Irregular MLB Landscape Has Cleveland In a Position to Put Best Foot Forward

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Welcome to the 2015 MLB season! If you are not familiar with it, let me go ahead and introduce you to some of its characteristics and more intriguing plot points.

The Toronto Blue Jays started 11-12 in the month of April and then flipped the script in May and have been on an absolute tear since June has hit. They've won 12 straight from June 2nd to June 14th and it still has them just a game back of the East lead. They're also on pace to score 900 runs, something that hasn't really been done since pitching has taken center stage the past few seasons. This is a Blue Jays team that hung 19 earned runs in four games on the Indians prolific starting rotation. The Indians rotation, for what it's worth, gives up 2.9 runs a game, and in that series it was 4.75.

The Blue Jays trail the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays by one game. Offensively, the Yankees are led by a recharged Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, who have combined for 29 home runs and Teixeira is the AL's RBI leader. Tampa Bay's middle of the order has seen names like Kevin Kiermaier, Steven Souza, Logan Forsythe, and Joey Butler. What? Their entire rotation is pretty much on the disabled list, except for former Indian farmhand Chris Archer, who leads all starters in the American League in strikeouts. Until Corey Kluber starts again.

The Indians have a slightly better record than the AL East basement dwellers, the Boston Red Sox, who added Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, and Rusney Castillo in the offseason. The Indians added Brandon Moss and plucked Ryan Webb from the scrap heap.

Speaking of scrap heap, the 2015 MLB season is the same production that is giving you the Houston Astros, American League West leaders and BEST RECORD IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE. They're followed closely by the Texas Rangers, featuring the starting rotation of the Round Rock Express. If you thought the Rays were hurting, wait til you bring up Texas' DL on your smart phone. I'll wait while you do that. Pretty bleak, ain't it? Don't worry, they're winning anyway.
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Anyway, Houston is winning games with young kids you've never heard of and meaningful role players they added in the offseason. Trevor Crowe isn't starting in center, but Luis Valbuena is manning the hot corner and hitting 14 home runs, say whaaaaaat. Dallas Keuchal has a better WAR than all pitchers in the game not named Sonny Gray. George Springer is a man and everyone is twice as big as Jose Altuve, but he has twice as many hits as everyone.

Also in the west, the Angels jettisoned Josh Hamilton, to the only team that would want him, the place he said wasn't a "true baseball town," Texas. He returned and hit a home run, then went on the disabled list and the Angels are pretty much paying his entire $25 million salary this season. The Angels are paying $4.7 million to Matt Joyce to replace him. He's hitting .183 in 56 games. Nick Swisher hit .198 in 30 games. He makes $15 million. Combined that's close to $45 million dollars, which is around Texas' Prince Fielder cupcake budget since he's hitting so well. Money well spent all around.

Seattle's bullpen accounts for a MLB-high 15 losses. They've collectively blown 8-saves after having blown just 12 last year. Cleveland's vomit-inducing pen has blown five. Seattle's also the worst offensive team in the game because they apparently play in a corn field with no outfield fences and the opposing team is fielding 12 defenders. Felix Hernandez has given up 7+ earned runs twice in the span of three games. Corey Kluber gave up 5+ earned runs twice in the span of three games. Obviously, Cy Young award winning pitchers aren't what they used to be.

And then we have the AL Central. Kansas City is trying desperately to prove their postseason run was not a fluke, leading the AL Central with the mantra of "play good defense and carry a strong bullpen." It's working, as opposed to Detroit's mantra of "keep getting older, keep scoring runs, but screw everything else. And oh yeah, we have Miguel Cabrera."

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For a hot second, the Minnesota Twins led the AL Central and are right in the thick of the race. Their strategy has involved dark magic of some variety. Clearly not a practice the White Sox believe in, having aimed for improvement by spending money in the offseason. Fools.

All this action and I haven't even touched up on the National League, with the AL East leading Mets, #OddYearGiants, the San Diego-Los Angeles Padres of Tampa Bay by way of Atlanta, and the best team in baseball despite losing their best pitcher for the year and now their best hitter, the St. Louis Cardinals. Oh and Bryce Harper (he melts my heart, he's so dreamy) is doing things. Big things, kid.

Alright dude, what's my point? You're probably like, "You always have a point, you never say a bunch of stuff without having a point." You would be correct, but if you know that I have a point, you know I have to run around in a circle before I get to it.

Circle complete! This season is crazy!

That's it? This season is crazy? You could have deducted that based off the fact that the Twins have a winning record and its the middle of June and the Houston Astros may legit be the best team in the West.

Yeah yeah, we all got that. But look. This season is so crazy that you'd be foolish to think it is over for the Indians. I know it has been particularly frustrating and trust me, I'm not here to give you the same narrative. If you are impatient fan, you're already gone. If your eternally frustrated and cynical fan that sticks around to salt the wounds, there's no use turning you around, even with something you haven't heard before. If your Dolan is Cheap fan, well, you're just hopeless to begin with.

