Second-half Storylines: What are you watching?

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Nick Swisher

The Cleveland Indians started things off with a relative bang, taking three of four in Detroit. As we close in on the month of August, the Tribe stands 4.5 games behind the Tigers and will need to piece it all together heading into the fall if postseason play is to happen for the second consecutive year. There are copious amounts of storylines to look at for the second half of the season, but which ones are we watching? Take a walk with us as we plan for the next 10 weeks of baseball.

Regression isn’t always a bad thing

Jon Steiner: Of the many interesting things that happened in the first half, the only ones I can say I saw coming were Michael Bourn’s struggles to stay healthy and Corey Kluber’s continued excellence. Neither of these guesses required a whole lot of luck, we should remember. Kluber’s peripherals in 2013 were sicko, and Bourn is an aging speedster who’s struggled with lower half injuries since turning 30. This ain’t calculus. It’s hardly math.

So I guess what I’m looking forward to in the second half has mostly to do with these sorts of easy things. Nick Swisher is not a historically awful hitter, but were this season’s second half were to resemble its first, he’d be looking like one. Right now Swisher’s slugging percentage sits below .400 and his OBP is below .300: he’s never been below either marks in his MLB career. I would think there’s a hot streak or two waiting to come out of hiding in the next month or two. Similarly, Carlos Santana will just not continue to run into historically awful luck. He currently sports a .236 BABiP, which is the second worst mark in the majors this season. That goes up in the second half–way up. Enough has already been said about Jason Kipnis, but count me among the folks who believe he’s about to go on a tear in the second half.

Of course, these optimistic predictions have their counterparts glaring from the other side of the aisle. Will Lonnie Chisenhall continue to rank first in the AL in BABiP? That’s unlikely, considering his…well…everything. Similarly, will a bullpen that has heretofore led the league in innings pitched and ranked 3rd in ERA be able to keep it up over the second half? Time will tell, but history would suggest that even an excellent manager cannot hide the warts in that crew forever.

But as a baseball fan, what I look forward to most of all is the waiting. Waiting to see the few things I end up getting right. Waiting to see the many things I will get wrong. Waiting, like everybody else, to see if this flawed and fringy team can do what they’ve done before and give us a fall worth waiting for.

Will the real Lonnie Baseball please stand up?

Scott Sargent: Michael Brantley may have been an All-Star. Corey Kluber was right on the cusp. But the one player who won Cleveland over in the first half was none other than Lonnie Chisenhall. Lonnie Baseball went from the outside looking in to having the fourth-best batting average in the American League, finally becoming qualified for such a mark on July 9 after starting the season off in spot duty. The ball is flying off of his bat and the strikeouts are down considerably. But how much of Lonnie’s play is sustainable?

His .222 isolated power number is well beyond his previous performances in the majors, suggesting that fly balls are traveling a little further than history would indicate. For balls that remain in play, Lonnie’s been incredibly lucky thus far, producing a BABiP of .367—this compares to his career mark of .303. Despite his incredible start and solid current mark, the 25-year old is hitting just .245 (.687 OPS) in the month of July. Since his three home run game against Texas on June 9, Chisenhall has just two home runs, the most recent coming on July 1.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Chis and Jason Kipnis were the two hot prospects in the team’s system. Kipnis went on to earn a shiny new contract; Chisenhall appeared lost at the plate for three full years. Circumstances change and injuries provide opportunities. Fortunately for Chisenhall (and Tribe fans), the third baseman took advantage of what may have been his last shot. But can the fan favorite (funny how that works out, eh?) carry his good fortunes through the second half? He’s discussing a friendly wager with Brantley to see who finishes the season with the higher average as both players are in the top 10.

His name is fun, his story is compelling. No one has gotten Tribe Twitter going  quite like Lonnie. If he can come close to finishing the season among the best hitters in the league, it has to be considered a huge win. It would also be a huge deviation from everything we have seen to this point.

Chisenhall HR 140701

Time to earn your money, boys

Todd Dery: It’s all about Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher waking up offensively. This team is completely different when these two are clicking. Carlos Santana, for as bad as he has started, has woken up and is playing a solid defensive first base. But really without Kipnis and Swisher doing what they are supposed to, the offense is going to continue to be hot and cold.

As for the pitchers, the Justin Masterson situation bears watching closely. If the Indians can somehow right him, this is a completely different team. Imagine where they would be now if he had pitched the way he did last season before his injury. Instead, he’s a mental mess who has cost himself millions of dollars. Sunday, Justin made a rehab start for Columbus where he pitched five innings, giving up two runs on five hits. He struck out six and walked two. I have no idea where this is going with Masterson, but a return to form would be a welcome sight for the Wahoos. The other pitcher who has been a disappointment and could really shake things up if he gets the chance is Danny Salazar. Dude was supposed to be the number two starter by now of things had gone to plan, but he hadn’t developed a third quality pitch that is badly needed at the major league level. We will see him again at some point.

