Tag Archives: Los Angeles Angels

More Than a Friday: All About Cubs, and Some Other Stuff

There may have been nine other teams eligible for this 2015 post-season, and some great stories behind those teams’ run to get here, but the Chicago Cubs are the story. With the Yankees out of the picture, the St. Louis Cardinals are the only ones left standing with nowhere near three decades, if not all of eternity, between now and their last World Championship. And look, those Cardinals are the next obstacle in the way of the Cubs’ destiny.

It’s a different attitude on the north side of Chicago, this time around. We’re not blessing dugouts, exorcising goats, or doing whatever’s been done in the past to fuel the hysteria that comes with a fan-base that’s gone their entire lives without seeing their beloved baseball team compete for, let alone win, a World Championship. Okay, I concede there’s less than a what I would consider a chunk of Cubbie fans that are old enough to remember the Cubs falling to Detroit in 7 games in 1945, but no one has actually been waiting 107 years for what might happen next.

Give it up for the Ricketts family, for putting the right people in charge of the baseball side, and then getting the hell out of the way until it’s time to open the checkbook. There are only two ways to be a bad owner in sports; one is to meddle, and the other is to be cheap, and this family has done no such thing. They went out and got Theo Epstein to run the show, who in turn, brought in Jed Hoyer to be the General Manager, and eventually Joe Maddon was enlisted to manage the games. This group has done their diligence in serving the fans, by not giving a damn what they think. The first order of business was slamming the door shut on the dream of making Ryne Sandberg the skipper. Sure, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria never brought the Cubs anywhere near the promised land, but Ryno didn’t tear it up in his first go-around in the bigs, with the Phillies, either.

In addition to Sandberg not possessing the championship pedigree, if you think the fans were pissed he wasn’t considered, imagine the outrage when they had to fire him. The whole “we run the Cubs, not the fans” effect trickles down to the roster too. Cubs fans loved Tony Campana, and while this wasn’t exactly trading away Ernie Banks, Theo and Jed were able to ignore the groans heard when Campana was traded to Arizona for a couple of teenagers. Epstein wasn’t hired to dwell on the 103 years prior to his 2011 hire, but to make the next century of Cubs baseball great. He’s well on his way.

No matter how well you’re able to put the past away, if you have any rooting interest in the Cubs, and mine is tertiary, as I married into it, there’s always a little lack of confidence, if not paranoia, due to precedent. For many, the next hard groundball to first is still going through Leon Durham’s legs and the next 50/50 ball between the left fielder and the spectators represents a prelude to doom. Entering the snakepit that was a blacked-out PNC Park on Wednesday night, Maddon’s Cubs had to strike early and prevent the Pirates from reciprocating. Dexter Fowler and Kyle Schwarber answered the call early and often. They were loose and unintimidated by Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole, almost like someone forgot to tell them the Cubs hadn’t won a post-season game since 2003. Jake Arrieta took the ball, and despite not having his best stuff on the mound, he made sure Schwarber’s RBI single in the top of the first inning was enough. However, Schwarber put one in the Allegheny River and Fowler was a little more modest, instead going to the right-center field seats with his shot, to make the probably Cy Young Award winner comfortable with a 4-run lead. He was able to pitch out of several jams, thanks to several defensive gems behind him, but there is a sour note about Wednesday.

Aside from Schwarber and Fowler, not much offensive production from the Cubs. The probably Rookie of the Year, Kris Bryant looked so lost at the plate, you might have thought he missed the flight to Western Pennsylvania. You also have to take into account, the perils of playing that Wild Card game of the 1-game sort, you’ve exhausted your Ace and he won’t get two starts in the best-of-five division series. Those are bridges they’ll cross when they encounter them in the Gateway City, as they face that next obstacle in the Cardinals. The time to worry about that is today, but a nice little honeymoom was to be had all day Thursday. To paraphrase (What About) Bob(?) Wiley, Baby Steps towards a World Championship. It started in Pittsburgh, and may not have a happy ending for Bill Murray and the rest of Cubs Nation, but it’s a start.

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And, in other news…

Texas Rangers fans would probably prefer it, if I stop listening to their big games on the radio while driving down I-8 towards San Diego. For the second time in four years, the previous time being Game 6 of the World Series, my ears were privy to an epic Rangers collapse while en route to California for a Browns game. The last time, it was David Freese of the Cardinals, down to his final strike, who prevented the Rangers from closing out their first-ever World Championship with a double off the wall. The Boys of Arlington would get a shot at redemption in Game 7, but would have no luck in the deciding game. On Saturday, they took a 10-6 lead into the 9th, as I pulled into a Yuma gas station to re-fuel and call my wife. By the time, I got back in the car, the Angels led 11-10, and the assumption I’d had minutes earlier, that the Rangers were going to clinch the American League West had disintegrated. Unlike in 2011, the Rangers were able to take care of business the next day, and all was well in North Texas.

No one knows anything in College Football, a truth that reveals itself to the masses watching each week. On paper, Ohio State should have been able to exercise The Karate Kid III clause, and just waited for a worthy a opponent to take their title from them, in Glendale on January 11th, but they have to play the games. It hasn’t been pretty; you could argue they’re getting everyone’s best shot, but you could probably make a better argument that they’re a lot more flat than the team that impressed us in January. Imagine if it was TCU, and not the Buckeyes, that got to take that magical ride through the inaugural College Football Playoff. Would Ohio State be able to maintain its #1 spot with their play in 2015? If Utah and Florida can hold serve, this point is rendered moot, but how little do we know about the Pac-12 and SEC, and how confusing can the entire College Football Playoff picture be entering the month of December?

Toledo could finish the season undefeated, and there’s a strong possibility that they won’t get the “Group of 5” bid to the Access Bowls, given Boise State’s history and a committee’s tendency to forgive September losses. Rockets fans have to be hoping the stock on the win at Arkansas rises throughout SEC play.

The Browns found a new way to lose in San Diego on Sunday, and I was on hand for the agony. Having watched Josh Lambo’s first attempt sail wide, when my celebration was interrupted by news of the laundry on the field, I assumed someone in a brown jersey ran into the Chargers kicker, but the call was off-sides. I didn’t see off-sides, but the guy in the striped shirt on the field had a better vantage point. I went on with my day in Southern California, overhearing plenty of same ol’ Browns conversations. It was like Tuesday or Wednesday that I was retroactively angry at the linesman on Bill Vinovich’s crew, who guessed wrong and cost Cleveland a chance to take the game in overtime. The Lions are in the same boat with the bad luck of letting an official decide a game. It’s really no wonder, none at all, why neither of these teams have played in a Super Bowl or won a title since 1967.

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As a Browns fan, I’ve had faith in both Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer, but now that I’m seeing them play in other jerseys, I almost have to slap myself. Difference being, I liked the potential of Weeden, and soon as he put on the orange helmet, he showed he couldn’t play at a high level. Hoyer, on the other hand, won games for the Browns, giving people like me false hope and dismissing poor play as a slump or fluke. It took seeing that punt-looking interception he threw to former Brown Mike Adams on Thursday night, to convince me of his true colors.

Sunday’s New England-Dallas game will get a lot of the headlines, but I’m going to learn a lot more about the landscape of the NFL from Seahawks-Bengals and Rams-Packers on Sunday. I know the Seahawks and Packers are good, but I still need some convincing on 4-0 Cincinnati and the 2-2 Rams.

I’m offering up a lot of chalk with my Division Series predictions in baseball, but I’m looking forward to a Blue Jays-Royals ALCS, and I’m putting the Cubs and Mets in the NLCS. Regarding those National League teams, once they start winning, they don’t stop.

Basketball and hockey, we’ll get to you next week.

Have a great weekend.

The American League Wildcard and the Trouble with Schedules

It appears that the Indians’ favorable schedule down the stretch is keeping the glimmer of playoff baseball alive in September.

I can’t believe it. You can’t believe it either. As I wrote last week, the Cleveland Indians are still relevant as it pertains to the 2015 playoffs. At the beginning of August, most writers and fans alike had capped this season as a disappointment and were looking ahead to 2016. Slowly but surely, the Indians strung some wins together and figured things out.

Currently, the Indians are just 4.5 games out of the second wildcard spot currently held by the Texas Rangers. In front of them are the Los Angeles Angels (3.0 GB) and the Minnesota Twins (1.0 GB).

Let’s take a look at each of the current contenders and their remaining schedules in the months of September/October:

Minnesota Twins

The Minnesota twins are currently locked in a series with the Chicago White Sox, having won game one of the three game set last night, 6-2. After their remaining two games in Chicago, the Twinkies travel home to Target Field for a 10 game homestand featuring visits by the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, and, after an off day on 9/21, the Indians. They then travel to Detroit for a three game set, followed by a four game set at Cleveland to finish out the month of September. Their final series of the season comes against the Kansas City Royals at home at Target Field.

