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Tribe Happenings: How long will it last?

May 1, 2011
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The Indians have been flying high in April,
but can they sustain it the rest of the season?
(Photo: AP)
Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Tribe notebook…

Will April wins bring end of season success?

What an amazing month of April for the Cleveland Indians.  It was a historical month and the best month of April EVER in the history of the organization.  That says a lot since the Indians have been around since 1901.

After last nights walkoff win the Indians set a club record with 18 wins in April, have a 12-game home winning streak (longest since 1996), have been in first place since April 7th, and in the American League rank 1st in batting average (.272), 1st in runs (141), 3rd in home runs (34), and 4th in ERA (3.49).

That’s some fun baseball.

Now, there are a few caveats to acknowledge with the hot record-breaking April start.  The Indians started their season on April 1st this year, so they had a full month to get those 18 wins whereas for most of the Indians’ past they did not start the season until about a week into April.  They also went 16-6 in April in 1988, yet finished the season 78-84.

It will be hard for this team to maintain this pace all season, especially with the starting pitching and the offense as a whole.  This team may be a year ahead of itself and overachieving, and at some point they may fall (crash?) back to earth.

But this feels different, and they may not fall back as much as the naysayers keep saying.

This is not a collection of rag tag guys coming together a la the movie “Major League”.  This is a young, talented ball club with lots of untapped talent up and down the roster, and a ton of very talented players about ready to supplement the team from the minors.

You have two stars in the lineup in outfielder Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo who are the anchors of the team, and with the renaissance of Travis Hafner to go along with the continued growth of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, the big potential of catcher Carlos Santana, the hitting ability of Michael Brantley, and the power of first baseman Matt LaPorta, the Indians have the makings of one of the premiere lineups in all of baseball.

Even though the offense is off to a hot start, there is good reason to think that they can maintain their performance to date for the rest of the season.  Sure, there will be a few hiccups or slumps along the way, but this offense is well balanced and has yet to even reach optimal performance considering for most of April the meat of the order with Choo and Santana have struggled.  While there will undoubtedly be a drop in performance from others in the lineup when Choo and Santana finally get things going, this offense appears to have the horsepower from almost every spot in the lineup to be very productive all season.

Compared to the offense, there is much less faith that the pitching can keep this up all season.  If the Indians falter, it will be because of the pitching.

Not necessarily the bullpen as they are a very solid, deep group.  They have not been as advertised by pitching exactly to the level expected so far.  Chris Perez is a very good closer, and Tony Sipp, Rafael Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith are solid to very good seventh and eighth inning options.  The other two spots in the bullpen will likely be in flux all year, and the Indians have lots of options at Triple-A Columbus to fill those spots, but overall the bullpen is strong and should continue to plug away as they have.

The one area of the team where the faith is lacking is the starting pitching, and it may ultimately prove to be the kryptonite that weakens the team over the course of the season.

Beyond Fausto Carmona there are a lot of question marks with the rotation.  Can Justin Masterson (5-0, 2.18 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (4-0, 2.45 ERA) continue to pitch this way all season?  Will injuries to the starting staff begin to catch up with them?  Will the youth and inexperience of most of the starting staff begin to show over the course of the long season?

Masterson is a very talented pitcher and he may be coming into his own as a solid middle of the rotation starter, maybe even more.  Tomlin may not be as talented as most of the pitchers in the big leagues, but he is a winner, workhorse, and knows how to pitch.  The other young pitchers like Carlos Carrasco, Jeanmar Gomez and Alex White have upside and potential as long term starting options.

There is no doubt that the Indians starting pitching is very talented.  The only question right now is if their inexperience and youth will catch up to them.

The important thing is the hot start the Indians have gotten off to, which for a young team can give them the feeling that they belong.  A young, talented team that believes in itself is dangerous as the ignorance of youth and the momentum winning provides may make them oblivious to it all and just continue to roll all season.

The White move

The Indians made a big decision this week calling up right-handed pitcher Alex White from Triple-A Columbus to start yesterday’s game.

After just four Triple-A starts (1-0, 1.90 ERA), the Indians deemed him ready for the big league call.  This is a much different and more aggressive direction the club has taken with White as in years past they may have been more inclined to take a more conservative approach and give a pitcher like White a good two months in Triple-A before even being considered for a callup.  Also, considering he was not up for roster protection until after NEXT season, they really pushed the envelope with regard to the 40-man roster.

Sometimes winning changes everything.

The early call is not a huge surprise as White is an advanced pitcher and was expected to move quickly through the Indians’ system and possibly debut later this season.  He came into the season ranked as the best pitcher in their minor league system, and has all the intangibles and abilities to be a good starting pitcher in the big leagues.  His fastball-splitter combination is one of the best you will see as he can get the ball up to 96-98 MPH when needed and his splitter is devastating to hitters.

