Tribe Happenings: It's been a good transition year for Indians
Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…
A year of transition
The Indians improved by 24 games last season going 92-70 and made the playoffs. But even after that strong accomplishment, the team overachieved and still had several questions going into the season.
First off, they had to rebuild their rotation. They lost two big pieces in Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez to free agency. They believed they had the pieces from within to fill those losses, which is why they did not make a big move in free agency or trade to get a starting pitcher to offset the losses of Kazmir and Jimenez.
But they also knew there might be some growing pains, and as we have seen this year there certainly have been a lot of them. Danny Salazar had a rough start to his season and his problems were magnified by an arm injury that really affected his performance and overall quality of his stuff. Carlos Carrasco was yanked from the rotation after four subpar starts and then was banished to the bullpen where he never really got much use until the calendar flipped to summer. Trevor Bauer opened at Triple-A Columbus and came up a few weeks into the season and battled some inconsistency. Even the departed Justin Masterson was a wreck and back to his habit of following a good year with a bad year.
But over the course of the season the rotation has come together to where now it is the strength of this team going forward. Injuries are always the great equalizer and can change the outlook of anything in a moment’s notice, but if the foursome of Corey Kluber, Salazar, Carrasco and Bauer can remain healthy, the Indians have the makings of one of the best young rotations in baseball. Add in T.J. House as a backend starter who has impressed this season, and the Indians have five pitchers that right now they can pencil into the starting rotation for next year and have confidence they can compete.
As we know, a lot can change between now and the start of next offseason. Pitchers inevitably break down as they either get hurt, suffer through some arm fatigue or their mechanics get out of whack which results in inconsistent performance. Trades are always a possibility during the hot stove season. And sometimes pitchers don’t handle newfound success very well.
But what this year has allowed the Indians to do is find a five-man rotation that they can build around. The quintet of Kluber, Salazar, Carrasco, Bauer and House are all under control through at least the 2017 season. Their costs will go up as they go through arbitration the next few years, but they will cost much less and be much less of a long term financial commitment on year-to-year deals than any free agent that would cost $10-13 million a year and at least three to four years for just an average starter. That’s a big advantage they have working for them right now and should allow them to address other areas of the team.
Secondly, the Indians needed to establish the identity of the bullpen. After losing Joe Smith, Chris Perez and Matt Albers, the bullpen needed to be retooled a little bit. Now, Cody Allen looks like their closer and Bryan Shaw their setup man for the next several years, the trio of Mark Rzepczynski, Nick Hagadone and Kyle Crockett give them three formidable lefties in the pen and they have some nice middle relief options in Scott Atchison and C.C. Lee. All of those relievers are under control through at least 2016, most of them longer.
In addition to what has been established with the starting rotation and bullpen, the Indians have created some depth that they should have on hand in the minors next season as legit Major League options. Josh Tomlin and Nick Maronde should be two of their top starting depth options in Triple-A next season. Zach McAllister is another one though because he is out of options he will get the Carlos Carrasco treatment from this season as a guy who goes to the bullpen if he is not in the rotation. They also have several relievers like Austin Adams, Bryan Price, Shawn Armstrong and others who could break through if given an extended opportunity.
Finally, the lineup has started to take shape. There were a lot less question marks with the lineup going into the season as there were with the pitching staff, but some questions have been answered. The Indians spent all offseason trying to find a spot for Carlos Santana and toyed with the idea of him as a third baseman but he has now found a home at first base – a position the Indians appear committed to leaving him at going forward.
Lonnie Chisenhall always brought a lot of promise, but injuries and inconsistent play both defensively and offensively brought a lot of questions with him coming into the season. While the defense is still a huge question mark and he recently went through a big slump offensively, he has proven himself to be a solid contributor offensively and key piece to the Indians lineup going forward.
