It’s kind of a dirty little secret, but I haven’t written much on this blog this summer. Normally by this point, I’m not struggling for material because the baseball season is in full swing and I can write about the Indians. But this summer, while the Indians are giving me plenty of writing material, until now, I’ve avoided writing about them… because I don’t want to jinx it. Rest assured that I had posts planned, and I was ready to roll, except the Indians had to get off to a good start, and when you’re winning in baseball, even if you’re a fan, you don’t change anything. Anything. Seriously, I wore the same hat to work for about thirty days in a row.
But lately, the Indians have been slumping a bit so I’ve convinced myself that whatever I write here won’t affect the Indians (as I type this, they’re up 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth. If I cut this post off suddenly, you know why). And with the slump, some fans who jumped on the bandwagon just weeks ago when the Indians were rolling are ready to write the team off, even though it’s June 22nd and the team is in first place. After the break, I’ll go over what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong, and what needs to happen for the Indians improbable run to continue.
It’s often said that you can tell how good a baseball team will be by the quarter mark of the season, or after 40 games have been played. The Cleveland Indians are now 43 games into the season, and I already declared the season over on May 18th, when they were 15-21; as of the time of this writing (Tuesday night), they’re 16-27 (although, on a happier note, they’re winning tonight). (Note: as of Thursday night, they’re 17-28.)
It’s not like the Indians were off to a promising start and the recent six game losing streak killed their hope. But the fact is, the Indians being 15-21 was, all things considered, pretty good, and maybe better than we expected. But after losing their rising star shortstop and established center fielder, the Indians lack experience both on the field and in management.
Sounds like a great time for a quarter season report card, right? Read on, after the jump.
2009 wasn’t supposed to go like this for the Cleveland Indians. After getting off to a terrible start in 2008, the Indians rallied to finish the year 81-81, with the help of some promising young talent from Buffalo. The 2009 Indians brought back Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, added free agents Mark DeRosa, Kerry Wood and Joe Smith, and were poised to compete in the weak AL Central division.
It didn’t work out that way. Whether it was injuries, ineffectiveness, or just plain bad luck, the 2009 Indians had their worst season in almost 20 years. When you assess a season like this, where do you begin? My review of the 2009 Indians is after the jump.
I remember around the All-Star break, I posted a midseason review. At that point, the Indians had thrown in the towel on 2008 and traded CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, where he has yet to lose and has already hit two home runs. This came on the heels (actually, the trade was in the midst of) a ten-game losing streak that effectively ended the Indians’ hopes at making a postseason run.
And yet, as I write today, the Indians have won their tenth game in a row.
Stranger things have happened, right?
A few encouraging things I’ve seen in the midst of this streak (apart from the fact that the Indians are now a fun team to watch again):
- Kelly Shoppach is giving the Indians a very real reason to think about making him more than a backup catcher. He homered again last night (a monster shot, too), and is hitting .263 with 17 home runs this season. After his miserable start, .263 is a drastic improvement. Realistically, Shoppach may never be the caliber hitter Martinez is, but I think you could pencil him in to hit about .280, maybe hit 25 home runs and drive in 80-90 runs in a year where he plays every day. Those kind of numbers are good enough to start on most teams, and depending on how Martinez comes back from this injury, may merit searching for a solution that gets Martinez and Shoppach in the lineup every day.
- Who doesn’t like watching Jhonny Peralta hit? Ever since getting thrown into that cleanup spot (sort of by default, because no one else besides Grady had any experience whatsoever), he’s been an RBI machine. He’s got 73 RBI this year – an outside shot at getting 100 with 30 games left. But it’s how he’s getting those RBI lately that is more impressive. Yesterday, he swung at a first pitch from Justin Verlander in the first and simply served it into left field. He broke his bat, and he didn’t hit it especially hard, but he got the RBI with two out. It’s really been a remarkable turnaround for Peralta: before he started batting cleanup in June, I think he had something like 11 home runs and 20 RBI. Today, he has 21 homers and 73 RBI.
- Franklin Gutierrez is finally starting to hit. And he’s hitting in the clutch too, driving in go-ahead and winning runs in three of the Indians wins over the streak. I don’t want the Indians to give up on this guy. We all see what he can do defensively, and if he can ever figure out the offense he’ll be a premier outfielder.
- Shin-Soo Choo is showing no ill-effects after his surgery. He’s making strong throws from the outfield and yesterday he hit an absolute bomb to the second deck in right. He’s another guy I’d hate to see them give up on – what about platooning him with Francisco and Gutierrez next year? All three guys can play both corners. Francisco is showing he can hit everyone, and the other two are, shall we say, “improving” at hitting same-handed pitchers. Why not keep a loose platoon for part of the year and then if two of those players start to stand out move to a strict starting lineup?
- Asdrubal Cabrera looks like the Asdrubal Cabrera who gave the Indians a spark in 2007. He still plays phenomenal defense, and now he’s starting to hit too. He’s more patient at the plate, he lays down a good bunt if needed, and last night he stole a base. I think it goes without saying that the Indians shouldn’t give up on this guy; he might be the shortstop of the future.
- Ben Francisco is putting up Rookie of the Year-like numbers. After last night, Francisco is hitting .284 with 14 HR and 50 RBI in “limited” playing time (he now has the fourth most AB of any Indian on the roster, behind Sizemore, Peralta, and Garko). If he can continue his pace, he might edge out Longoria (of Tampa Bay) for Rookie of the Year simply because Longoria has been hurt.
- Ever since getting benched, Garko is back to his 2006 form. Part of what was so frustrating with Garko most of this year is that he has shown he can be a great hitter with two strikes, he has shown that he can get RBIs even without hitting the ball well…he just wasn’t doing that. It seems like now he’s choking up on the bat with two strikes like he used to, and he’s playing smarter: just trying to make solid contact and get base hits without worrying about hammering the ball all over the ballpark.
- I like what I’m seeing out of Anthony Reyes and Zach Jackson. Both have pitched pretty well, particularly Reyes, who is now 2-1 with the Indians. I’m anxious to see what both can become the rest of the year – are these guys we want in the rotation next year?
- “And now into close for the Indians…Jensen Lewis?” He’s 7 for 7 in save situations this year, and finally overtook Joe Borowski as the Indians saves leader. I don’t think he’s our closer of the future, but he’s doing a better job than I thought he would.
Look, the playoffs are probably still out of the question for the Indians at this point (win 10 more, then we’ll talk). But .500 is definitely reachable. There’s still a chance for Grady to hit 40 home runs this season and drive in 100. Cliff Lee never loses. So even though this team probably won’t be playing in October, keep watching – things are getting interesting.