The Cleveland Indians fell far short of their own goals and outside expectations in the season’s first month. Is there hope on the horizon?
This was supposed to be the year of the Cleveland Indians. Going into the season, many pundits and fans alike believed Cleveland was primed to claim the AL Central division from Detroit, Kansas City, and Chicago. The Indians have instead lost 14 of their first 21 games and are in fact in last place in the division. Coming back to win the Central might be asking too much at this point. But can Cleveland at least turn it around and play like the team nearly everyone expected?
There are plenty of solid reasons to still believe in these Indians. Most importantly, the starting pitching has been encouragingly great for the most part. Corey Kluber, the ace of the staff, has actually been the most disappointing thus far. He’s sporting a 4.24 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, unspectacular figures that pale in comparison to last year’s magical 2.44/1.09 Cy Young campaign. But Kluber is still a great pitcher, and he’s yet to pitch less than six innings this season. He was hit hard in his last two starts, but he generally limits damage. If your fourth or fifth starter had Kluber’s start to the season, you’d be more than content. The Indians will get the ace they locked up to a new deal as the season progresses.
If the next two guys in the rotation maintain their strong starts, the Tribe’s pitching is terrifying. Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar have been mowing down hitters, each with 28 strikeouts. Salazar’s done it in just 19 innings, but he’s given up three homers in only three starts. If he can keep the ball in the park, opposing hitters are in trouble. Bauer is virtually unhittable. He’s only allowed five earned runs and 15 hits in his 25 innings to start the year. However, he’s also allowed an ample 13 walks already. The 24-year-old is showing strong signs of the potential the Braves saw in him when they drafted him third overall less than four years ago. Cleveland is still struggling to find a serviceable fifth starter, but a top three like that guarantees them a crack at a lot of victories.
The young talent doesn’t stop there, either. Francisco Lindor is universally considered a top-ten prospect in MLB at just 21 years old. While Cleveland is in no hurry to call up the über-prospect, the play of Jose Ramirez may force their hand. Only 22 himself, Ramirez has been flat out awful. He’s hitting .175 with a .459 OPS and just two extra-base hits. He’s also made four errors at shortstop already.
ESPN’s Keith Law, who ranked Lindor sixth in his 2015 prospect rankings, had this to say about him:
“True shortstops abound in the minor leagues right now, and while they won’t all hit in the majors or stay at the position, Lindor looks like the strongest bet to do both of those things, not just now but for the bulk of his major league career. Lindor can hit, run, work the count, field and throw, pretty much everything but hit for power, and he makes all of those things look very, very easy.”
If Lindor continues progressing and Jose Ramirez doesn’t improve rapidly, the Indians will have little choice but to roll the dice in early summer with a call up. The upgrade from a league-worst shortstop to a potentially good (eventually even great) one is massive. Lindor likely won’t hit the ground at full speed when he gets the call, but the earlier Cleveland pulls the trigger, the better.
Starting catcher Yan Gomes will presumably be back from a sprained MCL sometime in the next month or so. Michael Bourn and especially Jason Kipnis are both too good to continue flirting with the Mendoza line. While Michael Brantley has been solid enough, it’s more than fair for the Indians to count on him for a hot month soon. Carlos Santana has been as consistent as ever in the batter’s box. Simply put, the Indians have a lot of talented hitters who are producing far below their normal or expected levels. Some good old fashioned regression to the mean will presumably help even out the poor early results.
Perhaps most importantly, the Tribe have a wise and experienced leader at the helm: Terry Francona. Francona really has seen and done it all before, and he took on a Cleveland roster with much less fanfare when he initially took the job in 2013. He’s the right manager to work through these struggles and maintain a confident attitude in the clubhouse. The Indians are already at a huge disadvantage in the playoff race, but all the signs point to them still being the contending team we expected. Still, if Cleveland doesn’t raise its game soon, it may not matter how good they actually are from July to September.