Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Indians won't be able to sustain winning
By Jim Bowden
What a difference one offseason can make.
On May 22, 2012, the Cleveland Indians found themselves atop the American League Central, sporting a surprising 23-18 record. Today, the Indians again sit in first place with an equally surprising 26-18 record.
But the Indians are a completely different team in 2013.
They’ve been the best story in the AL this season. Outside of the New York Yankees' cast of reclamation projects, the Indians arguably have been the most fun team to watch in the league. New manager Terry Francona has injected the franchise with his positive energy and motivational skills. His championship-winning background earned him instant respect and credibility, from the players all the way to the front office. Teaming with general manager Chris Antonetti and president Mark Shapiro, the trio did a good job of addressing most of the team's needs.
So it is nearly June, and the Indians lead the division favorite Detroit Tigers by a game and a half. Indians fans should enjoy it while they can. Despite the team being significantly better than last season’s squad, it simply does not have enough starting pitching to keep pace with the Tigers in the AL Central. And without some extra pitching help, the Indians can’t even be considered a legitimate wild-card contender.
No doubt improved
There were many things wrong with last season’s team, but many of those ills were remedied during the offseason.
Last season, the Indians possessed the worst overall outfield defense in the game. After acquiring Drew Stubbs and Michael Bourn, the outfield defense is now one of the best. With Michael Brantley in left field, the Indians basically have three center fielders in the outfield. Fly balls that were doubles in the gaps last season are now outs, and fly balls in front of the outfielders no longer drop for singles, all of which makes the pitching staff look much better.
Last season, the Indians also were pathetic against left-handed pitching, hitting just .234 as a team. The Indians corrected that by signing free agents Mark Reynolds (who bats right-handed) and Nick Swisher (a switch-hitter) and trading for Stubbs and shortstop Mike Aviles. Together, Reynolds, Swisher, Stubbs and Aviles have combined for 24 home runs thus far this season. Their offense is the second best in the AL, with 218 runs scored -- trailing only the Tigers. Cleveland leads all of baseball with 60 home runs.
Cabrera could bring back a lot in a trade.
More importantly, Francona’s presence is motivating veteran players to play up to their potential, as catcher Carlos Santana has looked like a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat including an OBP north of .400. Second baseman Jason Kipnis’ speed/power combination has resulted in seven homers and nine stolen bases.
Francona’s biggest influence might be at the top of the starting rotation. Right-hander Justin Masterson, who came up as a rookie in 2008 with the then Francona-led Boston Red Sox, is off to the best start of his career, while youngster Zach McAllister finally is living up to his potential.
However, while I believe in the Indians’ offense, defense and bullpen, without a more competitive rotation behind Masterson and McAllister, I don’t see it lasting. And there already have been problems.
Brett Myers has been a disaster, going 0-3, with an 8.82 ERA before landing on the disabled list. Scott Kazmir’s ERA is well over 6.00 in his six starts, and his comeback story looks like it might not have a happy ending after all.
And even though he might have had four solid starts in a row, I just can’t trust Ubaldo Jimenez. At some point I expect his mechanics to fall apart and his ERA to head north. McAllister is doing fine now, but how will he do from starts 21-30? Corey Kluber and Kazmir haven’t shown me anything to believe in them, either.
Time to sell high
Antonetti told me if he thinks his team needs more starting pitching, his ownership will support them both financially and in trading prospects. That said, Antonetti really believes he has enough pitching in the farm system to solve it without having to deal anyone. One example is right-hander Trevor Bauer, who Antonetti believes will keep improving. Francona concurred, saying when Bauer’s fastball command finally arrives, he could make a real impact.
But the Indians should be building for the next three years, not just this year. Without better starting pitching, going for the postseason this season might just be folly. If that is the case, the Indians should use closer Chris Perez and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as trade pieces to continue to stockpile young talent. That talent would eventually allow the Indians to compete at a playoff-caliber level for an extended period of time.
If the Indians wait a year or two, they might lose this opportunity of being able to trade Perez for a young starting pitcher. The Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers and Tigers would all be willing to pay the price. Perhaps the Tigers would even trade left-hander Drew Smyly for Perez in a package.
Likewise, Cabrera is 27 years old and also in his prime. He is an above-average offensive and defensive shortstop who should be able to bring back a significant young starting pitcher. The St. Louis Cardinals could really use a shortstop and have plenty of prospects to trade, such as right-hander Michael Wacha. The Dodgers also need a shortstop and pitching prospect Zach Lee would be a target. After that, calls to the New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates would be wise.
Somewhere there is a team that would trade a young starting pitcher for Cabrera. With Cabrera’s impending free agency after the 2014 season, this is the best time to deal him and get maximum return. Francisco Lindor will be the Indians’ long-term solution at shortstop, as he is one of the best prospects in the game and reminds me of a young Barry Larkin.
Indeed, the Indians are a great story, but they serve as a cautionary example. Placing too much emphasis on what might be short-term success could end up hurting the club in the long run. Their current starting pitching simply isn’t good enough to maintain their first-place status. To have true staying power -- not just for this season but for an extended run of success in the future -- the Indians must address the starting rotation for the years to come.