Clearly, of the remaining games, the most important series comes against the Los Angeles Angels next week. Considering it’s a four game series, it could make or break the Twins’ wild card hopes in addition to sinking other squads’ hopes. In a perfect world, you hope that the teams split the two game series and gain no ground either way. The Indians have a favorable weekend series against the White Sox at the same time as the Twins v Angels series, so a sweep there could really place the Indians in a position to own the 2nd wildcard spot conversation entering the final two weeks of the season.

Another problem the Twins face down the stretch is the perceived strength of their schedule. They only face 4 teams after their weekend series against Chicago: Cleveland, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Kansas City. Of those four teams, one is going to be a division winner (KC), two are currently competing with the Twins for the second wildcard spot (CLE and LAA), and one is down and out this year, but still can pack a wallop (DET).

While the Minnesota Twins have been a nice story this season (see: Houston Astros), the strength of their schedule down the stretch may overarchingly doom them.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The Los Angeles Angels are currently in the middle of a three game home set against the Houston Astros and won their game last night 3-2. After finishing with the Astros, the Angels travel for 10 straight games against the Mariners (3), Twins (4), and Astros (3). After a day off, the Angels open a 6 game home stand against the Mariners and Athletics, before traveling to Texas for a 4 game showdown with the Rangers.

Of the teams remaining in the wildcard race as it stands right now, the Angels probably have the hardest schedule of them all. The AL West has been the surprise division (in my opinion) this year in terms of divisional excellence. The thought entering the season was that the Angels and Mariners would clash for the division crown while using the injury plagued Rangers, downtrodden Astros, and talent-less Athletics as target practice in between. In reality, Seattle has been an overwhelming disappointment considering their talent level. In addition, the Angels have played well below expectations and nobody really knows what team their going to get when playing them. The Rangers, even with all of their injuries entering the season, have found ways to win games and keep themselves relevant while the Houston Astros shocked the world and took the division by the horns while never looking back. The Athletics are the only team that have really played to expectations before the season started.

Instead of just one team to worry about down the stretch (Mariners), the Angels have to play three decent baseball teams within their own division. While this makes for interesting storylines as a writer, Angels fans are undoubtedly worried about the strength of schedule they face over the course of the upcoming weeks and what that means to their playoff hopes. Unfortunately, Mike Trout can’t play every position.

Texas Rangers

Like the Angels, the Rangers play many games remaining on their schedule in their own division. The Rangers have it slightly easier in that they see the Athletics twice (6 games) and have a random series at the end of the month against Detroit. Other than that, the Rangers play the division leading Astros twice (6 games), the Mariners once (3 games), and finish their season at Los Angeles (4 games).

If you read the second paragraph under the Angels tab, it applies here as well. The only difference being the strength of schedule the Rangers face. It is slightly less difficult than the Angels with two series against the Athletics and one series against the Tigers.

Cleveland Indians

Of the AL wildcard teams mentioned in this article, the Indians overwhelmingly have the easiest schedule down the stretch. Cleveland plays 3 at home against Detroit followed by a four game set against the Royals and a three game set against the White Sox – All at home. After an off day, they travel to Minnesota for 3 games and then to Kansas City for 3 games. They then travel home for the final home series of the season against the Twins (3 games) and Boston Red Sox (4 games).

Easy, I think, is a relative term in baseball. The Indians have some challenges when it comes to their remaining schedule. The difference, I think, is the strength of the challenge as compared to other challenges faced by the latter wildcard contenders. Yes, the Indians face the Royals seven times down the stretch. Yes, the Indians face the Twins six times down the stretch. Those 13 games will be tough, of that I have no doubt.

But are we really afraid of going 0-13 against those two teams? Of course not.

Are we afraid of dropping all but one game in the series against the Royals and Twins? Of course not.

When I look at teams like the Angels and Rangers, I actually believe that they could walk into each others’ ballparks or Seattle’s or Houston’s and get blanked three straight games.

That’s how good I think the West is this year.

The Indians just have to play their style of baseball, get a few hits, and play no- to minimal-error baseball. They do that, and they have a chance to travel to New York for a one game wild card playoff against the vaunted Yankees. I believe that this team is in the right place, when it comes to their hitting, pitching, and defense, to make a push.

I’m not overly optimistic about our chances. I think, as a Cleveland sports fan, I packed away optimism, along with the ideals of “hope” and “dreams”, in a box long ago.

I do think the Indians have a golden opportunity to do something special and I hope they can muster together enough to make a wildcard appearance happen.

I guess, as the leaves change, we will see if the Indians fortunes change as well.

*Note: Teams directly behind the Indians in the standings were not included in this article due to its potential length if they were added and the shear number of teams still vying for a spot. As teams either move in front of the Indians or separate themselves from the pack, this article will be updated to reflect their chances and remaining schedules.

Going Ham, Like Josh Hamilton

Editor’s Note: This story on Josh Hamilton, addiction, and recovery originally ran on Jeff Rich’s now-defunct personal blog, riverburn.com, on February 8, 2012.  As Hamilton is scheduled to face a Major League Baseball disciplinary committee for something “worse than PEDs”, and speculation is a cocaine relapse, which he allegedly confessed to, we are re-running Jeff’s testimony about addiction and overcoming it.

Before I begin to tackle the subjects of abuse, sobriety, recovery, relapse, and addiction, I am obligated to disclose that there are parts of certain stories that cannot be told. The parts left out may be omitted for the purposes of anonymity, tradition, and general respect. I hope that everyone can understand and respect that. I also want it to be made very clear that, though I have a story, I am the furthest things from an expert on any of this.

First of all, even though it would make for a better story, I need to come out and tell you that I’m not an addict or an alcoholic, and that’s important you understand the perspective from which these words are being told. It is, however, true that I was once a very well-documented idiot. I wish there were a better way to iterate that, and I even tried tying it to a term that I welcomed into my life as a crutch, “”alcoholism””. There, I said it, it wasn’t because I was an asshole that couldn’t find anything more fulfilling in life than a barstool, I pinned it on a dependency or a disease.

That was a while ago for me, you might even say an entire lifetime, but for me to tell you that I belonged in front of doctors, counselors, and people with real issues, that would be a lie. In all sincerity, I really didn’t know what a fraud I was at the time, I bought into my own gas about being crippled by dependency. And, why not? As shameful as it was to say that I was controlled by my vices, it beat the alternative. I didn’t want to come to terms with what a shitty human being I was, but to share the label of those who actually are powerless, that was among the shittier highlights of my dirtbag portfolio.

We are all living through the story of Josh Hamilton, a gifted athlete who could have had it all, then come very close to losing it all before a very public recovery. Hamilton is a severe case; he isn’t specifically an alcoholic or a crackhead, but really more of a “”what’cha got?”” type of addict, the worst kind. Heroin, cocaine, alcohol, whatever; it’s all about the escape from reality. It’s all about being powerless, and for Joshua Holt Hamilton, that absence of power is genuine.

There are people out there that don’t know that world, people who think this is who Hamilton wants to be. Back in 2009, Hamilton slipped, and it hit close to home for me because it was literally close to my home. The now defunct bar, just off the campus at Arizona State University, used to be a regular watering hole for Yours Truly, but I was never a target for the Paparazzi. This thing we call the Internet exposed Hamilton’s relapse, and there was sentiment that this guy doesn’t respect second chances.

A funny thing has happened since then, even if you can forget his struggles from addiction and the long road back, Hamilton’s play has merited some credit. So, maybe the relapse wipes out an improbable run at Rookie of the Year in 2007 with Cincinnati, nine years after Tampa Bay with the first pick in the 1998 Draft. And, just maybe he betrayed enough of his supporters that his incredible appearance at the 2008 Home Run Derby would be forgotten. All Josh has done after that night in Tempe is lead his team to two World Series appearances, play in three All-Star games, and win both an American League Batting Title and Most Valuable Player Award.

Low and behold, he went to a bar last week. He had a few drinks, and was caught on camera leaving the bar. He’s come out and apologized, but that hasn’t been enough for some. It was like, “”how many chances are we going to give this guy?””, but not for me, I’ve seen too much. I’ve met wonderful people that would do everything short of cutting off their own arm to help their fellow man, and wondering how they get grouped with these bad people, these alcoholics, these drug addicts. But, I didn’t get to see them on meth, on heroin, dead in the gutter.

I (thankfully) don’t know anything about methamphetamine or heroin, but I do know something about dead in the gutter. I can tell you some things about rock bottom, and I hope I’ve seen it. It was September 26th, a Sunday night with two NFL games, I was the idiot with a death wish. It wasn’t because I saw The Program the day it came out, before the infamous lay down in traffic scene hit the cutting room floor, but I laid down in traffic. Obviously, I made it out okay, but I decided that having consumed the valuable time of the Tempe Police that evening was probably as the closest view of rock bottom that I wanted to have.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy the free-fall, a six month bender that paused only for glimpses of my full-time job and an occasional night of sleep, but the sudden stop was like the tragic end of an extreme skydiving experience. That was Day Zero of a learning experience that is going on it’s eighth year now. I’ve learned a lot about life, about people, about addiction, and about myself. Here’s the thing, I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I don’t suffer the addiction that some unfortunate people do. Imagine that, not being able to stay way on your own, and knowing the only way to avoid it was to stay far away. Yet, the same thing keeps happening; this is a bad phenomenon that happens to good people.

