Imagine if you will, traveling back in time to February when the Indians arrive in Goodyear, Arizona. You sit a bunch of anxious Cleveland Indians fans down and begin talking about the upcoming season. You reveal to them you’re from the future and you are going to tell them how the first half of the season panned out for their beloved Tribe. They don’t question a single thing you just told them. Again, we’re just using our imagination here.
You start by telling them how the starting pitching rotation is doing, which the fans think are the best in baseball. You mention Kluber fractured his arm, Carrasco has leukemia (get well, brother), Bauer is NOT an All-Star, Clevinger has missed most of the season due to injury, and Shane Bieber is the lone All-Star in the group. You tell them Indians sign former All-Stars Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez, but later release them along with Leonys Martin. You make them more concerned by mentioning Jose Ramirez goes on a 2 month slump, while Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor miss the first few weeks of the season.
The look of horror on their faces. They start debating in their heads if they should start selling their tickets. The season hasn’t even started and they are slowly starting to move on to the Browns (who they didn’t know would get OBJ at that time). A complete disappointment.
That’s when you tell them the Tribe sits 5.5 games out of first place in the divison, and currently hold position of one of the wild card spots. They also have 4 All-Stars and one of the best bullpens in the game.
For the first time in that conversation with those fans, they did not believe you.
Let’s be honest. How many teams would have the kind of success the Indians are having after all those problems? Very few. With all the struggles and turmoil early in the season, it takes true baseball professionals to get a team refocused. Tito Francona’s leadership in the clubhouse and the job Chris Antonetti has done to keep major league talent in the organization has much to do with the team’s current position. Here are some factors that have helped the Cleveland Indians this season:
Drafting consistently well
The MLB draft is not as hyped up like the other sports. In professional baseball a prospect will typically be in the minor leagues for at least 3 seasons before they make their major league debut. Much of the players drafted may never make it to the show. One of the few things that has changed in the past 20 years is that we’re seeing more 1st round picks pan out in the major league level. That wasn’t always the case.
During the Francona era the Indians have done well with drafting and developing players. Since Francona took the job back in 2013, he has never asked more from the younger players than he asked of them this season. Back in 2016, the Cleveland Indians drafted 3 pitchers that helped save the rotation this season. All-Star Shane Bieber (8-3, 3.45 ERA), Zach Plesac (3-3, 4.00 ERA), and Aaron Civale (1-0, 0.00 ERA). Cleveland didn’t plan on bringing either of them up at this point in their careers, but thankfully they were ready. Bieber proved himself last year in his rookie year and continues to improve during his successful sophomore campaign.
Rookie first basemen Bobby Bradley has had a slow start but is showing signs he could be a big part of the Indians future. Bradley was a 3rd round pick in 2014. The everyday lineup consisting of Roberto Perez, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Tyler Naquin were all developed within the organization.
These players have grown and played with each other for several seasons. This is critical when building a winning team. They build chemistry and communication skills that will help on the field. You draft a bunch of duds then they won’t see the major league level and you’re not building the proper relationships. It is important for Cleveland to keep the mold and add to it.
Winning recent trades
Starting last season, some fans were concerned with some of the trade decisions the front office has made. Some time has passed and we can see the Indians front office made the better end of the deals. Let’s look back at last trade deadline where Indians sent top prospect Francisco Mejia to the San Diego Padres for Adam Cimber and closer Brad Hand. Cody Allen and Andrew Miller signed elsewhere in the offseason making Hand the permanent closer. He has been one if not the best closer in the league and is one of the four All-Stars on the team. Cimber has had his ups and downs but continues to be an important part of a strong bullpen. Mejia is the back up catcher and is hitting .211, 2 HRs, and 6 RBIs this season for San Diego.
Another trade the Indians made before the deadline was acquiring Oscar Mercado from the St. Louis Cardinals. After Leonys Martin didn’t work out in center field, Mercado became the savior. A new fan favorite and one of the top rookies in the league.
Fast forward to the offseason. Indians trade back up shortstop Erik Gonzalez to the Pirates for infielder Max Moroff and outfielder Jordan Luplow. Moroff started the season with Cleveland but was later sent down to Columbus. Luplow has become the team’s secret weapon against left handed pitchers hitting .313, 8 HRs, and 17 RBIs. Gonzalez has struggled in Pittsburgh just hitting .216 with 2 RBIs.
Tribe decided it was time to move on from Yan Gomes and make Roberto Perez the starter. Gomes went the Nationals for starting pitcher Jefry Rodriguez and outfielder Daniel Johnson. Rodriguez joined the Indians rotation after Mike Clevinger’s was injured earlier in the season. Unfortunately, Rodriguez sustained an injury himself in June. He has a 1-5 record with a 4.74 ERA this season. Some of his best outings happened when the offense was still struggling. Johnson started out in Double-A Akron and moved up to Triple-A Columbus. He was one of two representatives at the Futures Game for the Indians.
So did the Indians do the right thing moving on from Gomes? Let’s compare the statistics:
Yan Gomes: .211, 3 HRs, 20 RBIs
Roberto Perez: .256, 16 HRs, 36 RBIs
I think it’s clear. Tribe robbed the Nationals.
Indians would then make a 3 way trade with the Mariners and Rays which would send Jake Bauers and Carlos Santana to Cleveland. Edwin Encarnacion was sent to Seattle and was then traded to the Yankees in June. Even though he continues to be one of the better home run hitters in the league, he has struggled since being traded to New York only batting .127. Yandy Diaz was sent to Tampa Bay in the deal. Interesting enough, Diaz and Bauers are having similar seasons:
Yandy Diaz: .277, 11 HR, 32 RBI
Jake Bauers: .245, 11 HR, 36 RBI
It will be interesting to see how their seasons play out. The biggest acquisition of the trade was the return of Carlos Santana. The reunion has helped in the clubhouse and on the field. He was awarded to start first base for the American League in the All-Star Game and a participant in the Home Run Derby. His first ever All-Star selection is coming off the best half of hitting in his career.
The last trade the Indians made before spring training was a bigger deal than many anticipated. They made a trade with the Miami Marlins for relief pitcher Nick Wittgren. He did not make the team in the beginning of the season but eventually found his way to be a setup option in a strong bullpen. Wittgren is 3-0 with a 3.24 ERA.
You breakdown each of these trades and you can see the Indians front office made some critical moves that were overlooked. Fans often complain about the odd offseason, but these trades prove the Indians set themselves up better making these deals.
Turning Lindor into a leader
There was plenty of commotion in the offseason concerning large contracts. Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout signed deals of over $300 million dollars. This set up for other stars to ask for a similar contract. Unfortunately for the Indians, shortstop Francisco Lindor is expected to ask for such a deal. When Indians owner Paul Dolan was asked about signing Lindor to a similar extension his response was, “Enjoy him”. One of the worst quotes in Cleveland sports history if you ask me. How an owner of a sports franchise can respond that way and think it was smart is beyond me. If you want fans to come to the games you have to secure your best talent. Otherwise, they’ll spend their hard earned money elsewhere.
Indians President Chris Antonetti made an interesting comment during the offseason. He said that if they want to sign a player to a long term contract they have to perform on the field and contribute to the locker room. Lindor is one of the best shortstops in the game but was known as a fun, chill kid in the clubhouse. It is possible that comment from the team president was hint of concern with Lindor’s status with the team.
The season didn’t start well for the Cleveland star. A calf injury kept him out of spring training, and just as he was progressing an ankle injury set him back. He rejoined the team on April 20th and was still able to make the All-Star team. Not only did he bounce back on the field, he became the biggest voice on the team. He helped bring his teammates up when they were struggling early in the season and continued to become a spark in critical moments. Camera’s have caught Lindor lecturing teammates that weren’t giving their all on every play. Somewhere down the line the kid became the captain. Hopefully this will help him stay in Cleveland.
A team full of young talent that want to show the league they belong here
Indians lost much of their veteran support in the offseason. Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Edwin Encarnacion, Micheal Brantley, Yan Gomes, Josh Donaldson, Melky Cabrera, Josh Tomlin, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Raja Davis are all wearing different uniforms. Brantley is the only one in the group that made the All-Star team. Encarnacion is one of the home run leaders with 25 dingers. The rest have been decent at best.
Many baseball fans would look at this list and assume the Indians were in rebuild mode, but that is not the case. With the exception of a few rookies, most of this team has at least 3 seasons under their belt. In other professional sports, such as basketball and football, younger teams tend to be the worst in their leagues. Not so in baseball. You can be a winning team with a mix of veterans and young players.
Most of the Indians everyday lineup consist of players trying to make their mark in the game. They got a lot to prove and are willing to do anything it takes to get the job done. You can teach many things in life, but you can’t teach determination and hustle. If someone wants something bad enough they’ll do what it takes.
Jake Bauers, Tyler Naquin, Oscar Mercado, Kevin Plawecki, Mike Freeman, Jordan Luplow, Greg Allen, and Bobby Bradley will all be critical to the team’s success the rest of the season. Every winning team needs those role players who will embrace the spotlight and come through in the clutch. Roberto Perez in 2016 is a perfect example. Yan Gomes goes down with injury just before the playoffs and Perez has to be the man behind the plate. He came up huge in that World Series run.
Last season, the Indians relied on power hitting veterans to take them to the promise land and it didn’t end well. Those players knew no matter what there was a good contract waiting for them somewhere. This time around, the team has faster, younger players that are eager for their turn on the diamond. Nothing is guaranteed. How they respond will help determine if we’ll have October baseball in Cleveland. So far, this young group has done a heck of a job.