Craig Lyndall: In the second half, it’s all about young gun pitchers. I haven’t been enthralled with the Indians’ follow-up to their surprising playoff appearance a year ago and if they’re going to somehow make it back, ti will be because of the young arms. Trevor Bauer, TJ House, Danny Salazar, whatever… I know Salazar hit a bump in the road, but I would feel really good about the present and the future if those guys could show some consistency in the rotation that I can project for the rest of the season and into the future. I’m looking for something to justify my hopes.

Can Masty return?

Joe Gilbert: I am looking at two players who could be huge factors in the Indians making the playoffs: Justin Masterson and Carlos Santana. Masterson has had a horrible season and is currently on the DL. So far this year, he is 4-6 with a 5.51 ERA. Coming into this year he was supposed to be the team’s ace and be someone the team can rely on. If he can get healthy and turn his season around once he comes off the DL, then the Tribe could be in great position to make a run. Masterson could pair with Corey Kluber and be a one-two punch who can drive the team to the playoffs. We have seen him play like an ace before, so he can definitely return to that level. Finding someone else, besides Kluber, to be consistent will be huge for the Indians and could be a deciding factor in the final stretch to the playoffs.

Carlos Santana has also been very inconsistent this year. He is currently batting .204 with 14 home runs and 40 RBIs. He started off the season in a terrible slump and has never really gotten into a steady stretch of good play. Santana is the Tribe’s fourth or fifth batter in the lineup and so he is looked upon as a RBI producer. He has been good at getting walks but he is not getting enough hits to be a true cleanup hitter. If he can build off the success of the big hit he had in Saturday night’s game, then the Tribe could become a more constant threat on offense. Masterson and Santana are my keys for the Indians to make the final push to the playoffs.

Can Corey keep it rolling?

Rick Grayshock: From the pitching side of the equation, I am looking forward to all of Corey Kluber’s starts. His games are becoming appointment television. This past weekend was just another example as to why. It was as good of a pitching performance as we have seen all year against a very tough Detroit Tigers lineup. CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee were like that in the past—you couldn’t miss a start during their respective runs. That’s how I feel about Kluber right now.

With the bats, I want to see Kipnis work his way back into form. He is an important piece for the Tribe moving forward and I’d love to see him bounce back and have a great second half. His bat coming to life makes this team so much better. The Tribe needs someone other that Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall to hit. Kipnis is the best contender for that role.

  • nj0

    Starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching starting pitching

  • mgbode

    I’m surprised you didn’t put Carrasco in there somewhere ;)

  • Natedawg86

    If we were considering paying 52M for 3 years of Masterson, would we do that on another FA pitcher? I just don’t see him coming around this season. It is going to be hard to secure a wild card spot with LAA and Seattle, but who knows what will happen. Tribe has really been picking it up on the road this month (5-1!). I believe the key to the rest of the season is winning on the road. We need to get that to around .500 for a chance at extra games.

  • mgbode

    Storylines I am watching and how I think they play out (in no particular order):

    (1) Yanimal’s firm grasp of the starting catcher role. From unknown a year ago to help save our season, Yan Gomes has just been really good this year, so he doesn’t get mentioned all that often. He hasn’t kept up last year’s pace and he hasn’t fallen apart. But, for a 27yo catcher who can hit really well and play defense really well (outside a tough start to this season), he is becoming our modern day Sandy Alomar (but ironically with no fanfare instead of too much).

    (2) Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis reclaiming the offensive juggernaut status. Yes, Santana isn’t having a terrible year, but he’s not having a Carlos year either. And, I just don’t want to believe Kipnis is going to pull a Baerga on us. So, I look for both to rebound.

    (3) Bourn and Swisher continue to frustrate and remind us that paying for high-priced FAs does not guarantee they will succeed for us. We overpaid a bit for both and neither is providing what we had hoped.

    (4) Which unknown SP will emerge to be an important piece of the August/September run? It could end up being TJ House, but, at this point, I am pretty much expecting another relatively unknown guy to pop up on the roster and provide some juice. Or, maybe it’s Danny Salazar again.

    (5) The Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Masterson deadline is approaching pretty quickly. Neither is playing like they deserve a QO. Neither is really keeping us above water (though both are contributing postiively). It’ll be interesting to see if Antonetti can find a deal for either (or both) that helps us on the stretch run and into the future*.

    * It bugs me to no end that MLB GMs are either buyers or sellers with so precious few trades looking to help both clubs deal from strength for a stretch run to help each other out. Especially with so many teams staying in contention longer with the expanded playoffs. They are still operating like there is only an ALCS and NLCS to play. Ugh.

    (6) What random new injury will Jason Giambi magically obtain if he is deemed eligible to come off the DL? Or, will Tito go all Pops on us and just write down “Old”?