Now, I don’t expect a following or a large rally cry to support the cause of Josh Hamilton. On the surface, he’s lost the benefit of the doubt, and he doesn’t deserve a third second chance, I get it. I don’t want to be that way, I want him to be better, to escape these demons that continue to haunt him. I want him to continue to walk away from his rock bottom.

I know that I would never want to re-visit mine.

Cleveland Indians: Making a Case for Michael Brantley as AL MVP

On July 7th of 2008 the Cleveland Indians traded Cy Young award winner CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for (then) top prospect Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and a player to be named later. On October 8th of the same year the Brewers sent their 24th ranked minor league prospect to the Indians to complete the trade as the player to be named later. Tonight, that player has a chance to win the AL MVP award. His name is Michael Brantley.

Despite two other strong candidates in the American League MVP race there is a clear front runner, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout. Trout is a two-time MVP runner up (both times losing to Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera) and is considered by some to be the best player in baseball right now. It’s hard to argue against that. Trout won AL Rookie of the Year in 2012, is a three-time All-Star and Silver Slugger (2012-14), and this year won both the AL Outstanding Player award and AL Hank Aaron Award. This season Trout played in 157 games. He posted a .287 batting average, a .377 on base percentage and a .561 slugging percentage. He hit 36 home runs drove in 111 runs (best in the AL) and scored 115 runs (best in baseball) all on 173 hits. He also drew 83 walks, stole 16 bases (caught twice) and hits .305 with runners in scoring position. Defensively, he is a very good outfielder. Patrolling centerfield, Trout had a .992 fielding percentage this season. He committed 3 errors, has 4 assists, 383 total putouts and helped turn one double play. He also led every player in 2014 in WAR (wins above replacement) at 7.87. That alone might be enough to clinch the AL MVP award as Trout is clearly the favorite to win it.

But he has two serious contenders, both of which Cleveland Indians fans are familiar with.

First there is Victor Martinez of the Detroit Tigers. Originally signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1996 as an amateur free agent, Victor spent eight seasons with the Indians before being traded away to the Boston Red Sox in a move that even brought Victor to tears. I think it’s safe to say he’s gotten over that pain. This year for the Tigers, Victor played in 151 games and posted a .335 batting average, .409 on base percentage and a .565 slugging percentage. He collected 188 hits, scored 87 runs and hit 32 home runs to go with 103 RBI. He drew 70 walks and only struck out 42 times. He also hits well in the clutch, batting .326 with runners in scoring position and .316 w/RISP and two outs. Despite all this there are two cases to be made against Victor. He doesn’t really play defense as he is the Tigers DH. This season Martinez only played 301.1 innings of defense, most of them coming at first base (37 total games, 35 games started; 35 games at first base, 2 games at catcher). He posted a .983 fielding percentage, had 274 putouts, 18 assists, was involved with 24 double plays but he also made 5 errors (3 at first base and 2 at catcher). While there are no definitive guidelines for an MVP candidate, there are some rules that voters must (or should) follow. Rule number one states that the voter must consider “actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense”. Victor Martinez hits a baseball very well, but only played 300 innings of defense in 2014. Also, an argument can be made that he isn’t even the best player on his team (although this season he probably was). Victor also finished 34th in WAR at 5.32.

Finally we come to the player to be named later, Michael Brantley. He didn’t put up the gaudy power numbers that both Trout and Martinez did this year (something that might hurt him, although he did hit 45 doubles which is 6 more than Trout and 12 more than Martinez), but don’t fool yourself into thinking he isn’t a serious candidate to challenge Trout for the award. In 156 games played, Brantley posted a .327 batting average, a .385 on base percentage and a .506 slugging percentage. He had 200 hits (second most in all of baseball this year) scored 94 runs, hit 20 home runs and had 97 RBI. Brantley also stole 23 bases (caught just once), walked 52 times while only striking out 56 times. He hit a blistering .376 w/RISP (higher than Trout) and .306 w/RISP and two outs. Defensively Brantley was very good, posting a .996 fielding percentage (higher than Trout’s). In 1304.1 innings of work in the outfield (splitting time in both center and left field) he made 271 putouts, had 12 assists (more than Trout), was part of 2 double plays and only had 1 error. He was also 6th in WAR at 6.97. Michael Brantley literally did everything last season, and he did it very well.

Brantley, Martinez and Trout all have MVP type numbers.
Brantley, Martinez and Trout all have MVP type numbers.

Despite all of this, Trout remains the favorite to win the AL MVP. But is there any way Brantley can separate himself? While Brantley has the better batting average (by 40 points) and the better on base percentage (by just 8 points), he also does two things much better than Trout: he doesn’t strike out as much and hits better in certain clutch situations. Mike Trout struck out an AL leading 183 times in 2014. Obviously he did other things well (like pretty much everything else) but it’s at least something to consider. Trout also only hit .200 w/RISP and two outs, a full 106 points lower than Brantley. Defensively, Brantley committed fewer errors (albeit in fewer chances) and had three times the assists. Brantley also didn’t have somebody like Albert Pujols in the lineup protecting him (although Carlos Santana did come on as the year progressed). Looking at monthly stats Brantley only hit below .300 twice, once in April (.255) and once in August (.286). Every other month Brantley hit over .300, but never below .320. He hit .416 in September with his team in the playoff hunt. Mike Trout only hit above .300 for a full month during April and June. Otherwise he was never above .274 for a monthly batting average.

Is all of this enough to beat out Mike Trout for AL MVP? Probably not. Trout is a two time MVP runner up and with the “decline” of Miguel Cabrera it seems natural that it’s his time. His overall numbers absolutely make him a favorite to win the award but, should Brantley win, it shouldn’t be considered that much of an upset.

2014 Cleveland Indians: Failure or Success?

As the MLB Playoffs continue the Cleveland Indians find themselves on the outside looking in. The 2014 campaign for the Indians mirrored that of the 2013 season in that it was an up and down roller coaster ride. With the goal in 2014 for these Indians being the playoffs I suppose it’s fair to say that this season was a disappointment, at least in that regard. But was the 2014 season really a complete and utter failure? The answer is no, and for multiple reasons.

First off, the Indians finished the season with a winning record, 85-77. While that is a step back from last year’s 92 win regular season it’s unfair to consider that bad. It isn’t. The 2014 Indians had a winning record. Were they maddening to watch at times this year? Absolutely, but fans of the Kansas City Royals would undoubtedly say the same thing of their team – and they made the playoffs this year (or postseason or Wild Card play in game, whatever you choose to call it). I’d also bet that fans of the Los Angeles Angels, owners of the best record in the league this year (98-64), were at times frustrated. Over the course of a 162 game season there will be frustrating moments. Frustrating moments don’t equate to a bad season. A losing record does. The Indians didn’t have that, it just wasn’t good enough.

KluberThe Cleveland Indians season could, and to a large degree should, be considered successful for several personal accomplishments that positively impacted the team overall in a big way. For starters, this team has both a Cy Young candidate and an AL MVP candidate on their roster. By all accounts, Corey Kluber should be the American League Cy Young award winner this year. He has a 2.44 ERA, 18-9 record, was second in all of baseball in strikeouts and had the second highest WAR among MLB pitchers (first in the American League). Now while I could also make the case that Kluber could also be the AL MVP as well (his 7.39 WAR is not only second highest among MLB pitchers, it’s the fourth highest overall in the league), Michael Brantley has made a strong case for that honor as well. His 6.97 WAR is sixth best in baseball and his .327 batting average is the third highest in the league. Also, consider this. In March (one game) and April Brantley had a .255 batting average, his lowest monthly average of the season. His batting average for the remainder of the season (May-September) was .341. He set career highs in nearly every statistical category, including home runs (20), hits (200), RBI (97), runs scored (94), stolen bases (23) and batting average. Defensively, Brantley played in 153 games (1304.1 innings) and only had one error to go along with 12 outfield assists (tied for fourth highest among outfielders in 2014).

Michael Brantley

These are the most obvious individual achievements that made the 2014 Indians a relatively successful season. There are others. For as bad a start as he had (and as low as his batting average is), Carlos Santana’s 27 home runs tied him for 17th this year in baseball. Considering both offensive and defensive performances, Yan Gomes was one of the best catchers in baseball this year. While he didn’t lead the league (among catchers) in any one statistical category, he is near the top in things like batting average, home runs, slugging percentage and caught stealing percentage. The Indians bullpen had the seventh best ERA in baseball (3.12) despite having pitched the fifth most innings (513.1). The bullpen was also seventh in the league in strikeouts (504). As a staff, Tribe pitchers finished with 1,450 strikeouts which set a record for most strikeouts in a single season.