Outfielder Michael Brantley has blossomed into a star right before our eyes. While he has cooled a little in the power and run production department in the second half of the season, his well-rounded base of tools, leadership, makeup and abilities make him a top 10-20 position player in the American League and we may not yet have seen how good he can be. He is just coming onto the scene and the best may be yet to come.
There were some concerns as to whether catcher Yan Gomes could repeat what he did after last season’s out of nowhere performance, especially playing more games and with such higher expectations for him. He’s proven himself to be one of the new stars of the game and arguably could be the Yadier Molina of the American League when all is said and done.
So while the Indians may ultimately miss the playoffs, they still look like they are on their way to an 85+ win season, they found a potentially dominant rotation, found a good and deep bullpen, found two stars in Brantley and Gomes, and found homes in the lineup for Santana and Chisenhall. They have also created a lot of depth in the upper levels of the farm system with some shrewd moves and the system overall has improved significantly with the natural development of players and new pickups via the draft and free agency.
Yes, some new questions have popped up. They need to figure out what happened to Jason Kipnis, the health of Nick Swisher going forward is a concern, Michael Bourn’s speed has all but evaporated and they need to find a position on the field for Chisenhall. But they have answered a ton of question marks going into next season, and have set the table for a very important offseason where they have a few defined needs to address to push this team over the top.
Remaining 20 games
The Indians have 20 games left after Monday’s tilt with the Angels. This is as important a week as any for the Indians and their slim playoff chances. They have three games at home against the Twins to finish the homestand and then have an absolutely huge series in Detroit this weekend.
The Twins series is almost a must sweep for the Indians, and at worst they have to take two of three. If they can go into the Detroit series down by two games or less they have a chance to gain some ground and be satisfied with taking two of three. Any struggles against the Twins, and then the Tigers series becomes a must sweep; otherwise, their playoff hopes could be over by the end of the week.
With the roll the starting pitching is on, if the Indians can find any ability to score more than three runs on a consistent basis they have a chance to have an extraordinary finish. The starting pitching right now is on a similar roll to the one they got on last year over the final six weeks of the season. It was what propelled them to such a strong finish and into the playoffs, and will be the key again this year.
With 10 of their 20 remaining games against the lowly Twins and Astros (the same teams they got hot against to end last season), seven games remaining with the Royals and Tigers (one of which is the suspended extra innings game they are up 4-2 and need three outs to seal), and then the final three games of the season against a Rays team playing out the string, they are very much still in the playoff hunt. But they have very little margin for error.
The Indians in a lot of ways still do control their own destiny, but in order to continue to control it they are going to have to have a strong finish to this homestand. Then they will need to follow that up with a strong 10-game road trip in which they go at least 7-3 and win their series against the Tigers at Comerica Park. If they do that, they could be 83-72 or 84-71 at that point and it could set up for a wild final seven games, all of which are at home. Four of them are against the division leading Royals with one of those four the aforementioned game that they need three outs to seal.
You do wonder if the starters can keep this up. They are young and an inexperienced group, but sometimes when the adrenaline is flowing and a staff is on a role like this at the end of the year it is when magic happens. The big question is whether the Indians can muster enough offense to consistently win these 2-1 and 3-2 games they have been in. Right about now would be a good time for guys like Jason Kipnis and Michael Bourn to get hot. Having them playing up to the level they are capable of would do wonders at setting the table and keeping this offense going – and ultimately their push toward the playoffs.
Fixing the lineup
I know I have sniped a little at Terry Francona in the past. I really like him as a manager, but most of my grumbles with him pertain to the lineup card he puts together each day. One of those things being how for whatever reason he continues to hit Jason Kipnis fifth in the order.
First off, Kipnis is not a middle of the lineup hitter. When he’s good, he is more of a tablesetter with some pop and a guy who should hit first or second in the lineup. He’s not a run producing bat at all, which is often the spot designated for your third through fifth or sixth hitters.