Let's back up a second though and revisit some things that are probably very important in the scope of a 162 game season. We've played about two and a half months worth of baseball and there's probably not one team in the American League that looks legitimately out of it based off numbers. Yeah, 10 games is hard to make up, but we're talking about the Athletics, who have been known to go on runs, and we're talking about a division that doesn't look particularly strong. Also, there isn't one team that is overly dominant. The AL in general is wide open.

We care about the Tribe though, so let's look at this situation. They're sitting right below .500, having inched ever so close to pulling out of it, but not yet able to clear that hurdle. Every time they get close, they get knocked down or trip over themselves. They've not gone on an extended run, but they also haven't really been in a string of helplessness that has set them back or made you think that this is a terrible team. They haven't lost more than four games in a row at any point in the season, but they also haven't won more than five games in a row. They have been swept just one time and it was in the second series of the year. However, they have swept just one series themselves.

Perhaps that is the most frustrating thing about this team. The fact that they haven't put you at that point where you are like "This team is just awful, they have no business contending" but in the same breath, also make you feel like they just need something to flip the script and they would be contending.

You can go to a lot of people for advanced metrics and reasoning that is far more statistically based and heady than what I'm about to say or give you. I'd encourage you to do that and brush up on why there is statistical and supported evidence that this team is not dead in the water. There's plenty of reason to believe that the Indians are going to turn the corner and can turn the corner. There's plenty of positive points to be made that the Indians can make a run at this thing and not just that they can, but they will.

I'm going to give you the eye-test though. The, almost logically to a fault reason why this team can still put it together and perhaps give us a run we didn't think we'd see at the end of April. I don't have many stats, I don't have anything to help draw me to conclusions other than what I look at and what I can determine from what I look at (scientific, aye?). Yeah, I'll have basic numbers that I can reach over and grab, kind of like what I did to break down the American League thus far, but you won't see me sitting here spouting off expected xFIP numbers. I use words better than numbers anyway.

So let's start with the first point.

The Division (and the Wild Card!) hasn't become unrealistic

There's a point in time when winning a division becomes unrealistic. We haven't hit that point. And as tough as the AL Central is with the teams that make it up, you can't realistically say the Indians cannot win it. There's one big thing that I'd say would make it worrisome in the Indians actually making a push to do so.

They are just a bad in-division as the White Sox are thus far. When a very large portion of your 162 game schedule is made up of the division and you haven't played will within it, you are likely doomed from winning it. There is still time to turn that around though. They need to play better against the Twins & White Sox though. I think they've traded fair amount of warfare with the Royals this year and you can expect those two teams to continue to trade wins and losses and well, the Tigers seem to just play out of their minds against the Indians compared to playing anyone else.

You have to win those games against Minnesota and Chicago though. If the Indians truly are better than those two teams, they need more wins from that section of the schedule. There hasn't been enough games for this to be a lost cause though, so here is where the Indians make up their ground if they are to do so.

The defense cannot get any worse

I'm glad we have advanced metrics and numbers prove the points. But this point doesn't need stats for the naked eye to see. The Indians are bad defensively. Their defense is robbing an incredible pitching staff from being an absolute dominant force. Four strikeout pitchers who only sometimes have to rely on the defense to make play are getting only half the support they should be with a competent defense behind it.

That's about to change. The Indians have committed to a better infield defense alignment by calling up both Giovanny Urshela and Francisco Lindor. By making the move to the two youngsters we cannot expect an inconsistent offense to suddenly become consistent. You're deploying two rookies into the lineup, one of which who is likely not ready to contribute offensively like he eventually has the potential do. Does the offense need to be more consistent? Yes, but you're going to start needing fewer runs to win games with the defense they bring.
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Lindor and Urshela get to more balls. Yeah, Lonnie Chisenhall's errors were frustrating, but that wasn't the part about his defense that makes Urshela an upgrade. What makes Urshela an upgrade is that he has more range than Chisenhall. Jose Ramirez made some boneheaded mistakes and while Mike Aviles doesn't really make mistakes, Lindor gets to more ground balls and simply is able to field more plays than Ramirez and Aviles.

The starting rotation is holding Lindor's first hit ransom, but in reality, they may be the ones giving Lindor gifts, as he is about to make their jobs a whole heck of a lot easier.

This defense is going to get better. They're going to field more balls and get to make more plays. That is only going to mean this team doesn't get any worse and for a team that's just sitting in the middle of the road right now, that's something that can push them over the hurdles they've been trying to clear.

There's been no extended run

I know, that can be a bad thing as there hasn't been an extended losing mark, but I think the Indians have played some truly awful baseball at times. As bad as they have looked at times, they haven't ever lost more than four games, remember that.

