The Cleveland Indians enter Sunday atop the AL Standings with a 56-39 record. The club hasn’t seen the postseason since their miraculous run to end the 2013 season, only to lose to Tampa Bay 1-0 in the one game wildcard. Hopes for this team likely haven’t been this high since the 1990s, and the recent success of Stipe Miocic, the Lake Erie Monsters, and of course the Cleveland Cavaliers have only raised the bar for the Indians to match. With that said, here are nine keys to watch for over the next couple of months.
1.) What Impactful Trade Will Be Made?
For the first time in what seems like a long while, the Indians will be aggressive buyers at the trade deadline. A city that has seen its beloved stars traded away midseason including guys like C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee in their primes, this is a welcome refreshment. Names linked to the team over recent weeks include Brewers C Jonathan Lucroy, LHP Will Smith, and RHP Jeremy Jeffress, and Yankees LHP’s Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. Landing just one of those players should put the Tribe as the favorites to come out of the AL. Currently Vegas has the Indians as the fifth most likely team to win the World Series and second in the AL behind the Texas Rangers. Desperate for bullpen arms, look for that to be the focus of the Indians trade deadline. Another bat in the OF, 3B, or C may also be in play. It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Indians will make at least one trade but who they get and what impact they will have is what to watch for.
2.) Second Half Team
Since Francona has taken over as manager, the Indians have become a second half team for whatever reason. Once August hit they were 33-26 last season, 32-22 in 2014, and 33-22 in 2013. That averages out to nine wins over .500 the last two months of the season. If the trend stays true, that should put the Tribe at roughly the 94 win mark which would be the most wins since 2007 when they won 96. Fans should also be excited for the last two months because 33 of the Indians last 60 games come against the division. On the year the Tribe has a 30-13 record against those teams. All signs point to a strong finish ahead.
3.) Michael Brantley
All of the Indians success this season has come without arguably their best player, Michael Brantley. The former All-Star has had some rough luck since injuring his shoulder diving for a ball late last season. After trying to let it heal on its own, he ended up opting for surgery over the offseason and was expected to miss the beginning of the season. Since then he seems to suffer a setback every time it looks like he’s coming back. After returning to spring training sooner than expected, his shoulder acted up and he missed some time. Later on he had a bicep problem and during his most recent rehab assignment he was reevaluated to have scar tissue removed from his shoulder. With every setback it seems less likely that we will see Brantley this season. Although he is cleared to resume baseball activities again, the question of how healthy he is lingers. With a shoulder problem and him being an outfielder, will he be able to make the throws in or will teams try and run on him? Is he going to have power in the field or at bat? Will the injury cause him to second guess things? There’s so much uncertainty around Brantley and if he comes back, watching how much the injury affects him will be worth noting.
4.) Can The Starters Stay Healthy?
The starting five for the Indians is arguably the best in baseball and a for sure top three rotation. They made waves last year with their strikeout rates including four pitchers with 170 of them in one season. This year the rotation has continued to dazzle and rank second in quality starts with 55 in 95 games. That’s the majority of the time having a guy give you six+ innings while allowing three earned runs or fewer. That’s pretty damn good. The starters are what make the team so dangerous and keeping them healthy is a must. Carlos Carrasco spent time on the DL early in the year with a hamstring problem and Danny Salazar didn’t pitch in the All-Star game with elbow discomfort. Josh Tomlin had Tommy John surgery in 2013 and shoulder surgery in 2015, so his track record isn’t crystal clear either. As long as they keep the starting five healthy, they have a chance to win every day. Before reinserting Bauer into the rotation and with the Carrasco injury, Cody Anderson and Mike Clevinger struggled to be the next man up with both posting ERA’s of 7.00+.
5.) Bullpen Consistency?
Perhaps the one thing that has rocked the Indians harder than anything has been the struggles and inconsistency of the bullpen. On the year, Francona has used 19 different relievers, excluding the blowout in which Chris Gimenez pitched. It seems everyone they have tried to put in there has struggled and the Indians have yet to find a consistent left handed pitcher is of the most concern. Of the opening day bullpen roster, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, and Dan Otero have been the only mainstays with Trevor Bauer moving back into the starting rotation. Of all the relievers appearing in at least ten games, only four have an ERA under the rotations highest ERA. Dan Otero hosts the best with a 1.18 ERA, Cody Allen has a 2.59, and Jeff Manship a 2.86. Joba Chamberlain had a 2.25 ERA before being designated for assignment and then asked for his release instead of accepting the demotion to Columbus. On the flipside, five guys have ERA’s higher than Bauer and would be six if you want to include Cody Anderson. Those are Tommy Hunter 3.74, Bryan Shaw 4.46, Zach McAllister 5.40, Austin Adams 6.55, Cody Anderson 7.25, and Kyle Crockett 10.80. Out of these names, Bryan Shaw remaining in the setup role is still questionable. While Francona has continually defended him, stating most of that is inflation from four bad games, a 4.46 ERA is too high for a setup man. The Tribe need to get a dominant arm that can move him into the seventh inning, saving Otero for jam situations where he has done well. Whether internally or externally, the Indians need some bullpen arms to step up and shorten the game.
6.) Can The Young Guys Hold Up?
