May 15, 2013
Painting the Black
The Cleveland Show
For all the lecturing about the early-season struggles of the Blue Jays and Angels—and how there are no shortcuts on the road to contention—the Indians accelerated their timetable after an offseason overhaul.
General manager Chris Antonetti's to-do-list started with a managerial vacancy. So Antonetti hired a two-time World Series-winning manager. Then he added some new assets by signing two of the best free-agent hitters available and trading for a former top-five draft pick with top-of-the-rotation potential. While Cleveland fans enjoyed an uncharacteristically festive winter, their smiles turned into expletive-filled rants quickly. Four weeks into the season the Indians were in the familiar position of looking up in the standings at less-talented teams. The low point came on April 28 when the Indians lost 9-0 to the Royals in the first game of a doubleheader; a loss that pushed the Indians to 8-13 on the season, and extended their losing streak to three games.
The purported laws of momentum—often ambiguous and self-fulfilling—ruled Cleveland would lose the nightcap and continue its slide. Even the old adage, about momentum being as good as the next game's starting pitcher, portended a loss for the Tribe, who sent Corey Kluber and his then-career 5.10 ERA to the mound. But the Indians won game two by seven runs, and won their next game by nine runs. Then they won the game after that by 12 runs, and the next three by 11 combined runs.
All told the Indians won 13 of their next 16 games, with five of those victories coming by five-plus runs. Cleveland averaged six runs scored and three runs allowed per game during the stretch; rates that would heretofore lead the league. What's good for the goose isn't always good for the goose's critics, but the Indians' run is the kind that inspires sports media to spend hours arguing over which move was the franchise's turning point: Terry Francona's hiring or Nick Swisher's signing.
Whatever the answer, one thing is for certain: This is a new Cleveland team—and not just in a poetic sense. The Indians entered Tuesday night with a 25-man roster consisting of 17 players who were not on last year's Opening Day roster and 12 who were not with the organization at the end of the season. Those numbers compare favorably with the Astros (18 and nine), who dismantled a hapless unit in short order.
Buttressing an already solid core with a number of notable additions created expectations of an above-average offense and defense. Expectations thus far fulfilled. The Indians rank first in True Average and fourth in park-adjusted defensive efficiency. (There is a point to make here about the impact of pitching on defensive quality. However, sussing out how much difference Cleveland's pitching staff has made is tough, as they rank in the bottom third in home runs allowed. Is it possible they're only giving up some hard contact, or are the gloves preventing other damage?) Acquisitions beyond the headliners have contributed to the fun, too, with Ryan Raburn of all players leading the charge lately:
Cleveland's Hot Hitters, Last Two Weeks
Given the resources Antonetti poured into the lineup, the healthy numbers are no surprise. Conversely, the gains made in the bullpen register as unexpected. Last season Cleveland's end-game trio of Chris Perez, Joe Smith, and Vinnie Pestano were fine. The team's middle relievers struggled, however, leading to a 23rd-place finish in bullpen ERA. Antonetti opted for small moves over a flashy, big-named addition. In fact his only free-agent signing of note was Rich Hill, who averaged about 13 big-league appearances per season over the previous three years. Smaller additions of the external (Bryan Shaw) and internal (Cody Allen) variety have the Indians sitting pretty with the league's fifth-best ERA.
The rotation is the great unknown for the Indians heading forward. While Justin Masterson is pitching well, and Zach McAllister and Scott Kazmir have surprised, there are numerous reasons for concern. Ubaldo Jimenez's nascent revival is worth watching, but Cleveland may still need another starter. Brett Myers led the majors in home runs allowed prior to being disabled. Meanwhile the aforementioned top draftee, Trevor Bauer, has walked 15 batters in 16 1/3 innings over three spot starts.
The Indians' farm system does offer another possible saving grace beyond Bauer: 23-year-old Danny Salazar. Salazar does not have ace potential, but he ranked sixth on the Indians' prospect list and comes equipped with a plus-plus fastball and plus slider combination. Relatively anonymous entering the season, Salazar's dominance at Double-A—he fanned 51 batters in 33 2/3 innings—made him a favorite of box-score devourers. The Indians recently promoted Salazar to Triple-A and he could reach the majors before the year's end.
Of course Antonetti could choose against relying on a pair of young arms in what he hopes is a pennant race. With a potentially good offense, defense, and bullpen in place, Antonetti could work the phones to acquire another starter or two. It won't be easy, since many of Cleveland's top prospects are in the low minors, but could Antonetti do something previously unthinkable—like deal the recently demoted Lonnie Chisenhall? Antonetti made a number of daring moves last winter to construct a winner. He may need one or two more to cap things off.