Mid-August Cleveland Indians Reflections

Justin Masterson Image taken from Google Images

 

So are the Indians a contender, or aren’t they? That seems to be the question that everyone who follows the team has been asking since the first day of the season. They have seen more ups and downs this season than someone driving through the Rocky Mountains and it doesn’t look like the journey is going to get smooth any time soon.

The Indians have started fast each of the past two seasons and have grown five game leads on the field in the Central Division during the first two months of the season. This season, players, coaches and front office members alike spent much of the first two months trying to convince fans that this team had staying power.

Alas, that sell looks to have fallen short for the second straight season as just when fans started acclimating to the new deals rolled out by the team to make games more affordable, the players started playing like the product needed to go along with the pricing. There was a point, not too long ago (just about two weeks ago in fact) when it looked like the Indians would be buyers at the trading deadline like they were last year when they acquired Ubaldo Jimenez.

Chris Perez

Chris Perez (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

That time has clearly passed, but instead of just not being buyers, the Indians turned themselves into perhaps the ultimate sellers. Many assumed that outfielder Shin Soo Choo would be sent out as trade bait. Mainly due to the fact that his agent is Scott Boras who always tests the free agent market with his clients and the Indians’ winning percentage on the free agent market is reminiscent of their teams of the mid-1980s. While Choo was assumed to be up for grabs, most did not realize that closer Chris Perez would be thrown out there as well.

Right before the deadline, rumors were running wild that the team’s number one starting pitcher, Justin Masterson (which the Tribe received when they unloaded All Star catcher Victor Martinez to the Boston Red Sox a few years ago) was also on the block. While none of these players ended up getting traded, it certainly shows something about where the front office’s confidence level is in the team if they went from potential buyers to selling of three main pieces of their team (all of whom are signed at least through next season).

While Masterson hasn’t exactly pitched like an ace this year, he did show signs of being able to carry a team last season, particularly when he was given some run support.  Run support has not been something that the Indians have been able to count on this season. At a recent game, I overheard a fan state, “I hate to say this, but I’m zoning out of this game now. I don’t think we have a chance to win.” This was in a game when the Indians were down 3-1 in the fourth inning.

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 3:   Jason Kipnis #22 of t...

BOSTON, MA – AUGUST 3: Jason Kipnis #22 of the Cleveland Indians rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Boston Red Sox in the fourth inning at Fenway Park on August 3, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

The Indians have had some bright spots throughout the year, but while they have had some good individual performances, they haven’t really been able to put it all together as a team. For instance, second baseman Jason Kipnis has impressed many during his first full season in the Majors. Unfortunately for Tribe fans looking for a glimmer of light and hoping that Kipnis could win the American League Rookie of the Year Award, they should be aware that Kipnis was with the team just slightly too long last season to qualify for the award this year.

That being said, Kipnis has still been one of the few consistent bright spots on the team. At one point, he was leading the squad in virtually every offensive category while also fielding very well at second base. He has also stepped in for Grady Sizemore, who hasn’t stepped foot on the field this year, to become the new heart-throb baseball player that young women in Northeast Ohio dream about.

While Kipnis has been the overwhelming fan favorite this year, he was not chosen for the All Star Game. However, two Indians were as the Tribe was represented by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and closer Chris Perez. Cabrera has put together another consistent season after winning his first Silver Slugger Award in 2011.

Perez on the other hand, while consistent, has made more noise off the field than on it. Multiple times, Perez was quoted in the press as being embarrassed by the amount of fans that were at the games. While each time he said it, he tried to talk backwards out of some of his comments, his words didn’t go over well with many fans. This has led to Perez going from someone who easily could have been the most popular player to one that fans are really confused to how to feel about.

The fact that the Tribe has a setup man in Vinny Pestano who has been at least as dominant as Perez this season hasn’t helped his case. Of course, no one knows how Pestano would handle being a true closer until he has the chance to do so full time,  but his dominance coupled with Perez’s comments have created much concern about those who follow the Tribe consistently.