One of the highlights and bright spots of the season is the younger guys in the lineup stepping up and making big contributions. Tyler Naquin has hit .328 with 12 HR’s in 64 games, Francisco Lindor is hitting .301 with 12 HR’s while making his first All-Star game, Lonnie Chisenhall is hitting .300, and Jose Ramirez is hitting .288 and even better with runners in scoring position. Instead of only getting it done with the top five guys in the lineup the last few years, the team is getting production all throughout the lineup. The key is while all these guys have hit the ball really well so far, will they be able to maintain it the rest of the season? Remember two years ago when Chisenhall was hitting .350 baseball through June before collapsing to finish hitting .280? That’s the thing I’m worried about. It’s a long season and as teams start figuring out their tendencies, the success may falter some. Lindor is the likely exception for me because his talent is off the charts and can end up being in the top 10 of all MLB players soon. The jury is out for the rest of them and Chisenhall has already once showed that he can crash. While the starters will keep them in games, these guys have to continue to produce to get the wins. With Juan Uribe, Abraham Almonte, and the catchers struggling, it’s up to these guys to bring some energy, produce runs, and prove that they belong with the team come October instead of having a trade bring in someone over them.
7.) Power Surge
Power is the name of the game that has been lacking in Cleveland for a while. The fans have clamored for the front office to add a big bat and year after year the team never shelled out the money to get one. This year’s team is raking in home runs. Through 95 games, the team has hit 125 home runs, or 1.3 home runs per game. Multiply that by a 162 game season and the current projection is for 213 home runs. That would be the fourth most in franchise history and the most since the 2000 Indians hit 221 of them, led by Manny Ramirez hitting 38 and Jim Thome 37. To give recent year numbers, in 2015 the Indians hit 141, 2014-142, 2013-171, 2012-136, 2011-154, and 2010-128. They are really three home runs away from tying their 2010 mark and there are still 67 more games to be played. The beauty of it is that it’s just not one guy doing all the work. Five players are in double digits, including Napoli and Santana leading the way with 22 and 21 respectively, and Rajai Davis is one home run away from joining the double digit club. The long ball is an immediate way to cut into the lead and something this team hasn’t seen in some time. Their 125 home runs puts Cleveland fifth in all of baseball and just one behind Tampa who sits in fourth. The Indians have not finished in the top five in home runs since 2007, when they hit 178 to finish fifth.
8.) Untested October
Another big concern is how will the Indians handle the postseason? It’s an area where most of the team hasn’t seen before. With so many young players, the playoff experience is limited. Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Lonnie Chisnehall, Cody Allen, and Danny Salazar all have just one game of postseason experience with the 2013 loss to the Rays. After that it doesn’t get much better with the rest of the team. Rajai Davis has three games played from the 2014 Tigers, Bryan Shaw had another four from the 2011 Diamondbacks, Dan Otero had five with the Oakland A’s, and Tommy Hunter has five from the Rangers and Orioles in 2010 and 2012. Add those up and its 25 total playoff games for 23 players on the active roster. The only ones who truly know what October is like are veterans Mike Napoli and Juan Uribe who have played in 51 and 45 postseason games. With a team used to being a dark horse heading into the second half and being untested in October, it makes for an interesting scenario. How will the team handle their second half lead and the postseason? Will the lights be too bright for them or is the team composed enough that their youth and talent can outperform inexperience? Kansas City has shown it is possible with back to back World Series appearances out of nowhere, but other teams have faltered big leads. They don’t have to look far from home either as the surprise 2007 Indians had a 3-1 lead in the ALCS over Boston before losing the final three games to miss playing Colorado in the World Series. It’s a new situation for most of the team and with only a couple of veterans leading the way they need to create their own fairy tale. Adding another seasoned veteran at the deadline could make a helpful impact to this regard.
I tried so hard to make it through an Indians article without getting to the attendance but I just had to do it. Attendance is something Progressive Field has lacked for some time. Currently Cleveland is 29th in attendance averaging a meager 18,586 at home. They finished 29th in attendance last year, 29th again in 2014, 28th in 2013 (the year in which they made the postseason), 29th in 2012, 24th in 2011, and last in 2010. Simply put, Cleveland will remain a Browns town. I’m not making any excuses for attendance because the team deserves to be nowhere near the bottom. After two years of renovations at the stadium, including putting in a bunch of popular local food venues, better sightlines, a huge bar, and a new scoreboard among others, the stadium is far and above better than two years ago yet the attendance hasn’t changed. It’s not like the team is horrible either. Cleveland has finished above .500 for three straight years and will likely make it four. Most of their players have been signed long term and the same faces like Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Corey Kluber have remained. It’s not a bunch of no-name callups. Home field is usually considered an advantage for a reason. The fans are there to keep the players going and cheer them on. The noise can make it difficult for opposing teams. Bringing attendance to the games can energize the ball club. If all of these reasons and a first place team can’t bring attendance then I don’t know what will. Cleveland has always supported a horrible Browns team and a Cavs franchise that had the first overall pick three times in four years. Why can’t the Indians receive the same kind of love? Go buy a district ticket for $13, grab a beer and root on your hometown team. Cleveland can’t be known as a title town with one of its stadiums being 1/3 full all of the time. Your support can make a difference for the team down the stretch when the games get tough and the meaning of each one increases.