Early Season Funk May Be Worse Than It Looks

Apr 13, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Cleveland Indians first baseman Nick Swisher (33) reacts after hitting a foul ball off his foot during the third inning at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Funk a Sign of Things to Come?

So we’re fourteen games into the season.   To be honest, there’s not a lot to feel good about.   There have been five quality starts so far, and three key players are batting under .200.   If not for the generosity of Jim Johnson in the opening series, the Indians would be 5-9 right now and we would all be panicking.

As it is, the Indians have lost six of ten against three teams that finished a combined 76 games under .500 last year.  Unless these guys figure out how to beat the top teams better that they did last year (like this current series against Detroit), they need to win these series to stay in the race.

Of course, fourteen games is the “small sample size” that all the stat heads warn against, and there are a lot of things that are bound to get better.  The weather, for one.   It’s easy to say that both teams have to play in these conditions, and the Indians should be more accustomed to them than teams like the Padres, but having to alternate between rain delays and frigid temperatures makes it impossible to find any rhythm.   It also stands to reason that the rotation will get better, simply because there are viable options in Columbus.   It is difficult to imagine that Terry Francona will go past May 1 without promoting either Trevor Bauer or Josh Tomlin if any pitcher, most likely Carlos Carrasco, fails to string together some solid performances.

As for the bats, the guys who are struggling right now are the guys we all expected to be the consistent producers.  The most notable are Asdrubal Cabrera, Nick Swisher, and Carlos Santana.  I get that it’s early and while all three have track records that would indicate that their starts are an aberration, the signs are worrisome.

Apr 8, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (13) at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Cabrera was terrible last year, so his start this year looks more like the continuation of a trend than a fluke.  You can probably get by with a middle infielder with an OPS of .701, like Cabrera had last year, if you don’t have to hit him in the middle of the order and pay him ten million dollars.  They can fix where he hits, as long as someone else is putting up number worthy of the middle of the order, but the ten million can only be undone by trading him, which is unlikely unless Francisco Lindor gets ready in a hurry.

Santana’s struggles are probably linked to his position switch.  His April OPS the past three years is .917, so he is not generally a slow starter.  Santana has started three games at catcher, which projects to 37 over a full season, about what you would expect from a backup catcher.   He has played more at third than I expected, partly because of Lonnie Chisenhall’s paternity leave and partly because Francona has been slow to gain confidence in Chisenhall.  This strikes me as a case where establishing more of a pattern may help.  Santana should be playing third against all lefthanders, and his catching appearances should come on a regular interval, such as once each time through the rotation, so he can prepare his body properly.   That probably means he will DH about half the time, usually against right handers.   That may be more than was envisioned when this experiment began, but, as long as Chisenhall is hitting he should be playing.

Swisher’s struggles are the most perplexing, and the most concerning.   The fact that he has been terrible in the field as well as at the plate would lead one to believe that this is just a mental funk.  Let’s hope so, because the money that the Indians gave Swisher means that he needs to be a middle-of-the- order force for the next three years.  The fact that he struggled last year, though, and his age (33) makes one wonder if this is simply the decline phase of his career.  A fifty point drop in OPS is not extraordinary in that context; the frightening thing would be if that happens again, because that would leave Swisher as essentially a replacement level player with as much as 44 million left on his contract after this season.

The other factor to consider is that Swisher may have seen better pitches to hit in New York because of all the powerful bats around him.  Let’s face it, pitchers are probably more likely to be careful when Jason Kipnis is up next than Robinson Cano.  Here’s another fact to consider:  his last year in New York, Swisher hit .244 in the 2 hole and .289 everywhere else.  Perhaps he should be switched with Santana or Michael Brantley.

The Indians stress the concept of “one through nine” where the fact that everyone is a threat makes up for the absence of one big bat.  It worked well last year, and the lineup should be even better this year. The fact that nobody is really overachieving right now means that things should get better as soon as Swisher and Santana kick it in gear.

As a veteran of the Eric Wedge years where the Indians invariably dug themselves a huge hole in April and spent five months digging out of it, I am probably overly sensitive to early season slumps.  It is not realistic, however, to expect this team to win 21 games in September again, and even that hot streak barely won us the wild card.   For those of us who were hoping that last year was the first step toward something bigger, let’s hope the Indians don’t wait much longer to get it going.