Maybe they can play worse, but remember, the defense can't get worse and we've seen a real dormant offense at times. It's almost as if there are some areas on the team that go through their own let-down period.

There hasn't been a period in time when this entire team has put it all together. We're still waiting for this team to play their best baseball. I honestly believe that hasn't happened and I don't think many would disagree that this team can play better. This team is capable of putting it together all at once and going on a run bigger than that six game win-streak they went on in mid-May.

This bullpen will probably be better

It has been a little troublesome, but there's no way that the bullpen is as bad as you would think. They're eternally frustrating, but they're also talented with a lot of options to run out there. What exactly is the problem?

No one knows their role. It has been hard for anyone outside of Cody Allen to settle into a position that they can be expected to come in and fill. Even though Terry Francona has become known for the Tito shuffle, doing things as absurd as using three relievers in one inning, or pitching Allen in the ninth inning of a 6-0 game, he can at least develop a pattern that the bullpen can rely on.

Look at what they've had to battle early on though. Bryan Shaw's lack of effectiveness caused some back-end shuffling that has likely put a little bit of uncertainty of who will be used when and where. Nick Hagadone has gone from left-handed specialist to multi-inning swing man to eighth inning setup guy. How Tito wants to use Marc Rzepczynski is beyond me. And Scott Atchison? Dude may be done.

Insert a new wild card of Zach McAllister and Tito's unwillingness to commit to him as the guy to use in most of his high-leverage situations late in the game, and that can probably pinpoint the inconsistency issue. Overall, the bullpen is middle of the road statistically, what you would expect from them and really, all you need from them given the fact that your starting rotation is downright dominant.

They just need to be more consistent, and that can come together when they get a more consistent expectation about how they're individually, and thus collectively, used over the course of a season.

Everything else is sustainable

Those are all the issues that have been prevalent with this team and in my mind, what has been holding them back from clearing their road blocks cleanly. But what has worked? There is a reason that this team is still hanging around enough and putting out games and performances that give you hope.

The first and foremost is the rotation. They arguably have the best 1-through-4 in the American League and performance wise, in all of baseball. Everyone will talk about the Nationals, but Stephen Strasburg has struggled mightily and outside of Max Scherzer, their production has not quite lived up to the talent. None of what is happening is likely to go away, if not, as mentioned, they only improve with a more competent defense getting to the balls that aren't being whiffed at by the opposing team.
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Secondly, the offense. It isn't bad. Again, statistically they're producing at a middle-of-the-road rate, but think of where it will go from here. Yan Gomes has been missing from the equation for most of the year. It really wasn't until May that Brandon Moss started to get it going. Jose Ramirez and his below .200 average started at shortstop most of the time. And, as always, Tito has been playing with a combination in terms of his lineup for the better part of two months.

Jason Kipnis isn't going to have another month like he did in May, but he certainly, provided that he remains healthy, will continue to be the spark that the Indians need at the top of that lineup. Michael Brantley, back issues aside, can continue to do what he does, and Carlos is just gonna keep walking. Put a healthy Yan Gomes back into the mix with Brandon Moss, and that is enough to support a pitching staff that will routinely go out and give you six innings of three-runs or less baseball more times than not.

So wait, ultimately you seem to just chalk it up to "it can't get worse"

I mean, yeah? And if your worst is middle of the road, can't seem to get over the .500 hump, then imagine what their best is?

I could be totally wrong and ultimately, would be a complete fool for going the "it can't get any worse" route and then it actually does get worse. But look at the way this season has unfolded thus far. You definitely can't buy into the on-paper arguments that some people will make prior to the season starting. It would be foolish to believe 100-percent that the Nationals stacked rotation would lead them to the World Series. It would be silly to assume that since the Red Sox added perhaps the best two free agent position players, they'd reclaim the AL East. It would be nuts to just blindly believe the Indians would go all the way because Sports Illustrated said so.

But what you can buy into is the fact that there was some hype and hope around this team and it came from some validity that has yet to be proven completely wrong. Will Boston come roaring back to win the AL East? Probably not, but you can't totally discount them. On the surface it seems like that may be a nuclear disaster waiting to happen given the money at stake and the pressure to succeed and their problems seem to run deeper than what is on paper though.

What has plagued Cleveland isn't so much the unfixable or the unfathomable. What has plagued them isn't really all bad. And what they need to do isn't all that much. I'm not saying they will and this will all work out itself and everything will be fine.

What I am saying though is that this is not in a dire or bleak situation. This is a workable situation to be in if they can't be in the lead. Things look favorable to turn positive and not a lot has to be done to achieve some level of consistency. And once that happens, the environment in which they get to operate and play in, as detailed, is also very favorable.

It's just a matter of it working out that way.
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