Second Thoughts Game #147: Indians 4, Tigers 6
Bullpen lets late lead slip away again as Detroit completes sweep
I know better than to fully rule this team out with as many times as they've gotten up off the mat these last couple seasons under Terry Francona's leadership, but this will be easily the toughest uphill battle of them all as the Indians' playoff hopes are now on life support following a sweep in Detroit at the hands of the Tigers, who now once again sit alone atop the AL Central.
Once again, the Tribe had a lead in the latter portion of the game, but a clearly tired bullpen was unable to hold the potent Tiger lineup in check as J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler inflicted most of the damage in the season series finale between Cleveland and Detroit.
Now the Indians head south for Houston now trailing by six and a half games in the division and five in the wild card race. Not impossible to overcome with 15 games remaining, but certainly a much more daunting task than when the weekend started.
Once again, as has happened each of the last few seasons, the Indians bullpen is showing signs of wear and tear late in the year due to overuse earlier in the campaign. Thankfully, the starting pitching has stepped up in the second half this season and really taken a lot of pressure off the bullpen, but the 70+ appearances logged by guys like Bryan Shaw appeared to take their toll this weekend as the right-hander allowed two-run, go-ahead home runs in back-to-back games to seal the sweep for Detroit.
In 2012, Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez were the go-to guys in the back of the bullpen and their overuse had lingering effects, especially for Pestano, who also was among the league leaders in appearances in 2012 and because of which, has never returned to the dominant for he had that year. He has since been shipped off to the West Coast to join the Angels.
Hopefully Shaw isn't in for a similar fate next season, but he appears to be muddled in a case of dead-arm right now. He and bullpen mates Cody Allen and Marc Rzepczynski all have their names etched at the top of the list as far as appearances this season.
I'm hoping and praying that 1) the new structure of the starting rotation will prevent this from becoming an issue again over the next several seasons, and 2) that the emergence of guys like Scott Atchison, Kyle Crockett, Nick HagadoneI and (hopefully) C.C. Lee takes some pressure off the back of the bullpen, although I don't know what happened with Lee on Sunday as that was the worst command I ever remember seeing from him.
There's been some talk of adding another back-end arm this offseason such as left-hander Andrew Miller, although I'm not a fan of giving big contracts to relievers since they are the most volatile elements of a team. Maybe up-and-coming prospects like Austin Adams, Shawn Armstrong and Enosil Tejeda can provide additional depth. I'm not too concerned about the bullpen moving forward if we can find a way to limit its use.
Playing Tougher vs. Detroit
The Indians ended their season series with Detroit on Sunday and finished 1-6 in their last seven games against the Tigers with Danny Salazar's complete-game shutout last week being the only real positive for the Tribe during this stretch. No excusing the fact that the Indians failed to come through when it mattered most in these final head-to-head matchups and may have put their playoff hopes to bed.
However, I would like to take a moment to focus on the positives of this year's matchups between the Tigers, who are still a superior team and the bullies of the AL Central, and the Indians, who may have gone 8-11 against their foes to the north, but proved themselves to be not nearly as intimidated by the three-time reigning division champs this time around.
In 2013, Cleveland managed just four wins against 15 losses against the Motor City Kitties with a run differential of 50 in favor of Detroit. This year, however, they doubled their win total and only allowed the Tigers to outscore them by 16 runs this year. And yes, that is including the damage inflicted by the middle of their order in Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez against Tribe pitching.
Only five times in the Indians' 11 losses against Detroit was the margin of defeat larger than three runs compared to nine of 15 losses a year ago.
Bottom line is this is a young team that is finding its groove and learning how to play with the big boys. They're taking care of business against lesser competition again this year posting a 42-27 record against teams under .500, but they're still struggling somewhat against winning teams going just 35-45 in such matchups. That is an improvement over last season, though as they were 16 games under .500 against winning clubs.
Again, this team failed when it mattered most down the stretch against their top division rivals in Detroit, but overall, they played much tougher and less intimidated against them this year, which, to me, is a step in the right direction.
Indians on the Rise
Regardless of whether or not the Indians make the playoffs this year, it doesn't change the fact that this team is on the rise. The emergence of the pitching staff this season has at least made me very excited about the future of this ballclub, plus the fact that they are young and under team control for the next several years.
Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana have formed a solid core of talent with all of them either on long-term, team-friendly contracts or, in Corey Kluber's case, still in the early stages of his big league career and still has years left before becoming eligible for free agency.
Behind those four, the Indians have young rising stars in Lonnie Chisenhall, Danny Salazar, Jose Ramirez, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco stepping up and brightening the team's outlook for the future both in the short and long run. Plus, while we may question some of his decisions, Terry Francona's never-quit culture that he has established in this clubhouse is the reason why we're still talking about this team in September for the second year in a row.
What's going to be crucial for the team moving forward starting next year is for the more seasoned guys like Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher to rebound from down years this season due to injury and, in Kipnis's case by his own admission, pressure from his new contract extension. Hopefully once they're fully healthy and settled into their contracts, they can return to producing at their career norms.
The big question lies in what the front office has to do this offseason to improve the team. The lineup and defense clearly need to be realigned, although the defense has been better with Santana manning first and Jose Ramirez taking over at shortstop.
What about external additions? Thanks to Corey Kluber and the rest of the pitching staff stepping up, it's no longer a necessity to bring in top-of-the-rotation pitching as it has been in recent years. Now it's just about finding serviceable starters to put at the back of the rotation or in AAA to provide depth. As far as the offense, David Murphy hasn't been a terrible addition, but his production is not enough to drmatically increase the potency of the lineup. Maybe look for another outfielder, preferably right-handed.
Maybe make a huge splash and bring Victor Martinez back home? (Just spit-balling.)
Of course, let's wait until the season is over to fully flesh out these ideas, but I will say that this is the most positive and excited I've been about both this team's immediate and long-term future as I've been in a few years.
Up Next: Indians (77-71) vs. Astros (66-83) @ Minute Maid Park. First pitch at 8:10 pm ET.
Due to last week's doubleheader against Minnesota, Zach McAllister will make a spot-start in Houston for the Tribe in order for Tuesday's scheduled starter, Corey Kluber, to get his full four days of rest between starts. McAllister lost his spot in the rotation back in July and spent the better part of the next month in AAA Columbus. Since being recalled, the right-hander has made two appearances out of the bullpen and has allowed four runs in five and a third combined innings of work.
For Houston, right-hander Collin McHugh hopes to continue his breakout season. Since his start against the Tribe on August 23rd, in which he took a no-decision and allowed two runs in five and a third innings of work, McHugh has won three straight starts and has pitched at least seven innings in each outing. In his last 10 starts, the right-hander is 5-2 with a 2.26 ERA.
Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.
And Kipnis, Swisher and Frazier won't even come close to getting a Stanton deal done.
1 Santana 1B
2 Brantley CF
3 Stanton RF
4 Victor DH
5 Gomes C
6 Chisenhall 3B
7 Aviles SS
8 Ramirez 2B
9 Murphy/Walters LF
This team would mash.