Can the Indians Live Up to Their Early Season Promise?

Are the Cleveland Indians a playoff contender? (Credit)

Any veteran baseball fan has heard the idiom “pitching wins championships” countless times. Most sports chestnuts like these hold dubious merit, but over the course of baseball history, we fans who deny the lure of the NFL season and stay focused on the baseball playoffs have witnessed that great pitching is indeed an essential ingredient.

But what if there was a team to disprove this theory? A team like this would need to be led by a manager who has experience busting myths and would have to have a lineup that knows how to cross the plate. Hmm, let’s think. Terry Francona comes to mind as a manager that disproved a myth -- sort of, by ending the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino in 2004 with the Red Sox. And his Cleveland Indians lineup this year isn’t half bad. As I look over their lineup, I’m not too impressed by the names. Let’s take a look at their team offensive numbers – JACKPOT.

I hope you like numbers because I have a healthy plate of them that I would like to share. The Tribe ranks in the top-10 in runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, runs batted in, walks, stolen bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage plus slugging. Well, maybe the top-10 is too inclusive. Cleveland also ranks in the top-5 in runs, doubles, home runs, runs batted in, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage plus slugging.

Wait, what? Since when were the Indians relevant? Their production this season is comparable to fellow Clevelander Ted Mosby in “How I Met Your Mother.” Seriously, has anyone else been keeping track of how many girls he has slept with in that show? 100? 150? Anyways, for the first time in three years, Cleveland matters for something other than a television show.

We know that those numbers don’t lie, but the appearance of their lineup card sure does. Sure, they have some good players, but they lack even one superstar slugger. Most comparable teams statistically own one or even two. This is how the lineup looked on May 24 against the Red Sox:

CF Michael Bourn
2B Jason Kipnis
SS Asdrubal Cabrera
1B Nick Swisher
C Carlos Santana
DH Jason Giambi
3B Mark Reynolds
LF Michael Brantley
RF Drew Stubbs

Nothing special, right? Well, they have loads of power infused throughout the lineup. Anyone in this lineup is capable to go deep, and specifically, there is an expectation that players from the two- through six-hole will hit the long ball when their number is called. But pairing these power hitters with high average hitters like Michael Bourn and Michael Brantley also maximizes the run total. And in the end, is that not the most important offensive stat?  

Another aspect of this offense that makes them so good is their depth. The Tribe can throw in guys like Yan Gomes, Mike Aviles, and Ryan Raburn and the lineup will not skip a beat. That is the difference between a pedestrian lineup and an elite one.

But how does a pedestrian offense like the 2012 Cleveland Indians become elite like the 2013 Cleveland Indians offense? Well, to put it simply, they need to have one hell of an offseason. The Tribe acquired Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, Drew Stubbs, Michael Bourn, Jason Giambi, Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn, and Yan Gomes all in the offseason. That’s almost their entire 2013 lineup! And all of these guys have played a major part in Cleveland’s much-needed revival.

But no player has had as large a hand in the Cleveland offensive renaissance as Mark Reynolds. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article raving about Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis and Davis and his former teammate Reynolds are very similar hitters. Although Davis is having a slightly better season, Reynolds is still no slouch. He is tied for sixth place in the MLB for home runs and ranks fifth in runs batted in. He has definitely been a catalyst for the Cleveland offense and has given them some attitude at the same time.

But what surprised me is that Reynolds has been bashing large quantities of home runs for years. Since 2008, he has hit over 20 home runs every season and he had a three-year stretch of 44, 32, and 37 home runs from 2009 to 2011. The bottom line is that he can hit the long ball and chicks are not the only ones who dig that.

I know what you are thinking at this point. We know that the Indians can hit, but do they have the pitching talent necessary to go deep into the fall? My answer: I’m really not sure yet.

The team has a rotation full of inconsistent pitchers. Justin Masterson has looked like a lawn mower this season the way he has mowed lineups down and Zach McAllister has been a pleasant surprise, but how long can the two of them keep up the act? Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, and Corey Kluber have already proved to be extremely inconsistent, which I guess is more positive than downright awful, but with a team that has postseason aspirations, is it really that much better?

The Tribe is in second place and has been hitting their way into competition for the AL Central. But how long will that be able to last? Even if they do clinch a playoff spot, it will get more difficult to maintain the offensive production as the temperature drops with the leaves. And that is why good pitching is so important in the postseason.

You can make your own decision whether Cleveland’s rotation will be good enough in the fall, but I am going to need to give it some time before I make my own assessment. With pitchers like Masterson, Jimenez, and Kazmir, the pendulum can really swing either way. And that is what makes this team so intriguing.

The only thing we know for sure about the Tribe is that their offense can rake and come autumn, that is one of the hardest things to do. Only time will tell if Francona and this lineup will be able to overcome the rotation and dispel another possible myth.

By: Matt Levine
Twitter: @Matt_TFJ

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