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The Staying Power of the Cleveland Indians

After being swept at home in four games by the Texas Rangers it may be time to ask if what we’re seeing from the Cleveland Indians is simply natural regression, or something more detrimental to the playoff hopes of the Tribe.

First, lets define the competition of the Cleveland Indians.  For awhile, when it looked like the Indians were going to run away with the division, it seemed like they would certainly finish with a better record than the wild card team from the AL East.  That now looks more or less impossible.  The Yankees and Red Sox have been hot recently, and the AL East is primed to send two teams to the playoffs for yet another year.  The Indians will have to win the AL Central to make it to the AL Postseason.

Right now, their primary competition is the Detroit Tigers, who sit just 2.5 games back.  It’s likely the gap between the Tigers and the rest of the division (White Sox, Royals, Twins) will close over the next two months.  If the Indians keep winning over the next two months, this race will be over around the trade deadline.  If the Indians slow their pace, this could be a dogfight throughout the last two months.

Regardless, the truth about the Indians seems to lie somewhere in the middle.  Their pace will slow a bit, and the door will be opened for the Tigers.  But how much will it slow?  The numbers tell an interesting story.

The Indians have already been hit hard by injury and by underperformance.  The problem over the last two weeks has been that the Indians have been hurt by these factors before they could be helped by the natural regression of middle of the order hitters Shin Soo Choo and Carlos Santana.  The 3-9 record since May 24th is most likely a mirage, because the Indians aren’t getting their offensive production from anywhere, even though they have a strong lineup.  Furthermore, they are hurting in terms of depth right now, as they weren’t exactly constructed to compete this year.

I may be biased as a Royals fan, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen Michael Brantley every get out.  Right now, he’s just on basing a pretty good .349.  That’s better than everyone than Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera (pictured above).  Now, 3B Jack Hannahan, who was as much a part of the Indians strong start as any player, is regressing — probably because he’s Jack Hannahan.   Most of the timely power hitting has come out of the 8 hole from former top prospect Matt LaPorta.  Laporta, Cabrera, and Brantley are the breakout studs who can power the engine that is the Indians offense, but even with those players, the team must overcome their weaknesses at second base and at third base.

Lineup theory tells us that a team can score a bunch of runs with seven above average players, and while the Indians had 8 or so players playing over their heads most of the season, it’s clear that they’re going to have to produce throughout the outfield, and from the DH position as well to continue to score enough runs to win games.

This is where it makes sense to discuss the effect of the Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner injuries.  Hafner has been sensational this year, but he’s also been to the DL twice.  It’s an identical situation for Grady Sizemore.  He started the year on the DL, and now is back on.  This is relevant because without Sizemore, the Indians have been forced into a mostly ineffective platoon with Travis Buck and Austin Kearns.  Of course, without Sizemore and Hafner, Shelley Duncan is the every day DH.  And that means that even if Brantley, Cabrera, and LaPorta continue to rake, they still can’t outpace the rest of the division offensively even when Shin Soo Choo and Carlos Santana begin to drive the ball consistently.

The Indians will likely require some sort of upgrade at second base because Orlando Cabrera’s defense just isn’t good enough make him an every day player while he OPSes .581.  But they’ll also need to get some help should Hafner and Sizemore not return at full ability.  A strong Indians lineup counts on production from veterans as well as the breakout candidates.  The young players have held up their end of the bargain thus far, but if the Indians are going to ride out the inevitable summer struggles of LaPorta and Brantley, they’re either going to need a better trainer or more depth.

The Indians have been able to hold late leads because of their bullpen strength and defined roles.  But the rotation is of great concern, and the issues there may limit the ability of the Indians to acquire their much needed offensive depth.  Justin Masterson looks like a developing ace, though his K rate places him squarely as a middle of the rotation pitcher.  Josh Tomlin pitches to the corners, and though he had great success early (1.4 BB/9), he’s starting to be hit hard (1.4 HR/9).  Lefty Mitch Talbot can get strikeouts, but is nothing more than a back of the rotation guy on a playoff contender.

The problem here is that young Carlos Carrasco isn’t yet good enough to be in a big league rotation on a contending team, and has merely survived to date by keeping the ball in the park.  The other problem is that Fausto Carmona isn’t very valuable at all as anything more than an innings eater, and needs to be upgraded.  Prospect Alex White is currently on the DL.  If he can come back healthy, he’s likely the second best pitcher in the Indian rotation, after Masterson.  If his arm gives him problems all year, the Indians have no choice but to go outside the organization to get help.

Carmona isn’t going anywhere, but the Indians will only be able to hold off the Tigers if they can start four valuable pitchers every time they turn over the rotation.  Masterson is a given.  They have to hold out hope on both White (injury) and Tomlin (effectiveness) that they have at least one all season.  Then there’s Talbot, a good no. 4.

The Indians will have to trade for a mid-to-front line starting pitcher to hold of the rest of the AL Central, and they probably should not wait, as Carrasco is a liability.  The Twins and Royals aren’t playing competitive baseball (not even head to head — 2 sweeps in three series), but have hardly any pitchers that would be of value between them.  The Indians could target Scott Baker of the Twins, who is still owed $10 million between now and next year.  It’s probably too early for the A’s to be sellers, so absent Baker, the Indians are likely looking at trying to acquire a pitcher in the National League, such as Wandy Rodriguez (who is also on the DL), Chris Capuano, R.A. Dickey, Tom Gorzelanny, Ryan Dempster, or Aaron Harang.  The translation ability of an NL pitcher to contribute on an AL team is typically not a good risk.

Still, the Indians are sitting pretty in the AL Central.  Maybe not so much right now, as the Tigers are healthy and have more obvious places where they can improve by mid-season transaction, but the Indians’ young talent has done anything except turn back into a large pumpkin at midnight.  They’re still being driven forward in the AL Central by the young guns.  Its now time to find the veterans who can stay healthy and help push the Cleveland Indians into the playoffs.

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