There is little argument that the Indians have been the biggest surprise on a team level this year. In many ways, whether one thinks this is real doesn't matter, as having the best record in baseball in early May already changes the team's 2011 outlook significantly. Given only a 3.8 percent chance of reaching the playoffs on Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds still see Cleveland as a sub-.500 team from here on out, but the hot start has increased their post-season chances nearly 10-fold, to 37.8 percent heading into Wednesday's action. For you horseracing buffs, they've gone from a 26-to-1 long shot to better than 3-to-1 odds at needing to call the printer about playoff tickets.
Indians general manager Chris Antonetti is cautiously optimistic. “Going into spring training, we felt like we had a talented roster, but one that was very young,” he explains. “With youth, you are never sure about how fast it will develop. We've had some of these young players take that next step and help us win games, while we've mixed in veterans to not only help us win, but provide leadership the young players can learn from.”
No matter how you measure the current talent in Cleveland, there is every reason to believe they will be an even more talented team on paper in the future. Evaluating the Indians’ minor-league talent is a difficult balance; while they lack obvious star-level studs, they make up for it with incredible depth. One could easily argue that no other organization has as many future big-leaguers, some of whom could play a role on the team this year.
But winning changes philosophies; giving prospects a look is an acceptable risk for a team that's out of the race, but winning records can leave some players on the farm for a while. Antonetti indicated that the team's sudden success could change things up. “We want to take advantage of any window of opportunity we have,” explained Antonetti. “We'll continue to place an emphasis on winning at the major-league level, but it's inevitable that injuries and performance issues will crop up, and we will need to make adjustments.”
One such adjustment came last weekend, when 2009 first-round pick Alex White was summoned to the big leagues to replace Carlos Carrasco and his sore elbow. Normally, this would seen as a top prospect getting a reward for his hard work on the farm, but with White putting up a 1.90 ERA in four Triple-A starts, the decision was made with different factors.
“We felt White was the best player to start the game in terms of giving us the ability to win,” said Antonetti.
Injuries, like the one that created the opportunity for White, are nearly impossible to predict, and while the science of performance projections is hardly a perfect one, there is some room for further optimism, as two of the team's top hitters, catcher Carlos Santana and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, could both be expected to improve from their early-season slumps.
That said, there are also players we can expect regressions from, and the Indians have one prospect who could help in the second half if a “performance issue” crops up at the hot corner. Third base is currently manned by Jack Hannahan, a 31-year-old who entered the season with a career batting line of .224/.311/.347 in 290 games, with both the averages and the service time showing that he has spent the majority of his career as a minor-league organizational soldier, and with good reason. If you think players with his age and background suddenly hit .284/.359/.481, which is Hannahan’s line after 23 games, I know of a charming bridge in Brooklyn that might interest you. But instead of real estate transactions, let's talk about Lonnie Chisenhall.
After getting kicked off the South Carolina baseball team for breaking into a dorm room, Chisenhall moved to a North Carolina junior college and was a first-round pick in 2008. He has put his past behind him and is known solely for his play on the field at this time. He’s moving quickly to the upper part of Cleveland prospect lists thanks to one of the prettiest swings in the minors. Chisenhall hit 22 home runs in his 2009 full-season debut while reaching Double-A, and he was among the hottest hitters in the Eastern League during the second half of 2010. This year, he has recovered from another slow start by going 13-for-33 (.394) in his last eight games for Triple-A Columbus to raise his averages to .277/.378/.426 in 24 games. Beyond the swing, Chisenhall has solid tools across the board; he has the power to hit 20-plus home runs per year and fundamentally-sound defensive abilities. Speed is his only below-average tool.
The Indians have other prospects at Columbus close to the big leagues, most notably second baseman Jason Kipnis, who is riding a hot streak of his own and batting .276/.390/.471 in 24 games. A Cleveland team performing as expected (that is, poorly) would likely create a second-half opening for Kipnis, but the nature of their win-loss record has transformed Orlando Cabrera from mid-season trade chip to veteran leader, leaving Kipnis in line for little more than limited big-league exposure in September should the club's winning ways continue.
But that same win-loss record could create could accelerate Chisenhall’s timetable. The need to win could create pressure if/when Hannahan turns back into a pumpkin, and while scouts mostly agree that Chisenhall is not a finished product, he's certainly close enough to contribute.
“This can be a humbling game, and precisely laid plans rarely work out,” said Antonetti, referring to his team's quick start. And how those plans change will have a dramatic effect when we see two of Cleveland's top upper-level prospects in the big leagues.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .