What is the current state of the Indians?
Opinion by Justin Lada
Beginning an article about the state of the Cleveland Indians is difficult because I'm not sure if the Indians know where they are.
While it's currently June 9 and is no longer early, there's also a lot of reasons to not panic about the Indians 29-28 record and the issues that have brought them to this point.
E For Effort?
It would be incredibly easy for me to say "the Indians just aren't giving enough effort" or "someone needs to light a fire under them." Or one of those lazy cliches. Indians Manager Terry Francona has made what read as subtle jabs at effort or focus such as his comments after the Saturday loss to Kansas City saying that wasn't nearly good enough and then again after their loss to Colorado Wednesday saying he hopes they realize how important every game is and that the only thing they are consistent with is being inconsistent.
None of those are great statements for a manager to have to make. I could easily make the assumption that between Francona's comments and watching the team play day in and day out that effort has been a problem. But I can't fairly say that because though I watch just about every inning on TV, I'm not around the team every single day to know what their body language, attitude or effort level truly is. And for me to say that would be extremely unfair because I don't have to see a single one of them in the locker room the next day to own those comments without the facts behind them.
That's one thing I give Paul Hoynes credit for. If you follow me on twitter or have read my work before, you know I'm not a big fan of Hoynes' work and haven't been for a while. I have no issues with him personally, but just don't like his writing style. But he deserves respect for the fact that he wrote his "Indians postseason hopes are over" article after the Carlos Carrasco injury last September full well knowing he'd have to face the players in the locker room the next day and the rest of the season, however long it was going to be. A write like me or any other writer who isn't covering the team day in and out in person has no right to accuse the Indians of an effort or attitude issue by almost any measure.
Light the Torches
When any sports team with high expectations struggle out of the gate or for an extended period of time there will always be a large portion of fans that want their pound of flesh. They want the manager to scream and yell at the team for what they deem as lack of effort and continuous poor performances. Or worse, they want managers or coaches fired just because someone has to be "held accountable."
Francona is widely known as a players manager and popular to play for because of his communication style with players. He doesn't call them out publicly and doesn't hold totally overrated "closed door meetings." He communicates what he needs to and let's the clubhouse police itself.
And as overrated and ineffective as "closed door meetings" usually are, berating and screaming at 30-something year old millionaires is probably just as, if not more ineffective. It's not Francona's style and it's just bad practice for any baseball manager or any manager-employee relationship outside of baseball even.
Firing Francona is an even worse thought that the need for him to scream at the team. In any sport, if you're going to let go of a manager or head coach, the first question always needs to be "is the person we're going to replace them with going to be an upgrade?"
If the answer is no, firing that coach or manager is a really dumb, dumb decision. Ask Ohio State how that's going right now. This idea also assumes that somehow that eight months removed from guiding an injury riddled team to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series, Francona is no longer getting the job done and his voice has begun to be tuned out by the players. If you think that's even partially to, you should really stop reading the rest of this article because logic clearly just isn't your thing.
Firing Ty Van Burkleo or Matt Quataro or Mickey Callaway makes no sense either. Exactly what does that accomplish? The idea of a "clubhouse shakeup" with coaches is a very naive idea and really does nothing. Players still have to execute. Players know that and interim or new coaches won't all of the sudden just jolt them into gear.
Getting all of what should be basic logic out of the way, here are some other things to think about with regards to the Indians situation.
State of the Central
Reason 1A why the Indians won't and shouldn't panic.
They'll start Friday 29-28 and a 1.5 games back of the Minnesota Twins. That makes them incredibly fortunate with how they've played.
The Twins have a run differential is -29 before the completion of games on Thursday. That makes staying in first place incredibly unsustainable. Jose Berrios has given them a nice rotation compliment to Ervin Santana, who had a hot start to the year but has sort of evened out over the last few starts, but the rest of the rotation isn't good. They can hit and have huge building blocks like Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Byron Buxton (defensively anyway). Their bullpen is near the bottom of baseball in fastball velocity and strikeouts. They don't really have many trade chips to make major additions to try to sustain this.
