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Flawed Tribe have work cut out for them

By Nate Pentecost
On July 13, 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.12

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