Flawed Tribe have work cut out for them

By Nate Pentecost

Managing Editor

Published: Friday, July 13, 2012

Updated: Saturday, July 14, 2012

 

The addition of one wild card slot to each league was designed to keep more teams in the playoff hunt. In the American League that objective has been met in a more substantial way than anyone could have anticipated, as eight teams sit within 2.5 games in the wild card race at the All-Star Break.

Few teams find themselves in a more exciting — albeit pressure-packed — position at the break than the Cleveland Indians, though.

Despite inconsistent play and yet another season marred by injuries, the Tribe are in the thick of the AL wild card scrum (1 GB), and sit just three games behind the White Sox (47-38) in the Central, with the Tigers (44-42) clawing at their heels in a three-way race for the division crown.

Pitching will be key if the Indians are to avoid the second half collapse which doomed them last season. Currently they are third to last in ERA (4.50) and second to last in run differential (-27) and the burden falls largely on the starting rotation whose 4.44 ERA is over a run more than the bullpen’s top five hurlers’ 3.23 ERA.

Offseason acquisition Derek Lowe is tied with Ubaldo Jimenez for a team-high eight wins but after starting the year 6-2 with a league-leading ERA the 39-year-old has fallen off considerably, with his ERA ballooning to 4.34.

What’s more is that Lowe only sits behind recently recalled Zach McAllister (3.40 ERA over 7 starts) and Justin Masterson (4.40 ERA) for the rotation’s best ERA, with Jimenez (4.50 ERA) right behind him.

Josh Tomlin brings up the rear with a dismal 5.45 mark but in spite of third-year starter’s regression (4.25 ERA in 2011), Jimenez’s output remains the most debilitating to the Tribe’s rotation.

After Cleveland unloaded high-end prospects to acquire him at last year’s trade deadline, Jimenez, the team’s presumed No. 1 starter, has yet to recapture the form that saw him in CY Young contention two years ago in Colorado.

The Indians, however, have to be encouraged by his recent performances. In his past six starts he has a 2.96 ERA, one of the best postings over six-straight outings that he has had at any point the past two seasons. Time will tell if he is on the rise back to ace status but for now Jimenez is Cleveland’s second best starter behind their home-state product, Masterson.

Masterson has a pedestrian ERA and a 5-8 record but he too has turned things around as of late, registering a 3-3 record with a 1.76 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 36/9 in June. Similar performances from Masterson and Jimenez in the second half would give Cleveland a significant edge while jockeying for a playoff slot.

As was the case last season, the “Bullpen Mafia” has been the strongest aspect of the Indians club. The Tribe is 12-4 in one run games, 33-2 when holding the lead after six innings and 34-1 with the lead after seven.

The bullpen’s success falls largely on the shoulders of the best one-two punch in baseball: Vinne Pestano and Chris Perez.

Pestano (1.91 ERA) is first in the Majors with 20 holds and though Perez’s criticism of Cleveland’s fanbase has not made him any friends in the area, his recently broken streak of 23 consecutive saves has.

Tony Sipp has been one of the few chinks in the relief corps’ armor with a bullpen-worst 5.65 ERA over 28.2 IP in 34 appearances, but situational use has limited the negative impact of his down year. He appears to be turning things around regardless, as he has not allowed a run in six of his last seven outings (6.2 IP), striking out seven without walking a batter.

Perez, Pestano, Sipp and the rest of the Indians bullpen will be relied upon heavily down the stretch and the group certainly has the talent to come through in the clutch. Starters like Masterson, Jimenez and Lowe will need to eat more innings though, to keep the bullpen healthy and fresh.

Run support will obviously go a long way in taking pressure off the entire pitching staff and All-Stars Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Shoo Choo have been the anchor in that department since Opening Day.

Cabrera’s slow start to July simply does not negate over three months of outstanding baseball (.302 BA, three HR and six RBI in April; .296 BA, three HR and 14 RBI in May; six HR and 20 RBI in June) and there is little reason to believe the shortstop will not be a reliable source of offense in the second half.

Choo is even more of a lock, posting a team-leading .299 BA with 10 HR and 34 RBI at the break. On top of that, his production has only increased since May 12 when he moved to the leadoff spot where he is hitting .330 (69-of-209) with 47 runs.

