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Cleveland Indians: A Real Contender in the American League?

June 16, 2012; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians mascot Slider stands on a logo on the field prior to a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

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.



Topics: Cleveland Indians

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  • Patrick Allen

    I am a big Tribe fan but I tend to agree with you. I don’t think they will collapse like they did the last two years but I don’t buy the pitching at all. They can hit, that is for sure and so far the hitting has been bailing them out.

    I think the most telling thing is the way they started the season. They weren’t very good in April at all. I think we’ve just seen two extremes and that they will settle around .500. Hope we’re wrong though. =)

    • Jared Champion

      How in the world can you possibly think that April baseball is a tell tale of a ball club?

  • Jared Champion

    Whoever wrote this is clearly does not follow The Tribe or baseball for that matter. Firstly, we are only a 1.5 games above Detroit as of today (when this article was posted.) He stated that Ubaldo was an off season move when we traded for him two seasons ago. He is calling Drew Stubbs’ hitting performance of .248 poor when he is traditionally a Mendoza line hitter. He continues to praise Chris Perez who has played awful this season compared to years past (He even decided not to close a game because he “didn’t feel right.”) He talks about how poor our team has pitched outside of McCallister and Masterson when that simply is not true. While we may have started off poorly, which is true, that rotation has been lights out for over a month now. He talks about a bullpen full of “no names” that includes all-stars Vinnie Pestano, [a struggling] Chris Perez, and a consistent Joe Smith. Anyone who has watched The Tribe over the last few years knows that Bullpen Mafia has been one of the best bullpens in baseball. He also kind of writes off Michael Brantley as a decent player when he has been the most consistent player we have had for years. He states that our lineup is weak when we have the highest slugging % and the 8th highest average in the majors. Tribe fans, fear not. The team we have this year is legitimate for the first time since 2007. Sit back and enjoy the ride that this team is going to bring us.

    • Ben Beecken

      You’re right, I incorrectly lumped Jimenez in with the rest of the off-season acquisitions.

      But, just because Stubbs’ usually hits poorly does not mean that he can’t be called out for it. Perez has not been awful. And the rotation outside of McCallister and Masterson has been horrific. Pestano and Smith are both great, and have been for the past 2-3 years. But beyond them, there isn’t much in the way of a track-record for the rest of the guys.

      By no means do I think that Cleveland will “collapse”, just that they aren’t a true “contender”. They’ll probably finish around .500 and quite possibly in second-place.

      • Jared Champion

        We didn’t bring Stubbs in to hit the hell out of the ball. He is hitting above his own career average, what more can you ask of the guy? He is never going to be a .300 hitter and its insane to ask him of that.

        I do not know how much tribe baseball you have watched, but even when Perez gets the save, he does so after he loads the bases. He has blown two already this year which is well above his pace for a normal season. And as of recently he has given up a run in his last three appearances. Not what I want out of a closer. He is not the Chris Perez I have felt confident with in years past.

        And regarding our bullpen; how many bullpens are out there that have pure depth with all-stars all the way through? Not many that I can think of. I’ll concede starting pitching, but I will do so biting my tongue.

        I think what we have seen thus far this season out of this ball club is conducive of what we will see throughout the rest of the season. Time will tell and I sure hope that when October rolls around, I can say “I told you so.”

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