The Cleveland Indians have always felt like some sort of American League analogue to the Colorado Rockies. They're a low payroll team always struggling to hang with the big market clubs. They were a surprise stud team in 2007*, but followed that year with many seasons of futility. They have had to trade big time aces away in the lean years (although funnily enough they nabbed the Rockies' ace--Ubaldo Jimenez--in a futile pennant run in 2011). They are a team that builds from within, and tries to strike when a window is open.
*The Indians were one victory away from facing the Rockies in the World Series that year, when they were up 3-1 against the Red Sox. They proceeded to blow three consecutive games. Would the Rockies have gotten so thoroughly de-pantsed in the Series if Cleveland had won in five and faced the Rockies without a two week layoff? Perhaps in another universe the Rockies are World Champs...
They probably thought their window was open right now, considering they are coming off a 92 win season. They rode a wave of young talent and a roster with no discernible holes to the Wild Card round. They didn't make it to the Division series, but those Wild Card games are coin flips. They must have thought 2014 would be another successful campaign.
But it's been tough sledding for the Indians. At 24-30, the Indians sit 7.5 games back of the Detroit Tigers in the division. What's gone wrong?
The culprits are not difficult to find on the stat sheet. Chief among them is catcher Carlos Santana. Last year, Santana slugged 20 homers and walked nearly as often as he struck out to become a 3.6 win player (his value was somewhat sabotaged by sub par defense, but--as Rockies fans know--you can put up with a poor defensive catcher who can hit the crap out of the ball).
2014 has been a train wreck for Santana. If 2013 was his Black Magic Woman, then 2014 is his Smooth. Perhaps it's the strain of learning a new position--the Indians have been trying him at third base--but Santana has been unable to hit the ball with any authority. He still walks as much as he strikes out, but his .177 BABIP has utterly sapped his batting value, as he's down to a triple-slash of .159/.327/.301. He is currently on the DL with a concussion, and the Indians are probably hoping the time off gets his head right in more ways than one.
Jason Kipnis was also supposed to be a star this year, after posting 4.5 WAR in 2013 (rumor had it he was a piece the Rockies wanted for Ubaldo before they settled on pitching. D'oh). Like Santana injuries and a low BABIP have plagued him, and he has only managed a .720 OPS. That's pretty good for a second baseman, but far off the star pace of his 2013.
It's the pitching that has really killed the 2014 Indians. Outside of Corey Kluber, who is mowing down hitters to the tune of a 10.28 K/9, the starters have been various shades of disappointing. Justin Masterson, coming off an excellent 2013, is rocking a 5.21 ERA. Danny Salazar, the phenom that blew up radar guns and anchored the staff in the latter half of last year, has been so erratic that they had to send him down to triple-A.
At this point they are trying out Trevor Bauer, a former top prospect; the Diamondbacks got so dissatisfied with his lack of control that they practically gave him away to the Indians. Bauer is getting the start against Franklin Morales, which is the baseball equivalent of spelling bee between Hodor and Tom Cullen from The Stand. In other words, it could be brutal.
Josh Tomlin has also wedged his way into the rotation, and we will see him on Sunday. He's done a fine job, carving out a 3.04 ERA thus far.
At the end of the day, the Indians are probably better than a last place team. The Rockies are somewhat fortunate that they are missing Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher (also hurt), but frankly, those guys have stunk this year anyway. They have solid pieces across the board and are very strong at certain positions: Michael Brantley is having an emergent season as a power hitting corner outfielder, basically what Cargo should be. Lonnie Chisenhall is playing excellent at third base and Yan Gomes is a well above average catcher. They're probably going to get hot at some point.
Unfortunately, these days it seems like teams always get hot when the Rockies come to town...
Friday: Juan Nicasion vs. Corey Kluber
Saturday: Franklin Morales vs. Trevor Bauer
Sunday: Jhoulys Chacin vs. Josh Tomlin