Friday, September 27, 2013

The rise of the Tribe

Terry Francona and veteran Jason Giambi
celebrate after Giambi's walk-off home run
Tuesday against the Whit Sox.
The Cleveland Indians — 68-94 in 2012, a lousy won-lost record that actually understates how bad they were — are on the verge of claiming a playoff berth.

The Indians certainly behaved during the offseason as if they were on the verge, and it mystified me. They surrendered draft picks to sign borderline Type A free agents (Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher); they enticed Terry Francona out of the broadcast booth to manage; and, yes, they traded for a high-level pitching prospect in Trevor Bauer, the one move of the offseason that made sense from my perspective for a bad team.

It's difficult today to see how some of those moves helped. Swisher hit .245/.341/.417, which is hardly eye-popping production for a first baseman-right fielder-designated hitter. Bourn, a leadoff hitter, saw his on-base percentage drop about 30 points from his established levels and saw his stolen bases essentially halved. Bauer, perhaps stubborn to the point of uncoachability, spent the season undermining himself; it's a lot easier now to understand why Arizona was so ready to discard him. Mark Reynolds, signed to provide power, was released in mid season.

And yet the Tribe has 89 wins already. How'd it happen?

Mainly pitching and defense, and maybe more the latter than the former. Somebody — be it Francona or pitching coach Mickey Callaway or somebody else — unlocked the puzzle of Ubaldo Jimenez, who went from 9-17, 5.40 in 2012 to 12-9, 3.38 in about the same amount of work (31 starts and 176 or so innings each year). The Indians had a take-a-chance reclaimation project pay off: Scott Kazmir has given them 28 starts, 151 innings and a 4.14 ERA. Justin Masterson rebounded well from his 2012 disappointment. Danny Salazar came out of the minors in the second half with power stuff.

And the outfield defense probably had no small part in the pitchers' success. The additions of Bourn and Drew Stubbs gave Francona three legit center fielders (the third being holdover Michael Brantley); the trio didn't hit much, but they didn't give up much either. It's not easy to split the gap against these guys.

Francona got a lot out of his bench, too: Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn, Jason Giambi and Yan Gomes provided 45 homers in bit roles.

There was some good fortune involved: the Indians are 30-17 in one-run games, 10-2 in extra innings. Those are rather high numbers.

And, not to be churlish about this, but the unbalanced schedule didn't hurt Cleveland much either. They got to feast on the carcasses of the White Sox (17-2) and Twins (10-6 with three games to go); that's 30 percent of Cleveland's wins to date. There may well be better teams in the AL East (Baltimore and New York) who are out of the hunt because the Tribe's schedule was so much softer.

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