by Ryan Carey
The Cleveland Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948. If you don't want to do the math that's 64 years, which makes them the Chicago Cubs of the American League. Unlike the Cubbies, the Tribe has at least gotten close a couple times since World War II, losing the Series in 1995 and 1997. Those were good times in the ballpark formerly known as Jacobs Field, or "The Jake," a name many fans still use in spite of Progressive Insurance buying naming rights to the field in 2008. Yes, the Indians had a nice run in the '90s, winning five consecutive AL Central titles from 1995 to 1999 (the strike in '94 likely robbed them of a sixth). The Indians were a bona fide powerhouse, winning games and selling out every night. Things started to change in 2001 when Manny Ramirez decided jump to Boston in free agency. The following year Roberto Alomar was traded and Kenny Lofton was allowed to sign with the rival White Sox. In 2003, slugger Jim Thome signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, signaling that the end of a very special time in Indians baseball was officially over.
Keeping the ERA Lowe
Since then, it has been a series of ups and downs for the franchise, with one playoff appearance in 2007 the lone bright spot. The euphoria surrounding the return to prominence for the team was of course short-lived, and as key players neared free agency, the team made a series of trades to restock the system. The window of opportunity had closed, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez were dealt in multiplayer deals, and the Indians reloaded and embarked on their next 7-year plan.
2011 saw the Indians sprint out of the gate in April with an 18-8 record. They rode the momentum of that spectacular first month and held onto first place into July, when injuries and a red-hot Detroit Tigers team ended the dream. Still, the success for a young team that wasn't expected to contend gave hope that the team was on the right path in the quest to return to the postseason.
So here we are, a month and a half into the 2012 season, and Cleveland is once again in first place in the Central at 23-18 and this year they are hoping they can do what they failed to do last season. Manager Manny Acta has his team playing sound, fundamental baseball. They are winning games with a mixture of pitching, defense and situational hitting. The Indians are a patient team at the plate so far this year. They lead the league in walks with 166 and are near the bottom of the list in strikeouts, with 240 so far. That's a big improvement over last season, and a necessary one for a team that doesn't have a ton of power in their everyday lineup currently. They also have been more active on the base paths to start the year, already swiping 25 bases after only totaling 89 all of last year.
The biggest strength on the team right now is a strong bullpen that has shown the ability to close out tight games. Dubbed the "Bullpen Mafia," they have been the Indians' secret weapon, keeping the team in games and closing out victories. Led by closer Chris Perez and set-up man Vinnie Pestano, the team has converted 14 of 18 saves this year. They recently had a 17 2/3 scoreless innings streak that was a big part of the team's surge to the top of the standings.
The biggest surprise so far has been the pitching of off-season acquisition Derek Lowe. Brought in from the Atlanta Braves, he was supposed to provide a veteran presence and eat up innings. Coming off a 17 loss season, expectations were low for a player the Braves are paying $10 million (the amount of Lowe's salary they ate) to not pitch for them this season. Well, he has been nothing short of fantastic for the team so far, pitching to contact and getting ground balls like he always does, and winning. After Tuesday's complete game shutout of the Twins, his record stood at 6-1 with a league leading 2.05 ERA (although he's now second, with a 2.15 ERA, after Sunday's loss to Miami). His performance has been key, since both Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez have struggled with consistency thus far.
Now, it should be pointed out, that while Lowe has been a revelation for the Indians, he likely still isn't on too many fantasy rosters, outside of Al-only leagues. The big reason is, despite his recent success, his K/9 is a shockingly low 2.30, which is way below his career rates, which were never very high to begin with. He's also currently sporting an unsustainable LOB% of 83.7. His FIP and xFIP are both near 4.00, so there will be some regression coming to that ERA soon. So, while he may not be a pitcher I'd necessarily recommend you run out and grab for your teams, it doesn't change the fact that his resurgence has been one of the better storylines in this young season.
On offense the team has been led by the trio of young stars up the middle of the diamond. SS Asdrubal Cabrera, C Carlos Santana and 2B Jason Kipnis are all off to solid starts. Kipnis has lived up to the preseason hype hitting .275 with six home runs, 23 RBI, 24 runs and 6 SBs so far. Finally moved back up to the top of the lineup, he should continue to produce solid numbers the rest of the way.
An interesting development this week was Acta moving Shin-Soo Choo to the leadoff spot, in an effort to both improve production in that spot and get the veteran outfielder's game on track. The upside for Choo owners is that he should have more opportunity to steal some bases and score some runs if he can stick in the top spot. With Johnny Damon struggling badly, it was a smart move by Acta, as Choo hasn't looked comfortable hitting down in the lineup. Since moving Choo up, he's 6 for 13 with two doubles and a home run. The Indians now lead the AL Central by 2.5 games over the Chicago White Sox.
So what lies ahead for the Indians in their quest to return to the postseason again? Well, they will still have to likely outlast the Tigers to punch their ticket, but the expanded playoff format gives a little more room for them to sneak in as a wild card if they can find a way to build on their early success. Masterson and Jimenez need to start pitching like the top-of-the-rotation anchors they are supposed to be. The team needs to stay healthy, something that absolutely derailed the train last year.
There are reinforcements down on the farm in 3B Lonnie Chisenhall and 1B/OF Matt LaPorta. Both players are off to terrific starts, and it's only a matter of time before the team will have no choice but to bring them both up to try and generate more offense. The fact that the team is playing well while both these young players continue to polish their skills has been good. LaPorta in particular is a player that all Indian fans want to see succeed, just because of the price paid to acquire him.
Whatever transpires the rest of the way, the Indians seem to have turned a corner in one respect. This is a team that plays hard and they play the game the right way. Acta has done a great job changing the mindset. All that's left is for the players to start believing that with continued work and effort, the rewards will come. As a fan, I'm just happy to look at the standings and see my guys back on top again, and look forward to another season of drama and excitement.