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Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: "We're going streaking!!!"

Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: "We're going streaking!!!"
June 16, 2012
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I*tThere’s nothing like a Father’s Day on the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario in early June, when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and the Cleveland Indians are playing the Pittsburgh Pirates in some Saturday afternoon baseball. To top the start of this beautiful weekend off, the Indians could quite possibly be playing for first place today, depending on what the less-than-stellar Chicago White Sox do today against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

How imperfect are the Chicago White Sox and really, the rest of the American League Central? While the Indians were busy treading water by taking two of three from the St. Louis Cardinals, getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds, and beating the Pirates in the first game of a three game series, the White Sox were busy losing two of three from the lowly Houston Astros and those same St. Louis Cardinals, and losing the first game of a three-game set against those Dodgers. In the meantime, the rest of the A.L. Central managed to go an identical 5-5 over the last ten, including the Indians. The only team that didn’t sport that same record is the White Sox, who managed to go 3-7. The Indians haven’t exactly been playing inspiring baseball, but the mediocrity in the division has allowed the Tribe to stay close.

There’s still a feeling during this strange mid-point between the quarter pole and the halfway point that the Indians haven’t even come close to playing their best baseball of yet. The Indians bullpen is generally considered their strength, but there are definitely holes there past Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano. The starting rotation has been an either/or proposition this season. You know, either the bottom of the rotation pitches well and the top two don’t, or the top two pitch well, and the bottom of the rotation doesn’t. The offense has been led, at times, by Travis Hafner, Jason Kipnis, Shin-Soo Choo, Jack Hannahan, Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley. There have been games when one or two of these guys have played like all-stars, but rare has been the day when they all have. You also have to start wondering what’s going on with Carlos Santana at the plate, because he’s not hitting the ball the way he’s expected.

It’s hard to imagine that this team will remain as inconsistent as it has been so far this season, and it’s really not inconceivable to think that at some point, they are going to put it all together. Perhaps it will be when they make a move for a big right-handed bat to lengthen that line-up, or perhaps the start of it has already occurred thanks to a couple of starting pitchers named Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez. Nick Hagadone and Joe Smith have been pretty good so far this year, but will get much better, and you have to like the potential of a guy like Scott Barnes.

The team is clearly in the right division to find their balance, and there’s no reason to think that they won’t.

It’s impossible to start any column on the Indians without mentioning Michael Brantley pretty quickly. I discussed Brantley’s importance to this team in detail last week, and it’s clear that he’s figured something out. Either that, or he’s just riding one of those streaks that you’ll have in baseball. I tend to be more of a “glass half-full” kinda guy, so I’m more inclined to think that Brantley is starting to become the player that he was supposed to be when the Sabathia deal went down.

When the streak started, Brantley was hitting .255, and didn’t really have a home in the line-up. Manny Acta was tinkering with him all over the place, and had settled mostly at the #7 slot, although he had spent time in the lead-off slot, the #2, the #5 and the #6.

During the streak, Brantley has gone 29-for-86 (.337), with 12 runs, four doubles, a triple, a homer and 16 RBI. He’s walked four times, with 12 strike outs. His overall average has risen 29 points. His OBP has raised 26 points (from .294 to .320) and his OPS has gone from a sub-par .654 to a more respectable .711.

The numbers, other than the actual streak itself and the average that it has produced, don’t scream all-star at all, but it does underscore the fact that Brantley can be a very good major league outfielder. He’s not just a #4 outfielder, as some would have suggested had the streak never occurred. He’s not a bad option in center, as some other would suggest had the streak never occurred. As a matter of fact, he’s exactly the opposite. He’s exactly what this team needed in centerfield this year, and going forward.

He’s never going to be Kenny Lofton (who is), and he just isn’t a lead-off hitter (streak or not), but he is definitely a guy that should reside in the #9 slot in the line-up for years to come, and be this team’s starting centerfielder.

With regards to the streak, Nap Lajoie has that all-time Cleveland record of 31 games in a row for the Cleveland Naps way back in 1906. Sandy Alomar Jr. had a 30-game streak back in 1997. That should give you the rarified air that Brantley finds himself in with the Indians. Casey Blake managed a 26-game hit streak in 2007, and Marty Cordova had a 22 game hit streak in 2001. Brantley passed Larry Doby’s 21-game hit streak from 1951. Brantley also mustered a 19-game streak in 2010.

Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson just may turn into what the team thought they’d be when they made the deal for Jimenez during last year’s trade deadline. I’m still not on board the Ubaldo train just yet, even though his last two starts would lead one to believe that he just may be figuring things out.

Jimenez not only saw an uptick with regards to his command, but he also saw his velocity go up from a sub-standard mid-92’s to a more respectable mid-93 MPH. This isn’t to suggest that he’s going to all-the-sudden start throwing 97 again, but he did touch the gun at mid-96, so perhaps he’s regaining confidence in locating his heat, which may right the ship.

Masterson was electric on Friday night, working seven innings that led to a shutout against the Pirates. He now has 11 scoreless innings in a row in back-to-back seven inning performances, and overall has given up nine hits, an earned run, three walks and 15 K’s. It’s clear that Masterson has figured something out, because his BB/9 has dramatically improved, and his ERA has dropped from 5.14 on May 29th, to 4.38 on June 15th.

A two or three-game stretch does not make a season, so the doubts are still out there about both starters. Still, it’s tantalizing to think about a rotation with Jimenez at the top of his game, and Masterson at the top of his. If those two guys are right, and performing like the aces that they should be, it dramatically changes the dynamics of a team going forward.

In the immediate future, the rotation now seems lined up. With Masterson holding down his familiar spot as the #1 starter, and Jimenez locking down the #1a slot, Derek Lowe can slide into the #3 slot without feeling like he has to throw seven innings every start, as he did at the beginning of the season (of course, maybe we want him thinking that way). Past Lowe, it makes having Tomlin and Gomez and their inconsistent nature a bit more palatable.

Of course, Jimenez starts today, so anything can happen.

As the Indians turn the corner towards July, the rumors should really start to circulate with regards to the trade deadline.  I began speculating last week with several names making my early list. Just to refresh your memory, Kevin Youkilis, Carlos Quentin, Josh Willingham, B.J. Upton, Carlos Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Michael Cuddyer and Yeonis Cespedes made the list.

This week, Soriano reported that he’d be more than willing to be traded to a contender. The Cubs followed up by saying that they’d be willing to eat his contract to deal him away. Those are the kids of terms that really appeal to a team like the Indians. Soriano is owed about 45 million over the next 2 ½ seasons. While that’s certainly not optimum, if the Cubs will pay most of that contract, Soriano will be a nice left-field fit while their supposed window is open.

I know it’s early to talk trade, but Soriano is a right-handed stick who has a career .273 average and .817 OPS against righties. This year, he’s hitting a more than solid .291 against right-handed pitching, with an .816 OPS. He has eight homers and 30 RBI (12 and 41 overall). I’m sure the Indians will be chatting with the Cubs.

I know it’s a short edition this week, but gotta run out for some Father’s day weekend activities. To all you Dad’s out there…HAPPY FATHER’S DAY! As my Dad told me…”Without me, there’s no you…”

Good words to live by…

It’s a beautiful day for baseball…everybody…

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

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