The Cleveland Indians and Finding Identity

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There was a lot of expectation surrounding the Cleveland Indians last April. Those devils over at Sports Illustrated decided to stack the deck early against Tribe and pick them to be World Series champs despite playing in the same division as one of the great powerhouse teams of the last five years in the Detroit Tigers as well as the 2014 AL champion Kansas City Royals, and even less optimistic fans were at least excited about the pitching and the promise of blossoming young players.

The burgeoning talent of Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis along with that rotation, plus what would surely be bounceback years from the big free agents Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher would make the Indians a force all year long and Brandon Moss would hit 30 homers. It was a team that wouldn’t defend well since Lonnie Chisenhall had finally been given the third base job, the outfield was spotty with a decrepifying Bourn and few if any players were playing their natural position, but at least the minor revelation of Jose Ramirez was going to give a very good glove and a bit of pop at the bottom of the order. This was the expectation – strikeouts, hope for easy fly balls and soft grounders and score four or five runs a game.

Then it all went to hell.

The pitching has been anywhere from solid to spectacular all season. But any defense Ramirez provided was hideous, the bat nonexistent, and Lonnie famously did nothing offensively to make his existence on the team a valid, realistic choice. The big bucks boys continued to struggle and steal money from the team. Essentially, two-thirds of what was supposed to drive the Indians to October had fallen in the toilet like some kind of half-wit spider and flailed in vain as the team slowly sank in the standings.

But that was then, and this is now. Bourn and Swisher are gone. Francisco Lindor showed up in June and has been nothing short of stupendous in all phases of the game. Lonnie Chisenhall was tossed aside in favor of Giovanni Urshela to aid Lindor in shoring up the infield defense. And his bat has been no worse than Lonnie’s had been. 

Jason Kipnis turned into one of the best leadoff hitters and defensive second basemen in baseball. And Brantley has stolen the powers of Roberto Clemente. Then as an added dose of wonder or two, the savior in center has arrived in the form of Abraham Almonte and Lonnie somehow has completed the transmogrification into a right field Alex Gordon. It’s been amazing. It’s a complete shift in what this team was just six months ago when Bourn led off against the then near-unknown Dallas Keuchel (going 0-for-4) and Brandon Moss worked a walk.

Hope isn’t all the way gone for the Indians, at least not as of this writing, but the portal to autumn baseball is closing fast and the Tribe might not make it through. It behooves the team to think to 2016, and what that team will look like. The good news there is, that team is pretty much in place. The Indians have played .530 baseball, which is effectively the time several moves were made to change the look of the team and several young guys got a shot. My personal favorite move was trading a fading Mark Rzepcynski for Almonte. Turning a LOOGY who’s lost it into a young, athletic player with upside and the glove the Indians have been needing in center since Sizemore started fading was amazing, and that alone has helped the pitching immensely.

That’s the backbone of this team too, is the pitching. It was back in April, it will be next year and should be for years to come. We hear about the young outfielders storming towards the majors in the next several years, but with Brady Aiken and Rob Kaminsky poking through the system to eventually bolster a squad with that top three in the rotation, plus the upside of Bauer and the ability to have a rotating cast of Josh Tomlin, Cody Anderson and expectedly TJ House in that fifth spot in the order, the mound will decide games for this team. They’ll have the power arms, the veteran wiles and the depth to weather a major league season. Not many teams can say that with confidence for 2016, much less the next three to five years. It’s a luxury, something the Indians aren’t used to having.

The starters don’t have to be perfect anymore though, and that’s what will help the most. With that pasta strainer defense to start the year, the Indians were banking on a rotation and ‘pen that will strike out 15 guys a night. That’s just not realistic even with who took the hill. If anything, Trevor Bauer was perfect for the team at that time. He was so effectively wild that it was seemingly either a walk or a strikeout. It looked like mad genius for a few weeks, until a few too many balls broke back over the plate and went the other way real fast.

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Now, with Urshela and Lindor helping Kipnis, plus Ramirez in a perfect 4th infielder role, and Almonte in center with the amazing transformation of Lonnie in right, this is a real, legitimate major league defense. And they’re athletic, too. It’s weird. They’ve darn near stolen the Royals blueprint from the last few years – defense and athleticism, but rather than having middling pitchers turned gold by stunning fielding, they have a rotation whose third best pitcher strikes out 25.7% of batters and packs a 3.69 FIP. For comparison’s sake, KC’s best pitcher at this point is probably Yordano Ventura, he of the 3.77 FIP and 21.6 K%. Johnny Cueto was their big get at the deadline, he’s packing a 20.8 K% and a 3.94 FIP. Even if the Indians don’t end up with Royal carbon copies around the diamond, they’ll be okay.

It sucks to have to think about 2016 while they’re still playing and possibly alive for a Wild Card in 2015, but there’s a real and fun new identity to this new squad. The basepaths will be less clogged with the Mosses, broken down Bourns and no-legs Swishers among others, and the defense will make eye-popping plays because Francisco Lindor. I’ve been jealous of those Royals for the last few years because they’re fun to watch, play the game with excitement and energy, and the winning is probably nice too. The Tribe looks to be a better version of that.

If that’s what Chris Antonetti’s vision is, I like it a lot. The Indians of tomorrow are nothing like those Hafner/V-Mart/Peralta cement foot sluggers of the past, and everyone, from casual to hardcore fan and everyone involved with the team, is going to feel the payoff. Now if SI will just get away from northern Ohio for the next year or so, that’d be great.

Next: Lonnie Chisenhall Season Review

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