While there were no playoffs this season for the Indians, 2014 looks like it may be a stepping stone to some long term success for this team. The 2013 and 2014 seasons are the first time the franchise has had consecutive winning seasons since the 2000 and 2001 seasons. We also got a glimpse at some rookies, who to a degree helped contribute to the successful 2014 season. Tyler Holt, Zach Walters, Jose Ramirez, Roberto Perez, Kyle Crockett and T.J. House all showed that there is some young talent coming not named Francisco Lindor. This is also a team that isn’t going to lose star players to free agency. Assuming he doesn’t retire Jason Giambi is the only unrestricted free agent. Mike Aviles has a $3.5 club option and a $250,000 buyout. Those are the only two potential free agent casualties. Everyone else (barring a trade) will be returning next season.

Looking at it strictly from a playoff standpoint, yes the 2014 season for the Indians was a failure and a disappointment. They finished in third place, 5 games back of the Detroit Tigers (AL Central Division winners) and 3 games out of the AL Wild Card spot. However, considering that the Indians managed to have a winning season, aren’t losing any major pieces on that team to free agency, have two players that are MVP candidates, one that should win the Cy Young and a handful of young talent to help with the future it’s extremely hard to consider the 2014 season miserable and disappointing. For the first time in a long while for the Indians success is here now and the future is bright.

Cleveland Indians Playing Well in August

I’ll come right out and admit it, I had absolutely no confidence that the Cleveland Indians would be able to contend for a post season spot as of two weeks ago. I had said that, while mathematically in a similar position to the 2013 squad in terms of “games behind”, this team played like a team that is constantly about to turn the corner but never does. Their biggest fault was their starting pitching. It was awful. Many will point to the defense (which has been about as bad as possible too) but forget that last year’s team was also near the bottom in fielding percentage while the starting pitching was a strength. This year, the starting pitching was a glaring weakness. That is until recently.

The Cleveland Indians are 67-63 overall. They are still in third place in the American League Central Division, 5.5 games back of the Kansas City Royals and 4 games back in the American League Wild Card race. Since the All-Star break the Indians are 20-16, including 14-8 in the month of August. While the offense has cooled off a bit so far in the second half of the season (currently 14th in runs scored since the All-Star break with 145) the team is still winnings games (3 in a row and 7 of their last 10). Much to my surprise (and surly others) this has been done thanks to the help of the starting pitching.

In the first half of the season, Tribe starters combined had an ERA of 4.49 and a 1.40 WHIP. Since the All-Star break those numbers have improved greatly. Combined, the starting rotation has pitched 209.1 innings in the second half of the season. Collectively the rotation has an ERA of 3.31 and a 1.15 WHIP during this time. In the month of August (22 games) Tribe starters have pitched 127 innings and have a 2.83 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. The offensive, while struggling a bit, still continues to average just over 4 runs per game in the second half of the season. Not exactly an unstoppable force but enough to win games provided the starting pitching has been good. Since July, and especially in August, it has been good.

Corey KluberSince the break, the Indians starting rotation has two starters with a sub four ERA and two starters with a sub two ERA and in the month of August only Josh Tomlin (as a starter) has an ERA over four. Trevor Bauer has made five starts in August. In 29.1 innings of work he has a 3.99 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP while the opposition is batting just .219 off of him. T.J. House and Danny Salazar have each made four starts and pitched 21 innings for the Tribe in August. They each have a 3.43 ERA; House has a 1.38 WHIP while teams are hitting .268 off of him and Salazar has a 1.05 WHIP while teams are batting .208 against him. Corey Kluber has given a Cy Young worthy performance this season and he isn’t showing signs of regressing. So far this month Kluber has started four games and pitched a total of 28 innings. He has a 1.61 ERA, has struck out 35 batters, has a 1.07 WHIP and batters are hitting just .202 against him. And finally, there is Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco was written off by nearly everyone (myself included) as a starting pitcher. And while it’s far too early to make any serious claim otherwise, he has been lights out for the Indians this month. Carrasco has appeared in 5 games for the Indians this August, three as a starter and two as a reliever. In 23 total innings of work he has a 1.96 ERA and a 0.78 WHIP while batters are hitting just .183 against him. In his three starts this month Carrasco has logged 18 innings and has an ERA of just 0.50. It’s very possible that this short stretch is an anomaly for Carlos, but it’s also possible that something finally clicked for him during his time as a reliever. Should the latter be the case, the Indians could have a formidable pitching duo that could just carry this team into the postseason. Both Kluber and Carrasco are the scheduled starters for the Indians next two games (against the Chicago White Sox).

Carrasco has been solid since returning to the starting rotation.
Carrasco has been solid since returning to the starting rotation.

Looking ahead, the Indians have the ability to close the gap in the AL Central. Only two of their remaining ten series (not including a one game makeup against the Los Angeles Angels) are against teams not in their division (I am also counting their current series against the Chicago White Sox). This includes two series each against the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals. The games against Detroit are of big importance as not only are both teams chasing the division leading Royals, both teams are also in the AL Wild Card Hunt (Detroit is currently a half game out of the second AL Wild Card spot and 1.5 games back of Kansas City). Should the starting pitching continue to be strong the Indians have as good a chance as any other team in the hunt to make the postseason.

Noteworthy Performances from Youngsters

The Indians have gotten some good play out of some of their call-ups as of late. Since being called up from Triple-A Columbus, outfielder Tyler Holt has batted .348 (10 games, 23 ABs) had hasn’t committed one error in the outfield in 60 innings of work. In the second half of the season infielder Jose Ramirez is batting .306 (25 games, 85 ABs) with three stolen bases and looks to be comfortable playing shortstop. Most impressive, or maybe most noticeable, however has been Zach Walters. Since joining the Indians (via trade) Walters is only batting .208 with a .255 on base percentage (13 games, 48 ABs). In those 13 games, however, Walters also has 6 home runs, 9 RBI and has scored 8 runs. He has a slugging percentage of .583 for the Indians in his limited action so far this year. Cleveland may have just found the big bat they’ve been looking for in the switch hitting Walters.

MLB Contenders Gear Up For the Pennant Run

Every year baseball fans sit and watch the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline with interest. Some watch it because their team is in the thick of the pennant race and their fans feel that the team needs to beef up. Some watch because they know their team is out of the running for a post season berth and wonder if their team will re-build, re-tool or try for the quick fix. Others will sit back and watch as their teams do nothing and the fans wonder if that means that management won’t take a chance or that management rightfully/incorrectly believes that the team really does have the horses to compete next year.

This year we saw a couple of deals early, both of which affected the AL West as the Athletics and the Angels, the two teams with the best records in baseball weighed each other up for the stretch run.

Usually on deadline day, we see lots of deals and almost always those deals are for minor fixes….an extra bat off the bench here, an extra arm in the bullpen there, a back of the rotation starter or maybe an extra infielder or outfielder with defensive skills as insurance. Most of the deals involve prospects/fringe players going from the contenders to the also-rans in return for the player the contender really feels it needs to stay in the race. Rarely do we see big names move at the deadline and even more rarely do we see big names involved in the same trade.

If we expected that again in 2014 we were shocked. Twice. Everyone knew that the Boston Red Sox were shopping Jon Lester. He becomes a free agent at the end of the year and discussions between the two parties appeared to be going nowhere. When Lester was scratched from his August 30 start against Toronto, it was pretty clear that he was on the block. A pitcher of Lester’s ability is always going to attract a lot of interest. But, to do the deal a lot depends on what the selling team is looking for. They may be looking for front line prospects to use as building blocks for the future; they may be looking for a player(s) off the major league rosters to fill immediate needs. The direction that the selling team, in this case the Red Sox, wants to go usually determines who they match up with to make such a deal. The Red Sox have struggled mightily this year, but in Boston the term “re-building” is not one that is used as far as baseball is concerned. So the Red Sox were looking for a big name as part of the package they got in return for Lester. Yoenis Cespedes qualifies as a big name. Why the Athletics were prepared to deal him is a bit of a mystery. He is a top flight power hitter and on the surface appears not to be a clubhouse problem. For the Red Sox, he solves a couple of problems. He is a big name, who provides protection for David Ortiz and the bonus is that he is under team control until the end of the 2015 season. Getting a player like that in return for trading your staff ace certainly eases some of the criticism on Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. From the Athletics standpoint, it indicates they believe this is their year. Having already strengthened their rotation with Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel they now have a rotation consisting of Lester, Samardzija, Hammel, Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir. No real weak links there.

