starts where Masterson could barely make it five innings, capped off by a two-inning, five run drubbing by the New York Yankees, the Indians finally placed him on the disabled list to help ail his wounded psyche and injured knee. The knee has been a convenient excuse for the truth; Masterson is a mental mess.
I am not sure he will be able to get it back either. If Pitching coach Mickey Callaway and Francona could have figured him out by now, they would have done so. The second half of the season could define the path of the rest of Masterson’s career. If he continues to flail, do the Indians try to trade him before the deadline? Do they play it out and then let him walk? Do they give him the qualifying offer after a season-long debacle?
The lack of a true power threat in the middle of the order has been years in the making. Former Tribe manager Eric Wedge used to like his lineup deep one through nine. It was a good way of describing a powerless group. Those teams at least had Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner when they both could still play. The 2014 Indians were built in Wedge’s style. Entering the season, there was no real power threat save for Santana, who many hoped would crack 30 homers for the first time in his career. Swisher was never a true power guy. He made his bones (and money) thanks to the short porch in right at Yankee Stadium. Kipnis? 17 homers in 2013 is his best season.
This is how they were built though. It goes back to the failures of Matt LaPorta. If he turned out what he was touted to be as one of the top power hitting prospects in baseball, LaPorta would be right in the middle of the order, hitting from the right side. Instead, the left-handed heavy Wahoos are still searching for, well, a LaPorta with actual impact. Sure, Matty was just one guy. The lack of development of any true power prospects since Manny Ramirez in the system has been a killer.
With all of that said, this team can’t rely on the long ball like may other teams do. To score runs, they have to string together multiple hits in an inning. Rarely do they get that big late inning, game-changing home run like the one Gomes delivered in Sunday’s 3-2 win. Jesus Aguilar is essentially the only high-level minor league prospect that fits the mold of what the Indians need, and he is not a true top tier prospect. Nelson Cruz was there for the taking this offseason, but the Indians chose not to touch him, mostly because they didn’t want to part with their first round pick, but also because they figured it would cost too much. Instead, Cruz waited and waited, bet on himself, and took a one year deal for $8 million in Baltimore. His league-leading 28 homers at the break will undoubtedly earn him a big pay day this winter. It is just too bad the Indians aren’t reaping those benefits. Think he would be perfect in the cleanup spot and in right field right now?
Lets talk about Swish, baby…. When Nick Swisher was brought in last winter, it signaled a culture change was in the works in Cleveland. Did they overpay him? Of course they did. The Indians were essentially bidding against themselves, but it was the right move at the time for more than just on the field reasons. His seven homer, 21 RBI September was a huge part of the 21-5 stretch run that got the Indians to October. Year two of the Swisher deal has been a severe let down.
Swish has started slow and has continued slow. Say this for Nick, he has been consistent. I don’t say that in a positive frame. He hit .210/.282/.333 in April, .211/.344/.303 in May and .122/.157/.306 in June while spending two weeks on the disabled list with knee problems. The strikeouts (86 in 279 ABs) often come in bunches and are ill-timed. Nick has gone from hitting second to start the season, to the seven spot where he resides now most of the time. The switch hitter has really struggled from the right side of the plate, where he has just 15 hits in 84 at-bats (.179). All eight of his home runs have come as a left-handed batter, as have 31 of his 36 RBIs. No matter the statistic, Swisher just doesn’t rate.
Defensively, Swisher has been atrocious. His nine errors are already a career high and many of them have been on Bill Buckner type botch jobs. Things had gotten so bad that Francona has essentially had to make Swisher his regular DH. There has been a mini-awakening in July, where The Bro has hit .289/.319/.511 with three homers and 11 RBIs. In addition, he has a walkoff grand-slam, and a game-winning homer in Boston. Those two jacks have really saved his season from being completely in the tank.
He’s 33 and has two and a half years left at $15 million per. Yikes.
Kipnis gets the money, plays like a guy who got his money. Before the season started, the Indians second baseman signed a contract extension worth $52.5 million, a deal that keeps him in Cleveland through 2019, with a club option for 2020. He was coming off of his All-Star season and at age 27, the Indians wanted to lock in one of their core players. You can certainly understand why. At the time, I applauded the move. Then again, I didn’t see this type of season coming.