Justin Verlander is on the DL for the Tigers, Miguel Cabrera might finally be showing his age, Nick Castellanos' hot start seems like it was a different season and Ian Kinsler is struggling. Their bullpen? Same old mess. Prospects? Their farm system actually seems to be trending upwards from the last few years. But will they use any prospects they have to add at the deadline and try to get one more shot at the post season? Their ammo to do that is limited.
The White Sox aren't trying to win this season and hope guys like Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Nate Jones and Jose Quintana perform well enough to trade them to accelerate the rebuild.
The Kansas Royals at -50 in the run differential should have been left for dead weeks ago. Before the end of games Thursday they were six games below .500 and have impending free agents of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain. The popular opinion is that they'll only be able to retain one of them but will still have to overpay. Their system isn't in great shape but they have a few pieces they could use to add something and solely thanks to the Indians, they're still not buried and dead yet.
The Indians can't let these teams hang around too much longer to give them a chance to go for it, but none truly pose a threat that would put the Indians on notice in 2017.
Nobody Is Going Anywhere
The Indians only stand to lose Bryan Shaw, Carlos Santana and Josh Tomlin as major free agents at the season's end. They would have to be almost 10 games out by the July 31 trading deadline just to consider moving either of them. At that point they'd probably consider moving Austin Jackson too but that's about it. This Indians core is locked in through next year. Cody Allen, Andrew Miller and Lonnie Chisenhall are key free agents after the 2018 season. The rest of the core is really locked in after that. Given their contracts with Santana, Shaw, Allen and Miller, the Indians know their window to get back and win another World Series is squarely in the middle right now in 2017 and 2018. They have a good enough core to maintain success beyond 2018, but these next two years are their best chance at the moment depending on how some prospects develop.
There won't be a 2008 or 2009 like gutting of this team this season and probably not next. Not when they committed money to the core and all that money to Edwin Encarnacion. Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff have proven they will be aggressive in trying to win during this window. The Dolan family also delivered on their promise to spend when the time is right. They shelled out the money for Encarnacion and then surprised by adding Boone Logan after it was thought they were tapped out. They're invested too deep in this season and next to give up now, too.
Someone Might Be Going Somewhere
Antonetti and Chernoff nearly pulled off two blockbuster trades in 2016 for Miller and of course for Jonathan Lucroy. By now you know the story of Lucroy vetoing the deal. The Indians have prospects to trade with once again.
Francisco Mejia, Greg Allen,Yu-Cheng Chang and Shawn Armstrong are still in the organization from that failed trade. While Allen is hurt, Chang is struggling a bit in AA and Armstrong has struggled while riding the I-71 express, Mejia continues to flourish as the Indians top prospect possibly now that Bradley Zimmer is in the bigs. Yandy Diaz may also be considered a trade chip. Triston McKenzie is also another big name that would be on other teams wish list if they're trading with the Indians. (McKenzie is on my personal no-trade list but that's for another article.)
This team has pieces to deal from for whatever they think they need to add. Outside of the White Sox who are building for what looks to be 2019 and beyond, the Indians have the best farm system in the division, which bodes well for their chances of winning it even if they can't get to 90 wins.
Trade for What?
Here is the big struggle. Last year the Indians attempted to add catching with Yan Gomes hurt, Roberto Perez still kind of hurt and struggling. Lucroy would have temporarily solidified the catcher's spot last postseason and probably would have split time between C/DH/1B this year and the Indians wouldn't have signed Lucroy.
This year, both Gomes and Perez are healthy. Gomes is playing well defensively again (as is Perez) and has at least regained some productivity at the plate. Both are under really affordable contracts for the next few years. Not to say one couldn't be moved given their team friendly deals, but this popular idea of upgrading at catcher isn't going to happen because of how important both Gomes and Perez are to the pitching staff, controlling the run game on top of their contracts.