From the day White was drafted until now it has all been about developing the command of his pitches and his slider.  He has shown noticeable improvement with his command during spring training and the start of his season in Columbus (23.2 IP, 5 BB, 28 K), and his slider is much improved.  The Indians appear satisfied that he can really help the starting rotation all while finishing off any development still needed at the big league level.

Regardless of how good or bad White’s first start ended up being for the Indians, this is a move more for the long term than short term.  When Carlos Carrasco or Mitch Talbot come off the disabled list, it looks very likely that Jeanmar Gomez will be first in line to go back to Columbus.  The Indians would not have rostered White for a short two or three game look, they rostered him because the organization believes he can be a vital part to the continued success of the starting rotation and team for the rest of the season.

Sizemore is back

What a shot in the arm outfielder Grady Sizemore has been to the team so far this season.  Coming off microfracture surgery to his knee, no one knew what to expect from him this year, but so far he has been as good as he has ever been, if not better.

In 11 games Sizemore is hitting a blistering .378 with four homers, nine RBI and a 1.251 OPS.  He has been an extra-base hit machine lining balls all over the ballpark, and has been his old self in the outfield making diving catches seemingly every night.

Sizemore’s unexpected performance has helped ignite the offense and provide that electric top of the order table-setter the team has missed the last two years while he has been hurt.  His play right now is as good or better as it ever has been, which once again makes him a vital piece to the organization for this year and next before he becomes a free agent after next season.  The organization holds a club option on him for next season which they could decline, but at this point it is a slam dunk they pick it up.

Sizemore is re-establishing himself as one of the best outfielders in the game which is good for the Indians in the short term.  In the long term it probably almost ensures he will end up somewhere else if he maintains health and continues to play and show he is the player he once was.  But for now enjoy the special player he is and the success he could help bring to the team this year and/or next.

Poor attendance

A lot has been made of the poor attendance at Progressive Field this season as they have drawn around 9,000 to 10,000 fans almost every game since the home opener (less than 25% capacity).  To go along with that there have also been many excuses explaining the lack of fan interest.

Whether it is the economy, weather, or whatever, the poor attendance should not be a big surprise to anyone.  Even when the Indians went 96-66 and went to the ALCS in 2007 they only drew 2.25 million fans, which was less than 65% of ballpark capacity.  They will never, ever come close to duplicating the sellouts and high attendance numbers from the 90s, and realistic expectations for attendance going forward should be that the team can maximize to about an average of 25,000 fans a night.

Most of all, this is a team that has an image problem after just trading away several star players the past few seasons.  It will take time to reestablish a connection with the fans, maybe many years.

The fans know it is only a matter of time before this new batch of players are traded away for prospects.  It is the endless cycle the Indians and clubs like they will always have to deal with.  But one thing that could really help is for the Indians to find a way to keep Grady Sizemore an Indian, something that will be very hard to do on the open market if he continues to play as he has of late.

It will be hard and the Indians will likely have to overpay and go outside their comfort zone with a contract, but that is the cost of doing business.  They need to give the fans some kind of faith that the Indians can keep anyone, someone.  Once that faith is restored, and if this team keeps winning, the attendance will truly surge.

More help on the way?

It may be hard to imagine, but this Indians team could even get better this season.

How so you say?

Well, think for a moment that the Indians have two spots in the lineup at third base and second base where they have veterans filling in there for the short term.  Jack Hannahan and Orlando Cabrera have played well, and may have found a home with the team for the remainder of the season if they keep winning, but the Indians top three position player prospects play third base and second base: Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, and Cord Phelps.

All three could see time in Cleveland this year if needed, and all three have the potential to be productive big league regulars and could provide a much needed late season jolt to the lineup.  Like with Alex White in the rotation, the Indians have a lot of firepower down on the farm both with pitchers and position players to sustain their success not just for this season but many more to come.

Parting shots

Right-handed pitcher Adam Miller has been activated and assigned to High-A Kinston. He will be making his first pitch for an affiliate in three years, and if he pitches well and his slider comes along he should move quickly through the system and perhaps even make it to Cleveland this year. … A scout told me in spring training that “the Indians are not just deep with pitching, they are pitching rich.”  We are seeing that so far with the improved performance of the big league staff, and also all the arms at every level of their minor league system.  The Indians no doubt have pitching coming out of their ears. … The Pirates returned Rule 5 pick infielder Josh Rodriguez to the Indians on Friday, and he has been assigned to Triple-A Columbus. … For those wondering, my recovery from kidney surgery last week has gone okay.  I am in the beginning stages of a long recovery process, but throughout this process I have truly been amazed at the human body and what it can do.  Thanks again for the all kind words and support.

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI. Also, his latest book the 2011 Cleveland Indians Top 100 Prospects & More is available for purchase for $20.95 to customers in the US (shipping and handling extra).

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