The Red Sox then traded John Lackey, another member of their starting rotation to the Cardinals for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig, both major league regulars and this would indicate that the Red Sox feel they can rebound in 2015 with some additional re-tooling. Kelly replaces Lackey in the rotation and Craig provides versatility as well as a pretty good major league bat.

The Athletics main rival outside their division, the Detroit Tigers felt they needed to answer, especially since the two teams are favoured to run into each other either in the American League Divisional Series or the American League Championship Series. So what did the Tigers do? They only picked up lefty David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays. Price needs no introduction. A top class lefty, with experience in the post season. The cost was relatively cheap considering Price’s stature. Starter Drew Smyly, Centre Fielder Austin Jackson (who went to the Mariners in the three team deal) and a minor league prospect. The Tigers are geared up now, with the last three AL Cy Young Award winners (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Price) in their rotation along with Anabal Sanchez and Rick Porcello. Like Oakland, no weak links. On top of that, they have the last three AL MVP winners as well in Verlander and the 2012 and 2013 winner Miguel Cabrera.

The Price deal is purely business. The Rays likely feel that they cannot compete with the big boys after the 2015 season when Price is a free agent, so why not get as much for him as they can. With Price under club control for another 15 months, they likely felt the return on the asset was better than it would be a year from now when he was only under club control for another 60-90 days. Time will tell.

The other contenders to add some pep to their post-season run were the Orioles and the Cardinals. The Orioles picked up quality left handed reliever Andrew Miller from the Red Sox and the Cardinals tried to mitigate the loss of Michael Wacha by acquiring John Lackey and Justin Masterson to bolster their rotation. The real key for the Cardinals will be the return of Yadier Molina to the lineup and the hope that he is 100% when he does return.

So who won the trade deadline sweepstakes? The Athletics took the biggest gamble by trading their most consistent power hitter in Cespedes. If Lester can’t bolster the pitching sufficiently enough to offset Cespedes’ loss, then the Athletics are in tough, as by making this deal they have clearly indicated that they feel this is their year. The window is short in Oakland as very few of their players are signed beyond 2015. The Tigers have sent the same message and so much depends on Cabrera and Victor Martinez to stay healthy and keep hitting. If they produce the Tigers are in good shape. If they don’t, then the pitching staff is likely going to have to work on the basis that one or two runs a night is going to have to be enough. For the Red Sox, we won’t know until next year or maybe 2016, depending on whether Cespedes wants to stay in Boston beyond 2015. Either way, I see Detroit and Oakland now as the real heavyweights in the American League. In the National League, the Cardinals will live and die with pitching and Molina’s health.

Whichever way we look at it, last Thursday’s dealing will make for an interesting last six-seven weeks of the major league season.

The 216: Your 2014 World Champion Cleveland Indians

Even when I feel pretty good about Cleveland, I don’t generally allow myself to dream.  You see, it’s hope that tears us down the most; it’s hope that helps general levels of disappointment manifest itself into an “Only in Cleveland” (OIC) level stomach punch.  It’s being three outs away from a World Series win or four wins from being NBA Champions that sets us all up for devastating heartbreak when it inevitably crumbles before our very eyes.  It’s so much easier to expect the disappointment, then be surprised when it’s all over and destiny has run out of ways to take it away from us; of course, for most of us, the Browns, Cavaliers, and Indians have managed to astonish us like that.

 

Maybe, none of them ever will.  Maybe, it’s not in the cards.  Maybe, real life needs an unscripted version of the Washington Generals and a region of loyal fans that literally expects nothing good to ever come their way.  But, maybe it doesn’t have to be like that.  Maybe, someday we’ll have exhausted all of the excuses, run out of ways to lose in such calamitous ways, and our great city can be defined by its winning ways, even if it’s just one team for one season.  Like the 1908 Cubs or 1964 Cleveland Browns, the joy of celebrating a World Champion has a shelf life, and soon enough it doesn’t add up to a hill beans in the long run, but as Frank Drebin said, “This is our hill, and these are our beans.”

The truth is, this team isn’t going to be the favorite of many, if any, to win the American League Central Division, let alone the World Series, as they break camp this weekend.  On paper, there are holes all over the Indians prospects to defeat a pretty good National League team four times in October, and I’m sure the fine people in the state of Nevada will happily take money from anyone who thinks the Tribe is worth taking a flyer on this season.  Kenny Lofton doesn’t even believe this was a playoff team last year; we haven’t received Kenny’s dissertation on the validity of the moon landing or the reality of the blaze on the Cuyahoga River, but stand by for any developments.  A lot of people do believe the 2013 Indians were a playoff team, but still remain hesitant to reveal any optimism about “Unfinished Business” when they consider what’s been subtracted from a team that needed to win 10 straight just to get on the dance floor.

 

The easiest way to address the questions about what constitutes a “playoff team” in this day and age, is just to follow the advice of Jake Taylor and “Win the whole fucking thing.”  Wouldn’t that force Lofton and fellow naysayer of the 1-game playoff teams, Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo to admit the Indians made the playoffs, regardless of how they qualified?  I imagine we wouldn’t have any concern with splitting hairs over such nonsense if this team can make the 1948 Indians a little less relevant in the grand scheme, but the OIC factor leads me to believe there’s going to be some type of ridiculous string attached.

 

Had they managed to win one more game against Boston in 2007 and bested Colorado in a best-of-seven, how much do you want to bet that “they” wouldn’t let us enjoy it?  It would have been because of the bug game or because Schilling’s sock wasn’t bloody enough.  It would have been because the National League stunk or any other variety reason the wet blankets could discourage those who are “Happy In Cleveland” (#HappyInCLE).  For those who took a liking to Ohio State football circa 2002-2003, you have an intimate familiarity with the wet blankets not letting you have that title, and “they” will never let you have that one under any circumstances.

 

Here’s to 2014 and a title for our city to have and to hold, until we all grow old.

Two Things About 2014

They Have to Win Now

 

It’s not because they’re due, and it’s not because we’re so desperate for it to happen.  It’s not because the stars are aligned so perfectly, but I don’t think it would hurt if they did so, coincidentally.  It’s because the window is wide open at the moment.  This is the last year this group is going to be together, and while they don’t need to be great, they need to be good or they will cease to exist as a group made up of its current parts.  Mark Shapiro would never fire Terry Francona, but how long do you think Tito is going stick around if it turns to garbage?  At that point, doesn’t the Dolan family realize they’ve opened the checkbook and brought in the best personnel, on and off the field, and that this regime couldn’t make it work, then find themselves forced to do a thorough house-cleaning?

 

Photo credit: Cleveland.com

 

I think those are both difficult questions to ask, let alone answer, if you’re really asking them.  They were meant to be rhetorical, but Francona has too many miles on him to start from scratch the way Eric Wedge and Manny Acta had to.  Maybe Shapiro would tell Tito, ‘Thanks for the memories, but we want to go in a different direction,’ but I’m almost positive that Shapiro, Chris Antonetti, and Francona’s last day with the Indians will coincide.  That would be the logical conclusion, but that’s just me caught up in the mindset that things will end badly.  Of course, as was the case in Boston, things can end badly, even after they go incredibly well.

 

The manager is just one piece of the puzzle, albeit a large piece, and one piece that might raise some questions about how much of a role the Tigers change at the helm is going to affect this quest.  It comes down to who you can get on the field and what you can do with them.  Nick Swisher might have a few more 20-25 home run seasons in him, and we saw at least one season like that, though most would say he had a discouraging year in 2013.  My guess is that he’ll be better in 2014, but may be approaching the back nine of his career, so that’s a plus that opens the window of opportunity up in the present tense, but leaves you to wonder exactly how long it’s going to stay like that.

 

If Nick Swisher was the #1 free agent that Francona was able to help reign in to Cleveland, Michael Bourn was arguably #1a, but certainly no lower than #2.  Like the energetic  Swisher, Bourn’s first season at Carnegie and Ontario was probably more bust than boom.  Bourn is an above average outfielder (at the very least) and a good base-runner, but wasn’t very efficient stealing bases last year.  I might say he was adjusting to American League pitchers and catchers, but this might be a developing problem that I’ve chosen to ignore, because it starts unraveling this tight spool of thread that is this prediction.

 

Forgive me for blowing that off as a minor cog in this whole thing, and suggest that it gets better for Michael Bourn.  He’s going to have a better year at the plate and on the base paths; as good as I think the chemistry is with this roster, I think it took Bourn some time to adapt to the craziness.  I haven’t spent a lot of time with Bourn, but I just always got the vibe that the energy level wasn’t quite his cup of tea, but winning heals most wounds.  Believe it or not, this team won.  Yes, it was due in large part to a couple of part-timers, who used the Indians to audition for the real jobs that they began this year, but with the subtracted assets, we should also consider the subtracted liabilities.

