Looking ahead to the second half: The Indians are a good bet to improve

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The top of the AL Central is not terribly surprising. There the Royals sit with the biggest lead of any of the division leaders, four and a half games over the Minnesota Twins. Many people, of course, figured that the Twins wouldn’t be anyplace close to the top of the division and many suspect that they’ll falter as the second half wears on.

I can’t say I agree with that completely as the Twins have a lot of young talent and young talent has a way of not adhering to the expectations, both good and bad, people have for it. They’re not aware they’re supposed to falter, so maybe they won’t?

However the Twins shake out, it’s safe to say that no one expected the Indians to be in last place. Indeed, with their excellent rotation and big bats in Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes and Lonnie Chisenhall, they were thought to be a favorite to win the Central or, at the very least, give the Tigers and Royals a run for their money.

Except of that group, only Kipnis has been a big bat this year, getting a lot of help from David Murphy. Brantley has been OK, but far less of a threat than last year. Gomes and Chisenhall have fallen into the abyss, in part due to injuries. Carlos Santana has struggled mightily. While the rotation has continued to pitch well —-Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer all notched 100+ strikeouts in the first half — the Indians defense has been about the worst in the game, betraying its pitchers over and over again. That’s how a promising team winds up 11 games back and tied for last place.

But that really doesn’t seem sustainable for me. For one thing, the teams above Cleveland look to falter. Perhaps the Royals won’t collapse — there’s far too much talent there — but the Tigers are already in something of a freefall and will be without Miguel Cabrera for weeks. Those Twins, again, have overachieved and could very well slip. The team with which Cleveland is tied for last place, the Chicago White Sox, has been rumored to be in sell mode at the trade deadline and could be punting 2015, creating an opening for the Tribe.

More fundamentally, however, the Indians have to get better because they can’t be worse.

There has apparently been nothing wrong physically with Carlos Santana. He’s a streaky hitter and always has been, and in the final two series before the All-Star break, went 9-for-23 (.391) with a double, triple, home run and four RBIs over seven games. If he carries that momentum into the the second half, the Indians will have another weapon on offense.

The biggest challenge will be to right the ship defensively. And even a little ship-righting will be huge, because the Indians pitchers are just dandy at run prevention. Fortunately for Cleveland, that process has already begun.

Shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Giovanny Urshela were called up in June and, while they haven’t done much at the plate, they have totally revamped the left side of the Indians’ previously porous infield. Both have been dynamite with the glove and have drastically improved the Indians’ defensive efficiency in their short time. Perhaps that’s an anomaly and perhaps, with more time in the game, they’ll come back down to earth a bit. But both have good defensive pedigrees and couldn’t possibly be worse than what came before. Also, one or both of them could start hitting a little too to help even things out.

All of which brings us back to where we were before. The Indians are a wildly talented team with a great rotation and a couple of big stars on offense. On paper, it’s a team that should challenge for a playoff spot. Given the weakness of the non-Royals members of this division, they still may very well be able to in the second half, an 11-game deficit notwithstanding.

Starters? Openers? Who cares? It’s the lack of offense killing the Brewers

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The talk of Game 5 of the NLCS — and, indeed, the talk of the postseason so far — has been the Brewers’ creative use of their pitching staff. Indeed, Craig Counsell calling for Brandon Woodruff, and removing Miley from the game after just one batter and five pitches, stands as one of the more audacious acts of bullpenning in recent memory.

In light of that strategy, it was tempting to compare and contrast the Brewers’ approach to that of the Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw gave up an early run and, as has so often been the case lately, didn’t look super sharp early. But as the game wore on he got stronger, his curve got more devastating and he turned in an ace-like performance, leaving after seven innings of work, retiring the final 13 batters he faced. The Brewers may have an army of pitchers they throw at you, but the Dodgers, on this night, had a Hulk.

That’s all a lot of fun, and it was a tempting narrative to grab a hold of, but you know what? It doesn’t matter a bit. The fact of the matter is that the Brewers have scored two runs in the last 17 innings between Games 4 and 5. Two runs, with one of them being an oh-by-the-way run with out in the ninth tonight. They’ve only scored three runs in their last 24 innings. They could have a college of coaches using a murder of pitchers and they’d still be staring at being down 3-2 like they are right now because the bats have gone cold.

The presumptive NL MVP, Christian Yelich, was 0-for-4 in Game 5 and is only 3-for-20 with three singles in the entire NLCS. Ryan Braun is 5-for-21. Lorenzo Cain is 6-for-24. Games 3 and 4 have, obviously, been the big problems for the Brewers. In those games the entire team is batting .168 with 26 strikeouts and they are 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

Craig Counsell could go back in time, bring back Pete Vukovich, Rollie Fingers, Teddy Higuera, Moose Haas and Jim Slaton, use them all for an inning and two-thirds each and it wouldn’t matter if the Brewers can’t score. That’s the story of the series so far. No matter how much we might want to talk about the pitching shenanigans, that’s the only thing that really matters.