One unexpected surprise for the Indians this year has been centerfielder Michael Brantley. Coming into the season, he was catching flack for pretty much everything from his hitting to his fielding to his lack of power. He has put almost all critics to rest this year (well, except for those who think a center fielder should hit for power), and has become one of the most consistent and reliable players in the Indians’ everyday line-up. Brantley has played much more consistently in center field than in years past. The conventional believe on Brantley was that he could play center if needed, but would be much better suited for a corner outfield spot. This has changed with his play this year. It also hasn’t hurt that he has hit around .300 almost the entire year.

At the beginning of the year, it looks like the Indians were trying to put together some sort of Red Sox reunion team. It all started when they traded for Derek Lowe from the Atlanta Braves in the off season. This is one of the few times the Indians have had a high paid player on their roster in recent years and the reason he was here is because the Braves agreed to take on most of his contract just to get him off their squad. The Indians continued the trend when they signed free agent Johnny Damon after the season started and sent him to extended spring training.

While Lowe performed well at the beginning of the season, actually dominating teams during his first ten starts, Damon never really put things together. At the end of July, the Indians decided the reunion was over and cut both former Boston players and attempted to put some of the blame of the downtrodden season onto them. Alas, the blame placement did not work, and the front office was forced to move onto the all too familiar public relations strategy of focusing on the young players. Lowe has since been picked up by the Yankees and pitched extremely well during his first outing in pinstripes. He earned his first save in over a decade while pitching for the Bronx Bombers. Perhaps he has to have the confidence to know that his team can overcome a two run deficit.

The problem with this is that most of the young talent the Indians have has already spent significant time in the Majors during either this season or last to supposedly give them a taste of the big time so they could come up and really rip it when it mattered in September. For instance, Lonnie Chisenhall was touted for years as the next big thing and he came up last year to nominal results (they brought him up this year and he was doing well, but then suffered a season ending injury).

Other than Kipnis, most of the team’s draft picks have been busts, or simply haven’t made it to the Majors. Of course, current general manager Chris Antonetti hasn’t been on the job too long, so much of the blame cannot be placed on him. On the other hand, many feel that Antonetti is simply the face that they now claim as GM and former GM and current team president Mark Shapiro is still the one actually pulling the strings.

The sad thing is that as long as the Dolans own the team, the fans are going to see more of the same. This means some combination of the following: selecting players in the draft that may not be the best available, but are sure to sign (see Tyler Naquin), free agent signings of journeymen (see Austin Kearns), trading established players for prospects that don’t turn out (see Andy Marte), giving extended contracts to young players who haven’t proven themselves yet (see Carlos Santana) or signing their own injured players (see Grady Sizemore).

There has been a lot of noise lately about the need for the team to fire manager Manny Acta and start over. Another common theme in the Dolan’s reign is that they bring in un-established, not well known, managers that no one else seems to want to manage. The logical choice to replace Acta would be current bench coach and former Tribe catcher Sandy Alomar. The only problem is that the majority of Alomar’s Major League coaching experience has come under Acta, so would there really be much of a change?

Not to say that bringing in a big name manager is always the answer, but if Acta is the problem, promoting someone who might be considered one of his protégés is not the solution. If the Dolans aren’t leaving, or willing to change their mentality, firing the manager as the scape goat makes no sense. The Indians have already done away with their pitching coach this season in hopes that some blame might be placed on him, but in reality no person with common sense is going to place blame on the pitching coach when the team they are following continues to play Shelley Duncan in left field instead of bringing up a young prospect to get some Major League experience.

Most teams who were in contention for the majority of the year until August gradually fall out of contention. This is not so with the Wahoos. The Indians wanted to convince everyone in the second to last month of the season that it was OK to plan those October vacations now, because fans won’t have to worry about reserving nights to spend at the ballpark for playoff baseball. There is no clearer way to illustrate that last sentence than by losing eleven games in a row. That losing streak was one short of the record for losses in a row for the club. This team is so bad; they can’t set records for futility.

Since the Indians traded away many of their top assets last year in their deal for Jimenez, they do not have as many unproven names at AAA who have fans anxious to see who might be the next coming of Manny Ramirez. One of the players currently playing at AAA is Matt LaPorta. LaPorta was the main piece of the CC Sabathia deal of years ago and has always had great success in the minors, but has never put it together at the Major League level. If the Indians continue to trade their top players, they have to start getting something in return. Even if it takes five years for them to make the Majors, once they get there, they need to be solid players.

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