 

As briefly as possible, I’d like to remind everyone that Chris Perez was a problem.  Forget his dealings with the United States Postal Service, we know that’s a tough crowd, and just look at what happened on the field and in the clubhouse.  It’s worth noting, when he had his stuff moving, he was fierce, but we’re left with too many memories of things either not going well or not going as well as the should have in the ninth inning of too many games last season.  If not for that, it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal that Chris refused to talk to the media because of Paul Hoynes and Sheldon Oecker, but his teammates had to speak to his mistakes.  In other words, he left hung them out to dry.

 

As far as shunning the beat is concerned, that’s pathetic.  Neither one of those veteran writers had any interest in unnecessarily smearing Perez, but they had to ask the right questions, and they also had to write the truth.  If Perez wanted a better truth, he should have helped write more uplifting coverage of himself, with a better performance on the field.  Maybe that’s unfair; my ERA would be in the high 40’s if you asked me to do what Perez did well part of the time.  Anyway, no hard feelings toward Perez, but a mutual parting of ways between the now-Dodger reliever and the Tribe seemed appropriate to the advancement of the best interest of both parties.

 

Because All Else is So Uncertain

 

We alluded to the departures of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who pretty much wrote the thesis on what to do in a walk year to get paid.  Maybe it’s real, and maybe Mickey Callaway is the Jesus of pitching coaches.  Either way, it speaks well to the way the Indians evaluate talent, going back to prospects for Jimenez deal in 2011 and even the low-risk deal they gave Kazmir a year ago, after he’d been out of Major League Baseball for a season, the Indians are got something out of these former top-of-the-rotation guys that they hadn’t been able to get from the likes of Jeremy Sowers or David Huff, a couple of their first-round picks.  Even those dismissed via that questionable deal at the time haven’t offered much of anything at the big league level yet, and the clock is starting to tick.

 

Of course, the clock is ticking for everyone.  The Indians have to be well aware of it, as they’ll likely head to Oakland with no new deals in place for Justin Masterson and Jason Kipnis, meaning this will be Masterson’s season with the Tribe, whether there’s a parade or not, and Kipnis could very well play himself out of the Dolan’s price range.  There’s a lot of Indians middle-infield talent in the minor league pipeline, but the timing may not coincide properly, so you could be looking at Jack Hannahan type of place-holder in Kipnis’s place, but that’s not an immediate concern in the next year or two, though locking him up would be wise, if affordable.  Affordable is something that Masterson, far and away the ace of this staff, if not a legitimate ace on a more universal plane, will not be.  Chances are, regardless of whatever was leaked from the negotiations, he probably wasn’t affordable during the talks this month.

 

I’m not sure Years 3 and 4 of Swisher and Bourn are necessarily in the budget if things don’t come together in 2014.  If you need precedent, see what happens to the Indians in 2006 and 2008 after some serious flirtation with success in prior years.  I could recap, but I would just make myself sad.  In fact, I’m probably making everyone sad in mentioning it.  I’m not saying they can’t win without those two, but Cleveland lacks the proper curb appeal to bring free agents of their caliber to town without some extenuating circumstances.  I have a hard time believing they’ll hit the lottery with another Terry Francona type as the skipper, but through my half-full glass, I see Sandy Alomar Jr. in a legitimate protégé-becomes-the-master scenario, a la Mike Matheny.

 

Still, it’s a stretch to say this isn’t as good as it gets.  Tomorrow is a giant question mark for Indians baseball, if they even continue to be the Indians or reside in Northeast Ohio for the long term.  Both issues are probably can of worms that we need not open in this particular space.

 

One World Champion

 

Photo credit: AP

I don’t know how everyone looks at Terry Francona, which is to say I don’t how anyone looks at the Tribe’s current manager and thinks any alternative would have been better.  I know, especially after the disaster that was Mike Holmgren in Berea, that fans had their reasons for being skeptical about Tito’s World Championship pedigree, but I think it’s been obvious that Francona has nothing in common with anyone that’s been associated with the expansion outfit the NFL awarded Cleveland in 1999.  I mean, Terry Francona is obviously not Bill Cowher, but the commonality ends there.

 

He’s helped this team build its core off the field, with his name alone, and also a lunch with some Columbus-types.  He’s put together an outstanding staff to carry out his mission, and never underestimate the value of a general’s ability to identify the best lieutenants.  On a side note, think about Mike Scioscia’s staff that included eventual Major League managers Bud Black, Ron Roenicke, and Joe Maddon.  Think about Alomar’s plan with Lou Marson, Carlos Santana, and a player whose success has opened the door for the season’s biggest subplot, Yan Gomes.  They traded an above-average reliever for the services of Gomes and utility infielder Mike Avilies, by far the best deal Chris Antonetti has to his name, considering Gomes was good enough to become the everyday catcher, giving them a little bit of Marson’s defense and a bat good enough to allow for Santana to shed the catcher’s gear, at least on a regular basis.

 

Look, it’s not like the man doesn’t come with his own question marks.  Considering his demise in Boston with a fun team and few rules, you have to wonder if his reliance on veteran leadership might back-fire.  How about his loyalty to certain veterans, which is a major sticking point for those of us who can’t justify Jason Giabmi’s spot on the roster for the sake of his clubhouse presence?  He insists these guys go hard every step of the way, which I question, but it proves they’ll eat lima beans if he asks them to eat lima beans.

 

Nick Swisher has a World Series ring, but Francona has two; I know it’s easy to dismiss the individual’s value on Goliath-like teams, but you can’t tell anyone that neither played a significant part in bringing home a winner, nine-digit payrolls or not.  When the speculation of the hire began, Ryan Isley wrote a good piece about how Francona’s past relationship with the powers-that-be would continue to be a crutch, and that had to be legitimate concern.  Call it shell-shock from the broken promises that came from the Holmgren Era, but I believe 2013 should have annihilated that concept, virtually upon arrival.

 

Winning it all with two different clubs is something that no active manager has done, now that Tony LaRussa has moved on, so it’s a tall order for Francona to get back there, but you would be foolish that anything short of that is the goal.  Bruce Bochy got the Padres there in 1998, before winning two recently with San Francisco.  Jim Leyland won one in the late-90s and has gotten Detroit there twice, but has chosen a life of smoking Pall Mall non-filters and yelling at small children over chasing another ring.  Francona’s quest for a third ring is a journey to some uncharted waters, but I’d consider it far from something that can’t be done.

 

Six Buzz Killington-isms

Detroit

 

At least we’re not Detroit, right?  To keep it on the diamond, we’ll forget about the Red Wings, Pistons, and the endless collection of championship trophies the Motor City has to their name in the winter sports.  For some balance, we’ll spare our friends in Michigan mention of their equally inept NFL franchise.  Here’s the thing, unless you remember 1984, is there much of a difference between the Indians and Tigers from a macro view?  Think about it; both had dominant runs and a couple of legitimate chances to win it all, only to come up short when you would have classified them as favorites.

 

That would matter if we were talking about history, not current events.  Currently, Detroit may have reached their peak, so let’s see if they find a plateau at the top or slide down the back side of the hill.  Numbers can be deceiving sometimes, but you really can take the Tigers’ dominance over the Tribe last season at face value.  They beat the Indians in every way imaginable; it was de-moralizing, and I’m saying that from the couch.  It took a couple of at-bats, but Miguel Cabrera went from looking positively lost against Danny Salazar to taking the Cleveland phenom and his team out of the win column with an opposite field home run.

 

Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez took their whacks at Indians pitching too, but the worst part was getting beat by the likes of Don Kelly and Alex Avila.  It never mattered; Detroit just had an answer for masterful pitching and an abundance of offense.  For the third year in a row, the Tigers refused to run away with the division, and the Indians stuck around a little bit longer than Manny Acta could ever motivate them to do, but one number is deceiving, the one game that separated first and second place in the American League Central Division.

 

Even Tito would tell you that Detroit shut it down in the regular season as soon as they had it locked up.  Kudos to the Indians for winning ten in a row to keep it interesting, but Leyland and his team had little interest in winning any of the games in the team’s final series in Miami to end the season.  They’ll have plenty of interest in feasting on the Indians and anyone else on the slate early, but the wins may not come so easy at Comerica this season.

 

Max Scherzer has two different color eyes and a Cy Young Award, which he’ll have plenty of time to shine on Opening Day since Brad Ausmus has decided Justin Verlander gets the ball.  In reality, he’s earned it, and the fact that the reigning Cy Young winner is deferring his Opening Day start suggests just how good the Tigers are at the top of the rotation.  Is there real depth there, considering Rick Smith decided it was time to gamble on Drew Smyly to replace Doug Fister, and you never know what type of Rick Porcello you’re going to get, no matter how well Anibal Sanchez pitches.

 

There’s no question there’s a “Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain” element to the pitching staff, but Detroit is built for a slug-fest.  Fortunately, you’re not going to see Ian Kinsler replace Fielder’s power, and you lose something in the batting order with Jose Iglesias replacing Jhonny Peralta.