    (7) Trevor Bauer

  • nj0

    Problem is Masterson (at least at the end of last year) looked like a deal at $52M/3YRs. That’s cause:
    A.) We already had to pay about $10M this season
    B.) Year three was a team option.
    C.) He was pitching well and healthy

    In reality, that deal was an additional $28M over two seasons.

    On the market, $14M a year for 3-4 years isn’t going to get you anything that amazing. Best comp from last year was Matt Garza who was basically a league average pitcher on the wrong side of 30. Basically, the free agent market is going to be the worse way for the Indians to address their starting pitching issues.

  • nj0

    Yan and Kipnis are opposite sides of the same coin. Haven’t been the target of that much praise/criticism because people are busy loving/hating Chiz & Brantley/Swisher & Bourn.

  • mgbode

    and, I try to be an optimist, so I listed Yan :)

    (completely agree with you)

  • Petefranklin

    Kind of like Oakland with Kazmir then right? If money ball can pay, so can the tribe. But I do kind of agree, FA money should be spent on solid bats, not pitching, the way pitching is becoming dominant again.

  • nj0

    ACab seems the more likely candidate to go, but I still feel like I did earlier this season: any return on him probably will not help us more this year than keeping him will. But maybe somebody gets desperate and overpays?

  • nj0

    True. We can find value, but it’ll be a guy with question marks like Kazmir. From what I recall, the 2015 FA pitching class isn’t going to be that good.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    That’s why they are interested in Benoit probably!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’ll be shocked if anyone gives anything remotely decent for him. He needed to be traded two years ago when he had value. They only trade Cy Young left handed pitchers though.

  • markn95

    If ONE of Masterson or Salazar regain their second-half form from last year, I can see this team staying in the WC race until the end of the season. Not necessarily making the playoffs, but staying in it. If both starters regain their form, then this team very well could challenge the Tigers for the Central (hey, the 3-out-of-4 romp at Comerica makes me giddy). Alas, the odds on the first are pretty low and the odds on the second are pretty much non-existent. Masty’s injuries and Salazar’s stalled development are both pretty serious roadblocks for the next 2.5 months. But we saw Ubaldo and Kazmir both come out of nowhere last year as well under this coaching staff. Fingers crossed!

  • markn95

    One thing people really aren’t bringing up re: the Tribe’s playoff hopes is the rest of the field in the AL. I can’t remember a year in which the AL East has been this bad. It’s a rare season where both NY and BOS struggle and the Rays’ fall from glory, in tis own way, has been equally surprising. Unfortunately, the A’s, Angels and Mariners have picked up the slack in the West. I think you can pretty much guarantee two of those teams will lock up playoff spots (thru the Division title and the first WC, respectively). So the Tribe has to leapfrog one of the three. My guess is Seattle will fade but even that’s a tough call the way King Felix is pitching every five days. But let’s say the Tribe passes one of those clubs–that leaves two other teams to beat out for the 2nd WC–KC and the East runner-up. I think the Indians are as good if not better than any of KC/BAL/TOR, so there’s definitely a chance if one of the Western team stumbles (and they will beat up each other, thankfully. Even HOU isn’t a gimme these days). We’ll have to do it head-to-head vs. KC but aside from getting rolled by Ventura, we took care of them before the break.

    As for the division, it sure looks a lot better today than it did during the break, obviously. Detroit’s bullpen is still killing them after all these years but they’re almost certain to add a reliever or two at the deadline. If those moves help, then they’ll almost certainly take the Division. But if they don’t, then they’re a little vulnerable, particularly if Scherzer and Verlander both continue struggling. Maybe we’ll even get a little regression from the career first halves of J.D. Martinez and Rick Porcello. Still a long shot, though, and our best hope is sweating through another one game “playoff,” lol. Hopefully we’ll clinch that before the last day of the season so we can make sure Kluber pitches that game.

  • nj0

    It’d also be nice to see McAllister return to form and become the league average pitcher he was last year.

    I think we can compete for both the division and the wild card. This past weekend was very promising. The next ten days are big. We could effectively remove the Royals as wild card competitors and overtake the Mariners too.

  • nj0

    I see the WC race as:
    1st spot – OAK/LAA
    2nd spot – BAL/TOR, SEA, and maybe us

    So basically what you said, minus KC who I think have already peaked.

  • Laura

    Yan has definitely been one of this season’s highlights for me. Looking forward to seeing what he does 2nd half.

    I’m fascinated by Bauer. I have no idea what the future brings as far as he’s concerned but I can’t wait to find out.

  • markn95

    Z-Mac has definitely kept us in the last 2 games he pitched against CWS and DET. In fact, I’d slot a healthy McAllister ahead of Tomlin in the rotation. Maybe I’m wrong, but Tomlin is really no better than a #5 starter on a playoff team. It’s amazing the Indians have stayed in the race the last 6 weeks or so with him pitching every four turns in a shortened rotation.

  • nj0

    Agree on Mc > JT. Not a JT fan. Think my Carrasco fetish is based mostly on JT being a regular starter.