A four-week talent show
After 137 games, this is where we sit: 58-79, fourth place in the AL Central, 21 games under .500 and 16½ games out of first place. On the surface, it does not get any bleaker than this.
Out of all the dreadful statistics and numbers aforementioned, one in particular stands out: 137. The number is only important because it indicates that this disaster that has been the Tribe’s 2012 season is not over. There are still 25 games left to play.
Knowing that, it has become especially difficult for many to find any reason to watch the Indians during this final month. Also, in Cleveland, it’s always football season, but now it’s actually football season. The Cleveland Browns will always be king in this town and with the team’s season opener this weekend, fan interest in the Indians has essentially shriveled down like a dried prune.
Still, perhaps we’re looking at it all wrong. Many fans seem to still be jaded over the fact that 2012 went off course so erratically, and they cannot bring themselves to watch the team. Others seem to take pleasure in watching the team sink to new lows.
However, refusing to watch the team or finding enjoyment in each loss seems somewhat counterproductive. Twenty-five games may still seem like a lot, but there is a way to approach the games that makes them more bearable and possibly even more enjoyable.
In reality, these next 25 games are nothing more than a four-week talent show. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the Indians promote a number of minor leaguers to the Major League roster, and it’s now time for these young players to get their time to shine.
We’ve heard all year how the Tribe was thin in the upper levels of its system, yet we’ve also watched players like Thomas Neal, Russ Canzler and Ezequiel Carrera put together strong minor league seasons, which at least suggests they could be Major League role players at worst.
Now we finally get the opportunity to see if these players are really minor league lifers or if they could possibly play a role in the Indians’ future plans.
Take Thomas Neal for example. In 117 games with Double-A Akron this season, the 25-year-old hit .314/.400/.467 with 12 home runs, 51 RBI and 11 stolen bases. The right-handed hitter also posted an ISO of .153, which suggests that he would at least be good for double-digit home runs in the Majors.
Many believe that the Indians soured on Neal after they initially designated him for assignment back in April, but his performance at Akron could have brought him back into the team’s good graces. It’s also important to remember that Neal actually does have a prospect background as Baseball America ranked him as the No. 96 prospect in all of baseball following a 2009 season that saw Neal hit .337 with 22 home runs and 90 RBI. Over time, Neal’s prospect status certainly took a hit because of injuries, but what if he really has finally recovered that previous prospect shine?
His below-average arm will ultimately limit him to left field, but still think of the potential upgrade that he provides over previous left fielders from this season like Johnny Damon and Shelley Duncan. We all saw him drop a fly ball in Sunday's contest against the Rangers, but a lot of that can probably be chalked up to nerves.
Over these next four weeks, Neal may be the most intriguing player to watch that the Indians have called up. Who knows, perhaps he could get enough at-bats and show enough potential to warrant a chance at a possible starting outfield spot next year.
Aside from Neal, consider Carrera and the impact that he could have in the future. Always underappreciated, Carrera’s skills mirror those of another underappreciated Major Leaguer, Juan Pierre.
As his career’s progressed, Pierre has shown that he is no more than a fourth outfielder, but he’s also a very good one at that. His ability to slap the ball around and create offense with his speed on the base paths always helps his team. This is a role that Carrera also can likely fill. With his extreme lack of power, he should never be a starting outfielder, but there is no reason that he cannot fill in as a fourth outfielder. In reality, it’s a role he probably should have had all season. It will be interesting to see if his performance over these final weeks will help him lockdown a spot on next year’s 25-man roster.
We also must consider the case of Russ Canzler. In 130 games with Triple-A Columbus, Canzler hit 22 home runs and drove in 79 runs. He’s already been a solid contributor to the Indians as he has five hits in only 16 at-bats. His strikeout rate is still startling (128 strikeouts compared to 46 walks at Columbus), but it’s hard to believe that he can offer anything less than what Duncan did this season.
It’s obvious that the Tribe’s front office is committed to giving Canzler an ample number of at-bats, so hopefully he’s able to make the most of them. If four games is any evidence, that seems to be the case.
Second baseman Cord Phelps is another player worthy of a close look over these final weeks. His first taste of the big leagues came in 2011, and he was largely a disappointment. However, lack of experience or maturity can often factor into those things, and the switch-hitting Phelps is certainly deserving of a promotion.
In 135 games with Columbus, Phelps hit .276/.368/.451 with 16 home runs and 62 RBI. He likely is nothing more than a corner utility guy in the Majors, but he could develop into a good one, especially considering the strong plate discipline that he has shown throughout his career.
It may be a stretch to think that any of these players are anything special, but it’s still something to watch as the season draws to a close. Many have expressed frustration with the fact that Tim Fedroff and Jared Goedert have not been promoted from Columbus, and while it’s true that the two probably should be in Cleveland, that’s not reason to not tune in to the final 25 games.
The players that have been recalled and promoted to Cleveland may all have their warts, but they also have something else: unfamiliarity. We can talk about things like bat speed and plate discipline but until we actually see them play at the Major League level, we have no idea what their potential could be.
For that fact alone, I plan on having a front row seat at this four-week talent show. I hope you’ll join me.
Steve can be reached via email at email@example.com.