To say Kipnis has been a disappointment would be an understatement. Nobody says it, because he always hustles, is a nice guy, and the ladies love him, but the truth is Jason has been awful since signing his deal. Here is a guy who is supposed to be Grady Sizemore-light, a five-tool player who leads on the field by example. Kipnis looked heavy (again, nobody is saying anything about this) when the season started, but the extra bulk has not translated. More power maybe? Nope. He’s hit just three home runs, none since April 21st. In addition, Kipnis missed a month thanks to a pulled oblique muscle suffered when running out a ground ball in Anaheim on April 29th. He started slow last year, but picked things up in June.
Upon his return, the former ASU Sun Devil was plugged right back into the middle of the order. Once again, things didn’t translate. Francona was actually hitting him cleanup for a stretch, which was a mistake. How many guys hitting fourth don’t hit homers and have a .259 slugging percentage in 81 ABs? Worst of all for Kip have been his clutch numbers. he’s hit just .194 (14-72) with runners in scoring position and with two-out in the same situation, Jason is 4-31 (.129). Even his defense hasn’t been the same.
This was supposed to be a year that Kipnis rose to be one of the game’s elite second baseman. Instead, he has regressed and it has really hurt a team that cannot afford to have one of its best player underperform like this. If the Indians have any shot of making a run at the playoffs for a second straight year, Kipnis has to show up the second half and play like the All-Star he was a year ago.
The stat of the half year: Asdrubal Cabrera with two out and runners in scoring position is 2-42. Let that sink in for a moment.
The rotation that keeps on rotating. When the season opened, the Indians top five starters in order were Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco. As they come out of the break, only Kluber remains. Masterson is on the DL with a knee issue/mental stress, McAllister just came back from a stint in AAA but was sent down until needed, Salazar washed out and is in Columbus, and Carrasco is in the bullpen.
We chronicled Kluber yesterday and Masterson earlier. McAllister started hot but lost it quickly. He was conveniently DL’d with a back injury which allowed him to work out some kinks in AAA before returning to make one start last Saturday. Carrasco was given one last chance he probably didn’t deserve based on how he pitched this Spring and quickly flamed out to the pen where he has found a home (where Francona needs to use him more judiciously). This brings us to Salazar.
The Tribe’s phenom was the main reason they had no issues letting both Scott Kazmir (a mistake) and Ubaldo Jimenez (100% correct move) go in the offseason. Everyone was counting on Salazar to rise to the top of the rotation and become that workhorse that could be paired with Masterson as a lethal 1-2 punch. Instead, Masterson has lost millions with his disaster season and Salazar became a one trick pony. Everyone knew to lay off of Danny’s breaking stuff and sit on his fastball. The command was just not there. Opponents feasted on his straight fastball and ran his pitch count up seemingly every start. He made eight starts and logged just 40.2 innings. His hits per nine were up, his walks per nine were up, and he had given up eight home runs. Salazar handcuffed Francona’s pen because he couldn’t be counted on to get past the fifth inning (which he did just three times). The writing was on the wall after a May 15th loss in Toronto and he was returned to AAA.
Salazar will be back at some point, but his regression has really hurt this average rotation. Trevor Bauer on the other hand has seemingly gotten better each time out as he has made the most of his move to the bigs. T. J. House has done some nice things, as has Josh Tomlin, but the latter two do not have the kind of potential impact that Salazar has.
In a perfect world, Kluber continues his breakout season, Masterson suddenly finds himself, Bauer continues to improve, Tomlin steadies the back end, and Salazar comes up later in the year and pitches like he did a season ago. I just don’t see all of that happening.
Top five things I could have mentioned but left out: Santana’s brutal start… Michael Bourn’s inability to stay healthy and steal bases… Ryan Raburn’s clear regression to the mean… Francona’s head-scratching in-game decisions including his love of the bunt… Progressive Field fans doing the wave.
(Photo: Joshua Gunter/ The Plain Dealer)