Center fielder Michael Brantley has been hot as well, entering the break hitting .340 (16-for-47) with two homers and nine RBI over the past two weeks, and while his splits could use reconciling (.219 vs. lefties, .307 vs. righties) second baseman Jason Kipnis leads the team in RBI (49), steals (20), batting average with runners in scoring position (.381) and home runs (11).

Though Kipnis and Brantley have gone above and beyond expectations in sharing the offensive load, few others have stepped up to do the same. The explanation might surprise some.

By now the Indians have grown accustomed to center fielder Grady Sizemore’s annual injury and his offensive production last year when healthy (.224 BA, 32 RBI and 10 HR in 71 GP) was clearly that of a player with diminished skills anyway. As a consequence, losing the former All-Star to a back injury before the season began has been less detrimental than the loss of a number of role players who spent time on the shelf during the first half of the year.

Travis Hafner has seen his fair share of injuries as well but Cleveland still held out realistic hope for him heading into the season and the impact of the designated hitter’s stint on the DL was sizeable.

Hafner was hitting just .231 before going down with a knee injury on May 23 but was toting an impressive .370 OBP with 7 HR and 42 RBI over 48 games.

At the time the Indians were 25-18, averaging 5.7 runs per game and leading Chicago by 3.5 games in the Central. Without Hafner they are 16-21 and averaged a run less per contest as seven different players attempted to fill the DH role. Further, during the span without Hafner the Tribe’s league-leading walk rate of 10.8 percent dropped to 7.3 percent.

With Hafner playing the Indians field an all-lefty lineup which has mowed down right handed pitching. It was quite evident last month that without Hafner the lefty-heavy lineup is not as effective.

Of course, as a result of their lefty lineup Cleveland has one of the worst records in the league against left-handed pitching (8-13). But as the Tribe faced lefty starters only 21 times before the break this supposed glaring weakness has been overemphasized.

Nevertheless, the Indians have the second-worst OPS against lefties in baseball and every time a right-handed hitter is rumored to be on the market, the Indians have come up in conversation.

Even Manager Manny Acta has said publicly that he would like to see the team bring in another bat before the July 31 trade deadline.

The Indians were among the finalists for struggling third baseman Kevin Youkilis (.233 BA, four RBI and four HR over 42 games with the Red Sox) but ultimately fell short to the in-division foe White Sox.

It would have been difficult to forecast the Greek God of Walks' turnaround (.347 BA, three HR, 14 RBI in 13 games with the White Sox) but it is fair to assume that in retrospect, the Tribe wishes they would have offered more for the two time World Series champion. Especially with third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (.278 BA, three HR and nine RBI in 24 games) expected to miss most of the second half with a broken ulna bone in his right forearm.

Jack Hannahan and Jose Lopez should give the Indians comparable offense to Chisenhall at the hot corner but the platoon situation in left field is much bleaker.

Combined Shelly Duncan, Aaron Cunningham and Johnny Damon have an abysmal -3.8 WAR. Prospect Matt LaPorta is clearly not ready to take the reigns either as he hit .182 with 0 HR and 0 RBI in three appearances before being relegated to Triple-A Columbus.

Padres left fielder Carlos Quentin (.268 BA, seven HR and 17 RBI in 33 games) has been the subject of many trade discussion and he would provide a huge lift for an Indians club that appears to be a bat or two away from serious contention.

That said, San Diego is believed to have multiple bidders for the 29-year-old slugger and to make the trade worthwile the Pads will be looking to receive similar value to a supplemental first-round pick, which they would receive if they kept Quentin and let him walk as a free agent.

In the past, the team that acquired Quentin would be eligible for that draft pick, but under the new collective bargaining agreement a team that acquires a free agent-to-be will not get draft picks if that player departs during free agency. The Indians and other suitors must decide whether swapping good prospects for potentially just two months of Quentin is prudent.

For a mid-market team such as Cleveland, the answer to that question is probably not what Manny Acta would like to hear.

The Indians are perhaps the most flawed team of any legitimate playoff contender, but they may also be the club with the most room for improvement. An extra right-handed hitter would go along way in securing the Tribe a playoff berth in a tight race, but with 36 of their final 77 games at home — including just 33 games against opponents above .500 — a more consistent effort from key players could be enough to propel Cleveland into October. 

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