What an interesting phenomenon we have in Northeast Ohio? The Indians are actually playing meaningful games (and losing unfortunately) and the Browns have not even started. Yet, all the blogging and talk centers around the Browns and the Indians are just the Indians. There are some exceptions for sure, but that is basically what is happening now. Some say that is because this is “Browns Country” and the Indians are a distant second or even third. While that may be true, I feel that the main reason why the fans around the city of Cleveland always talk about the next shiny new season is that it hasn’t blown up in their faces yet. We all agree that Cleveland has a broken and beaten fan base. We all agree that the next team up MUST be better to justify our fervent cheering and adoration. But that might just be why the best Cleveland fan blog is probably “Waiting for Next Year”. We are ALWAYS waiting for next year.
So, with that realization firmly in my soul, this blog is an attempt to take that annual Cleveland ritual to a new level. Let’s start to talk about next year and the Tribe while we are still fighting with the slim hope 2013 could end with a playoff run. My crystal ball is showing nothing but dark clouds for the end of the 2013 season even if we make one of the 2013 “Indian Runs” as we have done every time playoff hopes appear to be dashed. Any run that is coming, if it even comes, will be too little and way too late.
The Indians have much to build on from 2013. They showed resiliency, toughness, good chemistry, and have players emerging. The team has a top flight manager in Terry Francona. Any Cleveland fan who doesn’t know that is a fan just too traumatized to be objective. I can’t blame them but that doesn’t mean I need to agree. And, as much as I have fried the Indians FO and ownership in the past, they made a major off-season attempt to improve the team. More importantly, they did it logically and effectively despite the big misses with Reynolds and Myers. Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer provided excellent insight and analysis of those “one year deals” in his article from late last night. The quotes from Mark Shapiro make it clear that the Indians have a rational view of these one year deals and what they can accomplish and what they cannot be expected to accomplish.
A positive surprise from the 2013 season thus far has been the progression of our starting pitching. There is no question that we have seen Masterson improve his consistency, Jimenez almost look like a real pitcher, Kluber make a huge step forward, McAllister take a small step forward, Kasmir prove that he can still pitch (but not a full season yet), Salazar emerge as a viable option for 2014, and Bauer take a step further back. That is 6 pitchers who could start for many other teams and one that could emerge. It gives the Indians much more to build from than we thought possible at the start of 2013.
Our battered bullpen has shown flashes of good pitching but really misses Pestano and, if Perez is gone as many think, will be very difficult to form into a team strength for 2014. The bullpen could be a major challenge. One bright light is the pitching of Carrasco in relief. He is a young man made for the bullpen. Don’t think, just pitch. Save your nasty streak for the pen. Man up and come at them. Carrasco can do just that and I hope they keep him in that role. He has the ability to be a decent late inning reliever or, at worst, a solid long man. Now this goes against the basic logic of allowing a young pitcher with power stuff to languish in the bullpen. But that role fits his mentality and approach perfectly. He needs to stay there at least for next season. If his maturity improves, maybe he can transition back as a starter in a year or two. We do have some pretty solid relievers in Perez, Allen, and Smith. If Pestano can find himself, there is a fourth pitcher. As mentioned earlier, Carrasco could be a fifth. The pile of pitchers remaining might account for a couple more. If Perez is traded, subtract one. If Pestano can not come back, subtract another. Anyway, you get the picture. It is not a pretty sight for what many (unfortunately not myself) saw as the strength of the team in 2013. What we wouldn’t give for a Paul Assenmacher reincarnation in 2014? That is, of course, the biggest need for the 2014 bullpen.
The defense has been a major disappointment in my opinion. It has cost us several games and made many others much more difficult than they should have been. It has extended innings, made our pitchers struggle unnecessarily, and made fans cringe with irritation. It is not usually mentioned when you discuss the failures on this team, but it is a big part of why the Indians probably won’t make the playoffs in 2013. The major difficulties on the defensive side have been at shortstop, third base, catcher, right field, and to a lesser extent first base.
Shortstop must be fixed with a player change. I love ACab’s determination, fire, and heart. He has shown a lack of effort at times that is mainly tied to his almost historical rough patch at the plate both based on execution and bad luck. But, overall, it is because he just isn’t a reliable fielder and has very limited range. He can make highlight reel plays but that just isn’t enough.