Kipnis is having a miserable season. He is hitting .245 with 6 HR, 41 RBI and .652 OPS in 115 games, and has a .315 on-base percentage and 22 stolen bases. He also has a .093 isolated power percentage, which is poor and shows how his power has evaporated this season (he had a .168 ISO last season). Some may say he playing hurt and is playing through the oblique injury, but if that is the case and Francona knows that, why is he hitting a guy he knows is not 100% and having a down year in the five-hole?
At this point Kipnis should either be hitting leadoff or ninth, and the fact he is hitting fifth is Francona overdoing it with the loyalty to his players once again. It often works for him, so who am I to criticize, but I think this is a clear case of stubbornness and a manager just defying all logic either subjectively or objectively in continuing to hit a struggling player in the top half of the lineup.
Why anyone gives Carlos Santana anything to hit is beyond me. Instead, Francona should have Yan Gomes hitting behind Santana in the five-hole with Lonnie Chisenhall hitting sixth, or you could just as easily put Chisenhall fifth and Gomes sixth. Either way, both should be hitting somewhere in the fifth and sixth spot in the order.
Sure, Kipnis has had the better and more established career to date, but the bottom line is Kipnis is in the midst of an awful season while Chisenhall is in the midst of a resurgence this season. While he has cooled considerably after his hot start, Chisenhall has picked it up again of late is and is just a more natural fit in the upper part of the lineup right now than Kipnis. He has more power and has a better swing.
Michael Bourn is another guy we can get on Francona about who should not be hitting leadoff, but unfortunately Francona does not have another option to hit leadoff. The only other guy is Kipnis and he is struggling, so the Indians have to leave Bourn in the leadoff spot and then (hopefully) reassess that spot in the order in the offseason.
But while they are stuck with Bourn leading off because of a lack of alternatives, the Indians do have alternatives that are better than Kipnis to hit in the five-hole. Also, bottom line, there is no reason whatsoever that Kipnis should continue to hit higher in the order than Chisenhall and Gomes.
It is the construction of the lineup which to me is a big reason for the inconsistent performance it provides. The goal right now is to win, not to play to a player’s pride or ego. The Indians have what they have right now as far as options go offensively, so right now Francona has to put not only the best lineup he possibly can out there every day, but put it together wisely as well.
No Lindor, no problem
The general feeling all season was that shortstop Francisco Lindor would be called up to Cleveland once rosters expanded in September.
But as is often the case in baseball, things can change quickly. With Jose Ramirez playing well both offensively and defensively as the regular shortstop in Cleveland and with the team in contending mode rather than look-and-see mode as a non-contender, it means several true rookies were not called up this month.
Ramirez has surprised with how well he has played shortstop. His bat has been as expected and he is a future tablesetter in this lineup as a leadoff hitter or two-hole hitter, but the question has always been where he fits on the diamond with the Indians over the long haul. With Lindor expected to be the eventual everyday shortstop, Ramirez probably still fits in best as a utility player because of Jason Kipnis being locked in at second base, but Ramirez is making things difficult for the Indians where they may have to make some tough decisions this offseason on the makeup of the infield going forward.
Ramirez is a solid defender at shortstop. He’s not a Gold Glove type of guy like Lindor, but he more than holds his own with his athleticism, quickness and good range. His best position is second base where he can become a Gold Glover there, maybe along the lines of a Luis Castillo type of player.
With Ramirez shining with the Indians down the stretch, the Indians made the right call in not rostering Lindor. Had he come up he would not have played much – if at all – and he would have used up a valuable spot on the 40-man roster that could go to a player who is up for roster protection this offseason. Lindor is not up for roster protection, so he does not need to be added to the 40-man roster until when the Indians want to bring him up to Cleveland next year.
In the day and age where service time, arbitration clocks and options are so crucial for smaller market teams in managing their young players, this will help the Indians control all three things a little bit more with Lindor. And at the same time they get to continue to evaluate Ramirez on a full-time basis and use these final 20 games to assess his ability at shortstop and where he fits in with the team going forward.