The infield is set as is.
The outfield is also set.
Michael Brantley is about as close to 2015 as anyone could have hoped. The Indians really like Bradley Zimmer and they are likely to hang onto him given that they dealt Clint Frazier last year and they need cost controlled players down the road when core guys contracts (Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis and others) start to hit bigger salaries. If the Indians parted with Zimmer, they'd have to be getting a cost controlled player in return. Lonnie Chisenhall is having a breakout power year and needs to avoid the DL. Austin Jackson is hitting about as well as they could have hoped. Abraham Almonte has options but probably no trade value. Brandon Guyer is going to come back at some point and the Indians will have to figure out their roster situation when he does between Jackson and obviously liking Daniel Robertson.
The rotation has some serious warts. Kluber was hurt but looks like he'll be fine performance wise now that he's back even though they'll have to monitor his back the rest of the year. Carrasco has been really good most of the year aside from a scare with a pectoral injury and then that weird start at Kansas City last week. Danny Salazar is currently on the "disabled list" as he tries to straighten his command out despite leading baseball in K/9. Trevor Bauer has truly experienced some bad luck this year but can't seem to help his cause on a few nights as well but has also had some dominant outings. Tomlin is Tomlin. He's really good for four or five starts, missing barrels and giving the Indians quality starts. The he has a start or two where he allows four or five runs in five innings. Mike Clevinger has pitched well but also has issues with walks still.
The Indians are committed long term to Kluber and Carrasco. They could part ways with Salazar, Bauer, Tomlin or Clevinger if they feel they can upgrade the rotation from one of them. But that's highly unlikely because as we saw in 2016, pitching depth is easy to lose and a need. All three are cheap right now and still have a lot of upside (maybe save for Tomlin because he is what he is). They could add a starting pitcher but they don't have any real options to replace any of those guys aside from trading or cutting (not happening) one or keeping Salazar in the bullpen.
The bullpen of course could use another arm because what bullpen couldn't? If the rotation is truly an issue and they don't have the room or won't add a starting pitcher, adding another bullpen arm makes a lot of sense. It takes the clubs strength (although there's been some leaks recently) and makes it better and would help the rotation by osmosis kind of because it would help shorten games and protect a lead if they got it.
Do It Yourself
The point of the section above this is to point out that the Indians are going to have to kick this into gear on their own. Guys like Santana, Encarnacion, Kipnis, Salazar, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and others have to get this team turned around on their own. There's really not any major reinforcement this team can fit onto the roster nor one they should need. Given the way the roster is set up and signed for, this team is filled out internally and they're going to need to find a way to do this on their own. We're talking about a team a game over .500 and possibly ½ game to 1 ½ games out of first place to "turn it around" or "get it going" when other teams like the Royals, Blue Jays and the entire AL West are truly facing an uphill battle.
Getting outscored 20-12 in the second inning doesn't help. According to baseball reference the Indians are outscoring or within a reasonable run differential in other innings side from the second inning. When they play from in front, even early in the game, they're incredibly good. When they get behind, even as early as the second inning, it's over. And it feels that way because the results say so.
But the expectation isn't the division - it's getting back to the World Series and hopefully winning it. And I couldn't blame the Indians for having a Cavs issue of being bored with the regular season or needing to flip some switch. Speaking as a fan, coming into this season I thought about how hard or weird it would be to watch April games and regular season games after feeling the tension and excitement of a playoff run the way the Indians did it. I'm sure they're having the same issue thinking about that emotion and wanting to be there again but needing to get their first. Which is why this team as constructed is going to have to get there.
People expected the 1997 Indians to be a juggernaut. They won 86 games and didn't take control of the division until August and September really. They were helped by an bad division and a roster too talented to not eventually have a few weeks of good stretches of baseball to take the division. A few four and five game winning streaks would do that for the Indians and they still have yet to lose four in a row since 2015 despite their struggles.
POSTED 06/09/2017 12:47