How to fix third base is anyone’s guess? Again, it probably will take a personnel change but that may not come in 2014. It all depends on how the Tribe FO approaches the off-season.
Catcher can be fixed with Gomes getting the majority of the time behind the plate and that is likely to happen in 2014. I am not giving up on Santana as a catcher altogether but maybe he is better as a DH/first base/backup catcher.
Right field is a tough one because the player the Indians have had out there is known for his defense. Stubbs has had a rough time taking effective routes to the balls both behind him, in front of him and even in the gaps. His arm is amazing but that doesn’t make up entirely for the defensive difficulties. If Stubbs is retained (and that is a big if), just another year out there might make the difference. But, honestly, I have seen no objective improvement as the year has progressed.
First base hasn’t been as bad as it has been inconsistent. I feel that a first baseman must be extremely reliable picking the ball at first. It elevates the defense at all levels. By using such a wide group of players at the position, I think it has led to some inconsistent play. This could be easily fixed but I am not sure how based on the current team composition. To take advantage of what we have, it appears we need to rotate the first base position.
Another disappointment has been some uncharacteristic defensive lapses by Michael Bourn. I am attributing that entirely to moving to a new league with new parks and new hitters. I am not concerned at all about Michael Bourn in center field. Kipnis has also had a few rough stretches but overall is solid defensively. Michael Brantley has been nothing short of spectacular. He is now a gold glove caliber left fielder and has a dangerous and accurate arm. At least we have two gold glove equivalent players (Brantley and Bourn). That is better than zero. I think Yan Gomes might be a third in time. We will see.
I saved the offense/hitting for last because it has, more than any other area, held the Indians back in 2013. If this isn’t corrected for 2014, we have no chance to compete with the “big boys” in the American League. Our new additions have all underperformed and pressed and disappointed. Bourn is the least disappointing of the bunch but even he has not done what could have been expected at the plate and on the bases. Swisher never was a star so to expect him to blossom into a star by signing with Indians was kind of silly. But, even when compared to what could have reasonably been expected, Swisher has underperformed. Santana has underperformed but you begin to wonder if that is where he will stay. Brantley has not underperformed but has hit a very rough stretch of his own and the average and clutch hitting is dropping. Stubbs has been about as might be expected and that is not good at the plate. Cabrera has severely underperformed with one of his worst seasons as a professional at the plate. Kipnis has been solid but also streaky. Chisenhall has been pathetic overall. Gomes has stepped up and looks to be a top level player moving forward. Reynolds was awesome for 6 weeks and was never seen again. Aviles and Raburn have been solid and Raburn has overperformed compared to lifetime stats. Giambi was as expected. Interesting. Some big hits. Some home runs. But way way past his prime. When you read this paragraph closely it all comes together. The Tribe has had a terrible offensive showing for a team that should have been more consistent and certainly more potent.
So where does this leave the Indians in 2013 and how do they make 2014 special? For 2013, the Indians had very subpar hitting, subpar fielding, and above expectation pitching. This is another clear demonstration of the importance of pitching in baseball. The Indians are still in the wild-card chase (albeit barely) with one month of the season to go. That is entirely based on the pitching performances from the starters and, to a lesser extent, the bullpen. Without that improvement, the team would have been well below .500 right now and reaching for the bottom of the division. So that is why there should be optimism for 2014! We now have a pitching base to work from but how we use and extend that base going forward will depend on key strategic and financial decisions from Antonetti, Shapiro, and the Dolan family. Those decisions will be more important than any other over this winter. That being said, the Indians MUST change their shortstop (even if it means using Aviles as a stop gap), they must find a middle of the order hitter who can hit for a high average and OPS, they must use Gomes as the everyday catcher, and the veterans we signed this past off season must produce. Without each of those things, our lack of a true ACE starter and what could be a shaky bullpen will come back to haunt the Tribe in 2014.
In future blogs I will look at the current roster and options the Indians have for this off season. I think that they really can make a legitimate run in 2014 with some good strategic decisions and extending the roster budget by somewhere in the range of 10 million. I realize that this last point will be hard for the Dolans to approve given the lackluster response to this year’s team. But if they decide to “Pay Forward” just one more time, I honestly feel that they will be rewarded with far superior attendance and a better revenue stream. Not to mention a legitimate championship caliber team.