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LOTL Sports Take: Indian’s Mid-Season Report

The 2019 Cleveland Indians season has reached its midpoint, and with the city just having hosted a very successful and exciting All Star Game, now is a great time to look at where the team stands.  

The season started rather grimly, with the Indians either trading or letting a number of key players leave in the offseason.  Bullpen pitchers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen departed, while crucial offensive players like Michael Brantley were also not retained.  In an offseason where some teams were throwing around hundreds of millions for talent like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the Indians approach was to stay within their financial means and hope to ride their talented pitching staff to another division title and postseason run.  

Additionally, the actual season also started poorly.  Ace Corey Kluber started slowly and then broke his arm by a line drive in a game against the Miami Marlins.  Mike Clevinger started the year extremely well, but then suffered a back injury that sidelined him for 2 months.  And in perhaps the worst surprise of all, Carlos Carrasco was diagnosed with leukemia, a condition that still has him out indefinitely. At this point, baseball is surely the least of his worries.  Aside from injuries, the Indians also had one of the worst offenses in baseball for the first 2 months of the season. Chief among the reasons for the offensive woes was the continued struggles of Jose Ramirez, who did not get his batting average over the Mendoza Line until June.  Given all this, the Indians struggled, and found themselves below .500 at 29-30.  

The Indians’ start was made to look even worse due to the unexpectedly strong start of the Minnesota Twins.  Led by an offense that led the American League in both doubles and home runs in the first two months of the season, Minnesota was 40-18 on June 3rd and were 11 ½ games ahead of the Indians.  That is the sort of lead that is rarely overcome in baseball.   Several key players, like shortstop Francisco Lindor, closer Brad Hand, and starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, became the subject of trade speculation.  National and local sports writers were prepared to write the Indians obituary, especially given an upcoming schedule that included series against the Twins as well as the Yankees.

However, rumors of the Indians’ demise turned out to be greatly exaggerated.  The Indians’ offense piled up 37 runs over those 6 games against the AL’s two best teams, going 4-2.  That stretch turned out to be a major turning point in the season. Over the next two weeks, the Indians played a pair of series against their proverbial punching bag, the Detroit Tigers.  The Tribe swept the Tigers in both series, outscoring the Motor City Kitties 42-15 over those 6 games. Next, the Indians turned their attention toward another AL Central cellar dweller, the Kansas City Royals.  In two series in late June and early July, the Indians went 5-1 against the Royals and continued their upward trajectory. In between the beatdowns of Detroit and Kansas City the Indians treaded water against Cincinnati, Texas, and Baltimore, resulting in a 21-8 overall record since their low on June 3.  

Fast-forward to today, July 9th: the All-Star Game is now over, and the Indians are 50-38.  The 12 games over .500 represents their high water mark of the season to this point. Minnesota’s early pace has cooled, with the Twins basically playing .500 baseball since June 3rd. The Indians find themselves just 5 ½ games behind.  Furthermore, the Indians would be in the postseason if it started today. They would be traveling to Tampa for a wild-card game against the Rays. A win there and they would head to New York for a division series matchup against the Yankees.  If this were the Indians’ road, it would not be an easy one, but the MLB postseason rarely is. The important thing is that this has now become the topic of discussion, rather than which players might be dealt at the trade deadline. 

For first baseman Carlos Santana, closer Brad Hand, and shortstop Francisco Lindor, the 2019 season has been great.  Santana is batting .297 with 19 home runs and 52 RBI this season. Lindor is batting .296 with 14 HR and 32 RBI, these numbers coming after missing much of April due to injury.  And Hand is 4-3 with 23 saves and a 2.17 ERA. These performances led to all three being selected to the American League All-Star team in the initial round of selections. Later, pitcher Shane Beiber was added to the all-star team, himself having a phenomenal year as well at 8-3 with a 3.45 ERA, capping the first half of his season off by winning the 2019 All-Star MVP in front of the home crowd.

Adding to the upward trajectory surrounding the team right now is the fact that the MLB All-Star Game is being held at Progressive Field.  This gives players, coaches, and other team personnel the chance to have a front row seat for the midsummer classic right in the CLE. Additionally, the other various events, such as the Celebrity Softball game, the Home Run Derby, the free concerts by Twenty One Pilots and The Killers, and Play Ball Park (the MLB’s fan fest at Huntington Convention Center) have built up a very festive atmosphere ahead of Tuesday night’s matchup.  The last time the All-Star game was held in Cleveland was 1997, a year that saw the Indians start sluggishly only to win the division and advance to the World Series.

Could the Indians be headed for a similar trajectory in 2019?  Maybe. Under Terry Francona, the Indians have been over .500 at the All-Star break four times, and in all four instances the team reached the postseason.  With Clevinger back and with Kluber likely to return by the end of July, the pitching rotation will be stronger than it has been all year. If Carrasco can successfully defeat his leukemia, and a recent report from ESPN dated July 7 seems to suggest he is doing exactly that, there is a chance he could be in the mix as well come September and October.  In terms of the schedule, the Indians get the advantage of having 10 more games against woeful Royals and Tigers, whom they feasted on during their current winning run. If there’s a stretch where the Indians could have difficulty, it could be in early August. Starting on July 30th, the Indians will play 3 against Houston, 3 against Anaheim, 3 against Texas, 4 against Minnesota, 3 against Boston, and 4 against New York.  Aside from Anaheim, all of those teams are at least 6 games over .500, with Minnesota, Houston, and New York being 3 of the top 4 teams in baseball. If the Tribe avoids a string of losses in this stretch, they will be in great shape as the schedule after August 20 features only 2 teams currently in the postseason, Minnesota and Tampa Bay. 

If the missing pitchers all come back stronger than they were in April, the Indians will surely make the postseason.  But the Indians’ offense will determine how far they can go come October. Last season the bats were largely non-existent in a three-game sweep defeat at the hands of the Houston Astros.  In order to beat teams like Houston and New York in the postseason, the offense doesn’t have to be great, but they have to be at least serviceable. Guys like Lindor, Ramirez, and Santana will have to perform like the offensive leaders they have been for much of their careers.  Guys like Bauers, Naquin, and Mercado can’t simply disappear, but will be called upon to deliver in the key situations. Whether or not these guys and others can rise to the occasion will determine whether the Indians’ title challenge is legitimate or just a farce. One thing is for sure though: this story was looking like a tragedy a little over a month ago.  Now it looks like that of reclamation, possibly with a run to glory in the final stanza. We here at LOTL will be watching it play out all the way to October. 

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