Tribe still a starting pitcher away from truly competing
It's the beginning of June and the Cleveland Indians are only two games behind the first place Detroit Tigers in the American League Central.
After a torrid month of winning saw them rise in the standings as one of the hottest teams in baseball, the end of May was not kind, as a really tough stretch of quality opponents has had a settling affect in the momentum of the team and the excitement level of their always-fickle fan base.
So, is the Tribe for real? Or is this yet another June swoon that will lead to another collapse that results in our Tribe at the bottom of the heap once again?
Recently I read an article on mlbtraderumors.com about contending teams that needed an offensive upgrade, and at what positions these upgrades were necessary. At first I thought the Indians weren't mentioned because they weren't considered a true contender. Then as I noticed the White Sox, Twins and Royals were included in the piece and it dawned on me...the Tribe isn't mentioned because, after the off-season upgrades GM Chris Antonetti made, they have none!
As you look throughout the position-by-position listing, you see all the familiar faces: Tigers, Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Angels and A's, all of whom have glaring needs at one position or another. But when you look at the Indians' position guys, it's a pretty rock-solid group, albeit a free-swinging rock-solid group.
It should be mentioned, however, that when Mark Reynolds was signed, it was to play first base and DH, and that's when the Tribe offense, and Reynolds himself, was rolling. Since Lonnie Chisenhall has been sent down and Reynolds pressed into service back at the hot corner his defensive deficiencies have again been revealed, and it ain't pretty. Chiz has been hitting the ball pretty well down in Columbus, so the sooner the better on that one.
But back to the real problem, which was identified early on as the anchor of the team. Unfortunately, not an anchor of stability, but the kind that drags one under.
Ah, yes, wonderful pitching. The starting rotation was supposed to be the undoing of this group, and early on it looked as though prognosticators would be correct. But as the season wore on something strange happened, the Tribe began to get solid start after start from almost everyone and stellar starts from Justin Masterson.
Zach McAllister has established himself as a viable starter, who at the very least will give you six innings while surrendering three or four runs every time out, and Scott Kazmir has revived his velocity and looks like a bonafide MLB starter again at the age of only 29. Heck, they've even managed to get some decent starts out of Corey Kluber! But the real "I didn't see that one coming" award has to go to Ubaldo Jimenez, who I had written off and was ready to jettison for nothing in return.
Ubaldo has been nothing short of ace-like over his last five starts, but there's part of me that just can't see that continuing on a regular basis. However, the numbers show that since April 29 Jimenez has thrown games with earned run totals of 0, 2, 1, 2, 2 and 0 with one bump in the road being a 6-run hammer job by his nemesis the Detroit Tigers. That's a month and a half of very good pitching.
The two biggest questions are, who would you want to replace, and who is out there to bring in?
Immediately, you want to get Kluber out of the rotation. He did a yeoman's job in a time of need when the $7 million mistake (Bret Myers) went on the DL, but both he and Myers need to not be in this rotation. Am I sold on Kazmir? No, but right now Masterson, Ubaldo, McAllister and Kazmir are your four best guys. You could bring up Carlos Carrasco or Trevor Bauer but I'd rather see those guys step in for whoever falters.
So who's out there who can make a difference?
The most obvious, yet unlikely, answer to that question is Cliff Lee. Lee is once again at the forefront of many trade rumors and would serve any team perfectly, if not for his lunar-level salary. Lee's signed for $25 million annually for this year, 2014 and 2015 with either the same for 2016 or a $12.5 buyout. That's pretty steep for a 34-year old lefty, and very steep for a team like the Indians.
The Tribe would need significant payroll relief in any deal, but if they got it the Phillies would want the best the Indians have to offer for Lee. Young pitcher Danny Salazar would likely be gone, as would last year's first rounderTyler Naquin and possibly even someone like the aforementioned Chisenhall. I doubt the Tribe would moveFrancisco Lindor in any move. But the fact is, the Phillies are old, are under .500 and have a real need to inject some youth into their immediate future.
A more realistic option may be someone like Miami's Ricky Nolasco, who would be a better fit for Cleveland by way of both player and monetary compensation. Frankly, the Marlins are horrible, and Nolasco might welcome a move to a team in contention.
Nolasco's numbers certainly don't wow you—his career ERA is over 4 in the National League—and one has to wonder about bringing a National League pitcher into the American League (see Jimenez, Ubaldo). But Nolasco would certainly be a credible addition to the Indians' rotation if for no other reason than he will throw you some good games and solidify the staff.
While a Nolasco-type arm would make the Indians more competitive, it is Lee who would make them able to compete with the Tigers in the AL Central. Detroit can run out the formidable quartet of Justin Verlander, Max Sherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister in a four game series. If the Indians could counter with Lee, Masterson, Ubaldo and McAllister they'd at least have a fighting chance.
Odds are the Indians will bring back Myers and see how things play out. They'll tinker with the rotation by promoting Carrasco and Bauer, and if the need and opportunity presents itself, may move to acquire Nolasco or a similar pitcher who can help them beyond this season. But the first item on the agenda needs to be positioning the team to even be in the position to make a push at the deadline, so the next 30 days are critical.
We'll see what kind of fireworks the Tribe can produce come the Fourth of July.
Lee is a big gamble in my opinion. Would love to see him in an Indians uniform, but he is 34 and 25 mil per is a ton of cash. I'm not really sure who is available and worth giving any talent to aquire. I was ready to trade Cabrera, Perez, and a bullpen arm to get some good, young pitching. Oh how things change.
Honestly, now it's more likely that the Indians will be sellers, trading guys like Kazmir and Reynolds to contenders.
I'd rather test out the rest of this season with a scotch-tape rotation (i.e. bring up Bauer and Salazar when needed). Focus on SP in free agency. Doesn't cost as much.