 

That said, they’re still the best team on paper, and no one should expect them to lie down and die, but they are beatable.  The Tribe doesn’t stand a chance against this team on paper, but if they can get it done on the field more often than not, as they did in 2012, it could be the difference.  In any event, you wouldn’t bet your life against the team’s first Central Division title since 2007, even if you wouldn’t bet your life on it actually happening.

 

Kansas City

 

It would probably be borderline disrespectful to call the Central Division a two-horse race, and I’m not prepared to give the Royals any “nobody believes in us” motivation.  The Royals have arguably been better than the Tribe in recent years, and we’ve just been waiting for the young pitching to come up.  You might say Royals management jumped the cycle last year in offering Wil Myers for James Shields to be their ace, a short term solution.

 

You might say I’ve believed the hype, but I’ve been holding my breath for so long, waiting on this team to surge, that I’m ready to exhale.  The Royals are relevant, but there may not be much more they can do with Ned Yost.  But, just because I’d classify the Royals as more pretender than contender, that doesn’t mean the Indians can sleep on these guys, who are fully capable of playing spoilers.  However, if this team preaches “Unfinished Business” and then comes out lackadaisical against a lesser opponent, they don’t deserve to watch the World Series, let alone play in it.

 

The AL Beasts

 

While I don’t love having the eastern seaboard shoved down my throat by ESPN, I can’t deny that division in the east plays some of the best American League baseball there is.   Toronto has made a lot of noise, but I’m not sure they’ve really said anything.  The Orioles made a statement in 2012, but played themselves out of the October fun last September, so they cut the check this winter to give Buck Showalter a better crack at keeping up with the Joneses, or at least the Farrels and Maddons.

 

Speaking of cutting the check, the team that has the reputation for it no longer boasts the game’s highest payroll.  That shifted over to the left coast and belongs to the Dodgers, but the Yankees aren’t exactly on what you’d call a “fixed income”, though they are cutting back from money not being an object.  The next generation of Steinbrenner is a little more frugal and they haven’t demonstrated the baseball know-how, to boot.  Frankly, they aren’t the player they once were, but Tampa Bay has picked up the slack for that.

 

Indians fans learned all too well just what the Rays have brought to the table since dropping the “Devil” from their name.  If you throw out the attendance issues they have on Florida’s Gulf Coast, outside of Tampa-proper, Joe Maddon’s team is everything we want the Indians to be, a system full of homegrown assets netted by good drafting and selling high on young talent.  It’s probably worth mentioning that they’ve yet to win a title, but they’ve managed to stay consistent, despite noticeable roster turnover.  Someone that looks at the Indians and Rays in a vacuum would tell you the Rays “deserve” to get back to the Fall Classic more; the Indians can only overcome that by being better when the games are actually played.  That means beating Tampa head-to-head, something they were obviously unable to do it at home when it counted most; don’t think anyone on last year’s roster will soon forget that.

 

California, Here We Come

 

With Thursday’s 3-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields, the Tribe is done in Arizona, and on to California, they will play games that count, beginning Monday after a pair of exhibition games with the Padres at the University of San Diego.  The Friars will visit them at Progressive Field in a few weeks, but the Tribe won’t be playing any games at PETCO Park this summer.  They will return to the Golden State later in April to play the Angels and Giants, but after a three-game set at Dodger Stadium as we turn the calendar from June to July will be the last time the schedule dictates the Tribe goes California dreamin’ this year.

 

However, if October is in the cards for this team, and I obviously believe it is, you can be fairly sure that they will be going (going) back (back) to Cali (Cali).  The Padres figure to be better in the National League West this season, but I won’t waste anyone’s time entertaining a Padres-Indians World Series.  On the other hand, the Giants and Dodgers figure to merit a reasonable wager to win the National League West, and perhaps the entire National League.

 

Dodger Stadium and AT&T Park haven’t been too kind to the Sons of Geronimo, but Asdrubal Cabrera is the only one that remains from the team’s last trip to Chavez Ravine in 2008.  So, those inter-league games might be a solid preview for the World Series games the Tribe would have to play on the road.

 

Obviously, it’s putting the cart in front of the horse to talk about the World Series without talking about everything that stands in the way of it, especially in California, where it’s do or die time for Jerry DiPoto in Anaheim after shelling out the cash to give Scioscia a chance to bring Orange County its first World Series since 2002.  The Angels are another one of those teams that should be better, maybe even better than the Tribe, on paper, but have underachieved for one reason or another.  That’s going to fall on Scioscia, and likely DiPoto too, if they can’t get it done, whether that’s fair or not.

 

Back to the wet blankets for a moment, I can pinpoint the moment “they” would have used to take it all away from us, if they somehow would have made it happen in 2013.  How about that home run at home that would have given the A’s a chance to avoid the sweep last May?  Adam Rosales home run-turned-double off Chris Perez survived a replay challenge in a game the Indians won 4-3, instead of being prolonged had Rosales’ blast tied the game.  Considering the Indians had to win ten straight to make the post-season without having to play a 163rd or 164th regular season game, anyone has anything to say about a single game in a 162-game season actually has a leg to stand on.

 

As it turns out, Bob Melvin’s squad didn’t need that win anyway.  They won the West for the second straight year, despite what Texas was supposed to be, coming off consecutive American League pennants in 2010 and 2011.  Oakland’s problem during Billy Beane’s tenure in the front office has always been the challenge of winning a 5-game series, and it plagued them against last year, despite having the Tigers on the ropes, they lost in 5 game to Detroit in the American League Division Series.  While I have an enormous amount of respect for Boston, Tampa, and Detroit, it’s not out of line to suggest the American League’s two best teams might be showcased at O.co Coliseum in the season’s opening series.

 

The Ghosts of October’s Past

 

It’s that time of year that you’ll hear the term “chalk”, usually in reference to the most obvious picks on our NCAA Basketball brackets, but the term is universal, and in this context I’d say a St. Louis-Boston World Series re-match is possible, while certainly not inevitable.  Besides, Boston can’t be in the World Series if Cleveland is winning it.  But, both of these teams present themselves as a tough out.  You could say the Cardinals outplayed everyone on the Red Sox roster except for David Ortiz last year, but I’d consider it the Red Sox finding a way to win.

 

I could preach day and night about the emotional high the Red Sox rode all year after the Patriots Day Tragedy, but the bottom line is they were better than the Indians last year.  They were better than everyone.  I will say this though; Terry Francona will forever be connected to those Red Sox, but he won’t stand for having his former team dominating him year in and year out.  There’s nothing scientific to back that up, just speculation that a desire not to lose will result in wins and a championship.

 

If there’s any team I’d prefer the Indians avoid from the Senior Circuit, it’s the St. Louis Cardinals, the National League Champion in 2004, 2006, 2011, and 2013.  Since 1992, the Redbirds are undefeated in the World Series when they don’t play Boston.  They’re a classy organization that figures out how to win, even when they lose big money talent.

 

One thing is for sure, if the Indians encounter a team they can’t beat, they probably would strive to be like that team.  I know we would all enjoy some solid structure in all ranks of the organization.  However, none of it would serve as any type of consolation for not getting it done.

 

Luck

 

It plays a factor, no question.  Luck puts you on the right side of that bad call on May 8th.  Luck means quick healing for Michael Bourn, a level head on Nyjer Morgan in his understudy role, and for overwhelming Spring Training success to translate to regular season prowess for Justin Masterson and Michael Brantley.  It means motivated play in walk years for Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera, the aforementioned need for bounce-back years from Bourn and Swisher, Carlos Santana transitioning smoothly to third base defensively, minimal regression from Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis after solid 2013 seasons, and good work from this bullpen full of new faces.

 

You never want to root for injury, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Max Scherzer and/or Justin Verlander spent some time on the Disabled List.  The same goes for any of the big bats in the American League Central Division, starting with Miguel Cabrera and Billy Butler.  We’re all excited for Danny Salazar, but it’s going to take some luck for him to survive the growing pains of not being quite so over-powering once opposing hitters get a few looks at him in person as the film on him builds up.

 

We want Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister to grow into their roles as regulars in the rotation.  Carlos Carrasco needs to keep his head on straight, and if not, Josh Tomlin will be thrown into the fire.  My high expectations for the team aside, the bar has to be set low for Tomlin who hasn’t pitched in a Major League in some time.  If Trevor Bauer can figure it out to be an effective spot starter at worst, or the second coming of 1997 Jaret Wright at best, we can be very happy in the cold as the floats travel down Euclid Avenue this November.

 

 

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.  In fact, this is going to be my last Sunday column on the site for a while.  More Than A Fan: Cleveland is in very capable hands with the other writers on the site.  Continue to enjoy their brilliance as they take you on the ride to glory with the Tribe while giving you the very best takes on the Cleveland Browns, Cavaliers, and Lake Erie Monsters.

 

Enjoy the time you have to kill between now and next weekend.  Thanks for reading and stay well.

