The Cleveland Indians are 26-17 and hold a 2 1/2 game lead over the defending American League Champion Detroit Tigers in the A.L. Central entering play on Tuesday. A surprise, to be sure, but a number of pundits suspected that the revamped Indians would at least give the Tigers a fight for the division in 2013 after a flurry of off-season moves.
Additions such as Nick Swisher, Drew Stubbs, and Michael Bourn to the lineup and Ubaldo Jimenez and Brett Myers to the rotation were expected to bolster an otherwise young roster. So, as the Indians sit in first place as we near the end of May, can they thank their new additions for their rapid rise in the standings? Not quite.
Bourn has only played in about half of the Indians games thus far due to injury, while Stubbs is hitting just .248/.301/.376. Myers started the season with an 8.02 ERA and 1.59 WHIP over 21.1 innings before heading to the disabled list with elbow inflammation, and Jimenez has been decidedly up-and-down, resulting in a 5.31 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP 40.2 innings in 8 starts thus far. On the plus side, Swisher has been very good, hitting .274/.382/.493 and holding down first base for Cleveland.
So how are the Indians nine games above .500? Good question. Let’s start by taking a look at the rest of the regulars in the Cleveland lineup. The biggest bright spot is certainly catcher Carlos Santana, just entering his prime at 27-years old and hitting an impressive .296/.403/.548. Journeyman power-hitter Mark Reynolds has slugged his way to 12 home runs and a .253/.341/.548 line this season, but his career-long struggle has been consistently making contact, so we’ll see if he can maintain this acceptable pace. Other than a solid showing by Michael Brantley so far this season, that’s about it for the Indians’ offensive attack.
Justin Masterson (2.83 ERA, and 1.13 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 innings) and Zach McAllister (2.65 ERA, and 1.18 WHIP) have keyed the Indians’ rotation to this point, as the rest of the crew has been nothing short of horrendous. The other five pitchers that have started a game for the Indians in 2013 are a combined 9-11 with an unsightly 5.67 ERA. Hardly the stuff of a first-place team, to be sure.
The bullpen has been incredible, with Chris Perez, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen all appearing in at least 16 games with ERAs of 2.33 or lower. With a ‘pen full of virtual no-names, the Indians have navigated their way to a major league-best 11-3 record in one-run games to this point.
Okay, elephant in the room: will this hot start last? Ending the season ahead of the mighty Tigers is likely a pipe dream, but will the Indians at least stay in the hunt and give Detroit a run for their money down the stretch? Short answer: no.
The rotation has been worse than poor beyond Masterson and McAllister, and it’s tough to say if their success is even sustainable, especially McAllister’s. His low strikeout rate of just 6 per 9 innings and poor strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.43 will likely catch up to him. His minor league track record doesn’t strike much confidence, and unless the rest of the rotation magically becomes respectable, the rotation could very quickly devolve into an Astros, Mets, or Twins-esque debacle.
It’s very tough to say if the bullpen can sustain it’s success due to the small sample size of innings that we have thus far, but Cleveland’s success in one-run games is absolutely unsustainable, and has thus far been buoyed by their impressive bullpen performance.
As far as the lineup goes….it isn’t enough to keep the Indians in the hunt, and especially not if the rotation continues to struggle. Swisher and Santana will continue to carry the dead weight, but Reynolds’ track record suggests that he should not be counted on moving forward, and the rest of the lineup has been largely disappointing.
Ultimately, the Cleveland Indians will remain respectable in 2013, and will likely hover near a .500-record as the season rolls forward. They will not, however, challenge the Tigers for the division crown. They simply do not have enough pitching, and outside of a solid 1-2 punch with Santana and Swisher (and hopefully a healthy Bourn), enough offense, either. The 26-17 start has been a nice story, but regression to the mean is a cruel thing, and is lurking in the very near future for the Tribe.