Mark my words. The Cleveland Indians will make the playoffs.
Saying the Tribe’s rotation in 2016 has been stellar may be an understatement at this point. When Danny Salazar took the mound Friday night in Detroit he boasted an 8-3 record, the second-best ERA in the AL at 2.23, and the best K/9 ratio in the AL at 10.71. Having Salazar on the mound was also a good omen for the Indians’ offense considering Salazar has garnered 7.92 runs of support per nine innings pitched – also good for best in MLB. It’s now Saturday morning, the Indians won the game 7-4 (the team’s 7th straight victory overall), Salazar’s record improved to 9-3, and the Tribe extended their AL Central lead over the Kansas City Royals to four games in the process.
But, we’re not talking about a one-man rotation. Trevor Bauer, who was thought to be the next Tim Lincecum when he was drafted with the third overall pick by the Diamondbacks in 2011, found his niche in Cleveland. Bauer has avoided giving up the long ball so far in 2016 – an issue that plagued him in past seasons. Opposing hitters launched 23 home runs off Bauer in 2015. This season he’s only given up 6 homers and boasts a HR/FB ratio of just 7.9%, which is top ten in MLB.
Corey Kluber won the Cy Young Award in 2014 with a record of 18-9 and 2.24 ERA. You wouldn’t have guessed that based on his performance this season. “Klubot” is just 7-7 with an ERA of 3.59, but has thrown two complete games, including one shutout. On the surface that may not seem great. But if you dig a little deeper and peer into how Kluber has pitched while ignoring his defense, he’s still been pretty great this year. He leads the AL with an FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 2.83.
Like Salazar, Josh Tomlin continues to receive plenty of support from his offense at a clip of 5.75 runs per nine innings, which is top 25 in MLB. Tomlin’s success can be ascribed to his incredible command of his pitches. Only the regular season pitching god named Clayton Kershaw has a better BB% this season. Tomlin’s BB% is 2.1% compared to Kershaw’s miniscule 1.7%.
While he’s still working into mid-season shape after returning from a hamstring strain suffered in late April, Carlos Carrasco rounds out a solid rotation. Before his injury, Carrasco touted a 2.79 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 19.1 innings.
Even if you’re not a proponent of Wins Above Replacement, it’s no secret that Francisco Lindor’s 3.3 WAR (top 15 in MLB) is only an indicator of the fantastic year he’s enjoying. Lindor is slashing .307/.368/.456, with 8 HR and 47 RBI from the shortstop position. He’s also displayed his five-tool talent with 12 stolen bases. Aside from his offense, Lindor is third in MLB with a Def (Defensive Runs Above Average) of 13.0. That trails only the Giants’ Human Groundball Eater named Brandon Crawford (15.4), and the Blue Jays’ Human Highlight Reel named Kevin Pillar (14.8).
Yan Gomes is an offensive liability, but his 5.9 Def makes up for what he lacks as a hitter. Though they’re hitting close to their career averages of about .230, Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli have 15 HR each, and 81 RBI combined.
What’s Not Working:
Jason Kipnis continues to strike out too much – at a clip of 21.2%. He’s irreplaceable in the clubhouse and has demonstrated offensive acumen in the past, so don’t expect any changes at second base.
Production out of the third base position continues to be suspect. Juan Uribe simply cannot get the job done anymore, despite homering in four straight games last week. Jose Ramirez has been serviceable, but it would be nice to see the Indians try to upgrade that position by signing Yulieski Gurriel, or trading for David Freese (my favorite third baseman likely to be available come July).
In addition to playing the infield, Jose Ramirez has also been starting in the outfield at times. Despite Tyler Naquin and Rajai Davis, the outfield depth in Cleveland is pretty scant at this point. Naquin has been impressive, registering a .453 BABIP in just 119 plate appearances. Rajai Davis leads all of MLB with 21 stolen bases. While recognizing these lone bright spots in their ability, they’re deficient on defense too.
The Indians, simply put, are not receiving enough offensive production in the outfield to maintain their current win pace. Grady Sizemore of ‘05-’08 will not reappear to save the day. The front office needs to do all that it can to acquire a power bat, such as Ryan Braun. Matt Kemp is certainly available in San Diego, but the Indians would likely have to take on a substantial portion of his contract to make that trade work. The best fit, in my opinion, is Josh Reddick of the Oakland A’s. When healthy, Reddick is a top-flight defender in right field, and a solid hitter in the middle of any lineup.
Perhaps the largest flaw in the Indians’ armor is their bullpen. Now, Cody Allen has been pretty much unhittable so far (.168 BA), but he’s also not giving hitters a chance to swing with a 4.70 BB/9 ratio. How clutch of a closer is Cody Allen in 2016? Not very. According to Fangraphs.com, Allen has a Clutch measure of 0.17 (2.0 is excellent, 0.0 is average). On the bright side, guys like Dan Otero, Joba Chamberlain (Yes, THAT Joba Chamberlain), and Jeff Manship have pitched well for journeymen. Joba is holding opposing hitters to a BA of .145, and BABIP of .189.
There’s no doubt that notable relief pitchers will be available on the market. Teams in the basement view quality relievers as replaceable (especially the Rays – see Jake McGee), and will look to dump salaries in exchange for prospects with upside. A few possible options likely available in July are: LHP Fernando Abad (Twins), RHP Kevin Jepsen (Twins), RHP Jeremy Jeffress (Brewers), RHP Fernando Rodney (Padres), LHP Andrew Miller (Yankees), RHP Jeanmar Gomez (Phillies), RHP Huston Street (Angels), RHP Joe Smith (Angels), RHP Brad Ziegler (Diamondbacks), RHP Tyler Clippard (Diamondbacks), and LHP Jake McGee (Rockies). Just to name a few.
One name not mentioned above: Michael Brantley. He was recently diagnosed with biceps tendinitis after missing the majority of 2016 with lingering fatigue in his surgically repaired right shoulder. Brantley is the Indians’ best all-around player. He finished third in AL MVP voting in 2014, but has only appeared in 135 games four times in eight seasons. It’s unclear how effective Brantley will be when, or if, he returns to the lineup. But, when healthy, he’s an All-Star caliber player capable of putting a team on his back.
The Indians can be serious contenders and make noise in the AL. While they hold a four game lead over the reigning World Series champion Kansas City Royals, the Indians could see their lead evaporate if they stand pat in the trade market. With a plethora of names being thrown around in rumor mills, the Indians desperately need a star outfielder and at least one reliever if they want to make it past the first round of the postseason.
Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com and ESPN.com