Since the All Star break the Indians are 3rd in the American League in ERA (2.82), 2nd in K/BB ratio (3.70), 2nd in K/9 ratio (8.8), 4th in WHIP (1.15) and 5th in batting average (.235). On the flip side, they are tied for 2nd for most blown saves (8) and offensively they are 11th in runs scored (3.8 R/G). … Infielder Mike Aviles is still out with a concussion with no ETA for a return. He suffered the concussion on a play in right field on Monday, and once he is cleared to play he will resume normal baseball activities. … The Indians picked up outfielder J.B Shuck off waivers from the Angels on Friday. He is more of a depth outfield pickup for now as a player who can play all three outfield positions, has some speed and should provide depth in the outfield next season (he has an option remaining) should they keep him on the 40-man roster in the offseason.
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.
I apologize for the harsh tones in my previous comment, and thank you for your measured and clarified response.
Jeff I don't disagree that trading Murphy might maximize his returns for the team since they suddenly have OF depth in the high minors and they have possibly candidates to move to the OF, I think that entering this season, the signing was a smart move. If they can find a partner in another team, maybe the M's they might be able to get someone of value and save the money, I think they should, although there is still a hole in the lineup unless we count on the rookies to take a huge step forward and/or Swisher to rebound.
I would not mind seeing Lonnie tried in RF as some have suggested. Urshela made great strides in the minors this year and on defense alone would be an addition. Play Walters at 3B against some RH's to work him in, Holt against some LHP's in RF with Lonnie. The one factor we have in 2015 we have not had in a while is some major league ready guys in AAA to put together a roster with. Ramsey and Naquin along with Moncrief give us 3 LH hitting OF's there next season, one should pan out at least you would hope. Some minor league talent actually reaching the upper levels is coming at a good time.
Personally, in spite of the very low BA this year, I'd like to see Walters get regular AB's. The guy has legit 25-30 HR power and flexibility in the field. If he can ever hit just .250 he gives us some sorely lacking thump. He just needs to imporove his plate discipline some and this should happen. Urshela made strides there this year. Neither will never be high OBP guys, but if they can just progress beyond hacking, they can be assets on a major league team. Let's face it, Urshela's defense is sorely needed on our IF. I'm a little surprised he has not been added to the 40 man now that Columbus is done.
Personally, I get rid of Aviles, Murphy and Raburn. We should be able to deal Aviles and Murphy, Raburn is simply a dump. But Tito loves vets, so we'll see. I also think he sees we have some young options for the first time since he's been here. We won't be overly active this off season, but we have some very interesting decisions to make. A dependable starter is the biggest affordable need, if we can clear a little payroll
Oh and I forgot to mention, Stubbs has a 121:23 K:BB ratio in...389 PA!
Robinson, I think if the Indians were to go after Stanton, that one of Salazar or Bauer would need to be included with Lindor or Gonzalez/Ramirez. IF they went that route, then I could definitely see them signing a mid-to-backend innings eating guy. But it's going to be one with risk on a 1-2 year deal and not a for sure guy who costs 3-4 years and $10M+ a year.
The one thing I want to ask you is that despite you mentioning how the contractually controlled young rotation may assist in being able to address other needs financially, you would have to think that the contracts to Swisher & Bourn (back ended also) will still prove to much of a road block to address a need through free agency?
I'd love an innings eating no.2/3/4 guy.
Hard to know what to do with Kip.....two average years bracketing an AllStar year. Still, I would trade him right now. HoRam can fill in with a plus D at 2B and probably reach Kip's total base production if not HR production.
Chis? Try him in the OF but he can't play third. He's awful defensively.....even worse than Kip at 2B.
Summary: Raburn, Aviles, Murhpy, Bourn, Kip.........sayonara and thanks for the memories. And that means you too, Big G.