 

 

 

 

The Tribe Roller Coaster Continues

From August 5th to August 10th, the Cleveland Indians did their best to prove that the inevitable “August collapse” was well on it’s way and this season would be yet another disappointing one.

Coming into a huge four-game series with the Detroit Tigers, the Indians were 13 games over .500 and ready to prove they belonged.

Except, they did the opposite. They proved they didn’t belong… or so we thought.

The four-game set was the worst we’ve seen on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario in quite some time, as the Tribe lost all four games to Detroit- including two in very heart-breaking fashion.

While failing to stay relevant in the Central, the Tribe looked to bounce right back in the Wild Card race against the Los Angeles Angels.

Again, they failed.

Looking as if they would get swept by a hugely-disappointing Angels team, the season might have changed with one swing of the bat.

A Nick Swisher two-run home run awoke the Tribe bats and brought back the spirit that was taken by the ferocious Kitties of the Motor City, as the Indians avoided a seven game losing streak before a big road trip.

The nine-game stint away from home started in Minnesota and again, it seemed as if the Indians would falter.

Another swing of the bat, this time a Jason Giambi three-run home run, kept the Tribe alive and relevant in the playoff chase.

It was then off to Oakland in a battle for the AL Wild Card spot. The Indians offense failed to show as they lost two of three and once again made sure that the fair-weather Tribe fans were talking of the “August collapse” yet again.

Low and behold, after being four and a half games out in the Wild Card race, the Indians picked up two games on Oakland as they swept the Angels to complete their nine-game, West Coast road trip.

An off day yesterday sets up what we like to call “crunch time” for the Tribe.

After all of the trials and tribulations, all of the heart-break and triumph, all of the bandwagon jumping, here the they sit.

69-58.

5.0 games behind Detroit in the AL Central.

2.5 games behind Oakland in the AL Wild Card.

10-10 in the month of August.

21 games from 90 wins with 35 games left.

Primed for a September run.

The ups and downs have only proved one thing: the Indians are a roller coaster team, but they demand the attention of their riders no matter where car is on the track.

The good news is, after a tremendous drop in the middle of August, the Indians seem to be climbing back up the tracks and may reach their peak right in time for the biggest series of the season: a three-game set with the Tigers in Detroit.

We all know what happened the last time we looked ahead to a series with the Tigers and we all know that series was supposed to be the biggest of the year.

What we didn’t know, however, was that the Tigers would struggle so mightily against the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals and would therefore keep the Indians in the thick of the AL Central race.

Although the Indians are far and away over-matched by Detroit, their frame of mind may help them to succeed at Comerica Park.

In the last series in between these two teams, the pressure was entirely on the Tribe and they crumbled under it. This series, however, the pressure will be on Detroit, as they’ll fight to keep their significant lead in the AL Central.

While the Tigers are certainly capable of putting the Tribe away for good, the Indians have been a good team when the pressure is off. I’m not saying they’re going to sweep the Tigers and find themselves just two games back in the AL Central heading into September, but I’m saying there’s a much larger chance of that happening this time around than there was last time.

There’s even more great news in all of this. The week coming into the AL Central showdown holds a four game set between the Tigers and Athletics- the two teams that are currently ahead of the Indians in the playoff race.

It’s a win/win for the Tribe. If the Tigers lose the series, the Indians should make up ground in the Central. If the Tigers win the series, the Indians will make up ground in the Wild Card.

Either way- and especially if the Indians can avoid a sweep in Atlanta- the Indians will gain ground in the playoff race before the true “series of the season” begins.

We must remember however, even if things turn for the worst in Detroit, that the season isn’t done. Quite frankly, it’s not even close.

If this was 2012, sure, I’d be just as skeptical as you are.

This team is different, however, and they’ve proved it time and time again.

I’m not going to bring up attendance and tell you to “get to the ballpark”. I’m not going to tell you to “stay with the team come thick or thin”.

I’m just going to tell you the facts.

The Indians are going to stick around at least until the end of September, whether you’re on board or not. You can be in “football” mode and forget about them in place of the Browns, but they’re still going to be very relevant until the end of the season, and hopefully beyond.

That’s just how Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti, and Terry Francona have put this team together. They were built for resilience and built to contend.

Thus far they’ve done both and delivered on their promise to bring excitement back to baseball in Cleveland.

Regardless of their final record, I’m excited for this final month of the regular season. This is what we, the faithful fans of the Tribe, have been waiting for all season.

A chance to play meaningful games in September. A chance to make the playoffs. A chance to bring the magic back.

It all comes down to this, Tribe fans. I hope you’re ready for a magical, heart-breaking, and exhilarating ride.

Ranking MLB's Divisions And Winners

Another Major League Baseball regular season is approaching its end, and while this year has seen controversy and scandal unlike any other the league has ever experienced, it’s also provided us with great moments: teams out-performing expectations, players having breakout campaigns, and spirited award debates.  Below is how strong I see each division in MLB and I predict who will win each division.

6. NL East

Heading into the 2013 season, the National League East was going to be a battle between the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals, with the Nationals viewed as a trendy pick to win the division and eventually the World Series.  But here we sit on August 21st studying the standings, and we see that Atlanta has been the better team in almost every way, and not just in the division.  The Braves have led the East for nearly the entire season and now have a 15-game lead over Washington, as well as the best record in baseball at 76-49.  They have feasted on an extremely weak division; they’re 35-19 against the Nationals, Phillies, Mets, and Marlins, who collectively have averaged 55 wins in 2013.  Atlanta may win this division by 20 games, arguably the biggest surprise in the majors this season. WINNER: Braves

5.  NL West

A couple months ago, this division was intriguing, with the Diamondbacks leading the way, followed by the surprising Padres and Rockies, with the reigning World Series champion Giants on the outside looking in.  Then the Dodgers called up Yasiel Puig, woke up, won 42 of 50, and opened up a commanding division lead which now sits at seven games.  The Diamondbacks are only a handful of games out of a wild card spot, but even then will have to top at least one of the three more-talented NL Central teams jockeying for playoff position.  The other three teams in the division have all struggled mightily in the last two months and are out of contention for anything than top ten draft picks.  WINNER: Dodgers

4.  AL West

After the big-money signing of Josh Hamilton this offseason, the Angels were expected to be in the thick of a great race out West with reigning division champs Oakland and former back-to-back pennant winners in Texas.  But the “baseball gods” had other ideas. While the A’s have for the most part maintained their solid play of last summer and the Rangers have overcome an assortment of free agent departures and injuries, the Angels (despite another excellent campaign from Mike Trout) have underachieved horribly, with Hamilton and his .228 average the poster boy for these struggles.  The bottom two teams (the Mariners and Astros) were expected to be…not good, but their farm systems are churning out quality prospects as we speak.  For this season though, I predict the West will be won by the Rangers, who have an easy schedule the rest of the way and have been buoyed by the acquisitions of Matt Garza and Alex Rios.  WINNER: Rangers

3.  AL Central

The Tigers were expected to run away with this division after adding to their already considerable amount of talent in the winter, and they are in the process of doing so.  With a six-game loss column lead over a predictably improved but still extended-slump-prone Indians squad, an eight-game lead over the improved but unproven Royals, and even bigger leads over the bad Twins and the really bad White Sox, the Central (while stronger than in the recent past) is still Detroit’s to lose.  Perhaps the World Series is as well.  WINNER: Tigers

2.  NL Central

The best division race in baseball.  The top three teams (Pittsburgh!, St. Louis, Cincinnati) all have legitimate shots at winning the division, and all three should make the playoffs.  The Pirates currently lead by a single game over the Cardinals and lead the Reds by three (four in the loss column).  The Brewers and Cubs are bad, yes, but the strength of the top three teams makes this a division to watch in the final weeks.  Will the Pirates cap their stunning return to MLB’s elite with a division title? I’m going to say no, but it’s awesome that we’re even thinking about it.  The Cardinals have a healthy Yadier Molina and that’s good enough for me.  WINNER: Cardinals

1.  AL East

The Toronto Blue Jays hadn’t made the playoffs since 1993, so to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the drought, they went out and raided the Miami Marlins for Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Johnson, and Jose Reyes this past winter.  They also acquired NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets.  As a result of this shopping spree, the Jays instantly shot up the AL East totem pole.  How did that work out?  Well, I’d say 57-69 and in dead last is not what they had in mind.  Meanwhile in Boston, the Red Sox have surprised everybody and continue to keep the Tampa Bay Rays at bay (get it?) atop the division.  The Orioles haven’t gone away after their shocking 2012 but will need a surge to qualify for the postseason and, as expected, the Yankees have faltered and will need a lot of help to sneak in.  So who wins this crazy division that features four teams over .500 and could field three playoff teams?  I’ve got Boston over another good Tampa team.  WINNER: Red Sox

Thanks for reading.  You can follow me on Twitter @puncakes_.