Do we deal or decline the option on Aviles? Even if we think Lindor needs a little more time in AAA we have Ramirez and Walters to play SS. Some money can be saved and used elsewhere there
Same with David Murphy, do we see if someone is willing to take him? A guy like Ramsey could be ready, Walters and Holt could man RF, and they are talking as if Swish could get another look out there as well from time to time if his knees heal. Again, money to be saved and applied elsewhere
Do we cut bait with Raburn and eat the 2.5 million? Holt appears to be a better option as a RH reserve OF. He is excellent defensively, can run and should be able to hit lefties. Walters again also figures in here.
Are we convinced House is a legit 5th starter? He's been outstanding, no doubt, but does the league catch up? A solid veteran starting pitcher in the 10-12 million range is someplace I can see us spending
Does Shaw become to expensive? Set up guys are getting 3-4 million in arbitration, and he's been among the best the last 2 years. He's eligible this year and we have arms for the pen. Bullpen guys are a fickle lot and we've used him to the extreme his two years here
The line-up, barring a trade, is pretty well set for next season, as is the first four in the rotation. Where can we improve? 5th starter is the obvious place. We could always use a big bat, but where would one fit other than RF? A bullpen arm or two is always a possibility.
If the rotation pans out we're in great shape with Kluber, Bauer, Carlos and Salazar. The offense needs Kipnis and Swisher to rebound, Lonnie to be legit, and Bourn to stay healthy. Just don't see us paying for a Cruz or someone. AAA should be loaded with guys who should be able to come up and help in Lindor, Ramsey, Naquin, Aguilar, Urshela and even Moncrief and Wendle, and that's not counting guys like Holt, and Walters being back there if we hold on to the vets. Except for upper level starting pitching we're in the best shape we have been in for many years as an organization. We have some interesting decisions to make, and all should be with the intent to win it all next season. A FA starting pitcher to me should be the biggest target. The rest we should be able to fill in house. A big bat is a pipe dream, or so I believe
Love jram. When lindor arrives jram goes to 2d. Kipnis can go back to OF or wherever. Jram looks really smooth in the field and love his speed and athleticism. And his bat is getting better.
Love the young rotation. Let's pray it pans out.
We need a leadoff hitter next year and a cleanup hitter. Bourn should be at the bottom somewhere. And satana cannot hit 230 and hit 4.
Want to see more of Holt and Walters. Swish is a dh. Raburn has to be dumped. Not sure if aviles back if we go younger.
Front office needs to get creative to retool the lineup. Runs are just to hard to come by.
Jose Ramirez has glove, range, arm and wields an effective bat.. SS may be his worst spot on the diamond. Second base, like Kipnis, will also be his best spot.. Tooo many good options for middle infield spots has never and will never be a problem.. Francisco Lindor.. may become the every day SS in 2015.. maybe.. nothing is given in the great game..it's earned..
I strongly disagree with your assessment of or discussion of the depth in starting pitching.. Tomlin is like Adam Plutko.. he's going to have good nights against teams that are aggressive & his command is spot on..and get killed against patient professional hitters.. He has no room for error with his stuff. McAllister is similar w/r to command of his off speed pitch (yeah..everyone wants to know what off speed?).. Z-mac is too easily figured out.. HIs margin of error is no better than the Tomlins.. He just throws a 95 MPH fastball that can get some hitters when he's on.. Either guy are NOT the kind of arms being kept/used for future playoff runs.. both are in peril of their Indians' careers being over before they truly begin to blossom. McAllister has a wee bit of an edge due to his velo as he may be useful out of the pen.. The little cowboy is trade bait..
Jose Ramirez can and should be hitting leadoff if Bourny isn't.. Bourn and Swisher and Raburn, constitute a large portion of the Indians salary & have again proven the Indians foray into the FA market is mostly a waste of resources.. One of Bourn or Swisher should be packaged to another team looking to rid themselves of an over paid FA signee.. trade their problem for ours..
20 Games.. the WC contenders play each other enough.. the WC contenders play the division leaders enough.. There will be movement.. The Indians need that 10 game wild ride to really put themselves into a position to play in October.. We shall see...