What are Cleveland Indians fans to think of their team’s 2014 performance as the season reaches the All-Star break?
If the one-word description of the Indians last year — Terry Francona’s first as manager and a season that ended with a playoff berth — would be streaky, then the one word that describes this year’s team is inconsistent.
In 2013, the Tribe stood 51-44 at the break, just a game and a half behind the Tigers in the AL Central. They finished 92-70 and claimed one of the two wild-card spots before losing to Tampa Bay in the wild-card game. The streaky season ended with 21 wins in 27 September games — including a 10-game winning streak to end the regular season — but it also included five separate losing streaks of five games or more.
This year Cleveland is 47-47 at the break and 71/2 games behind the Tigers. The Indians are still in the wild-card hunt — who isn’t — and have played better of late, going 8-4 thus far in July.
But like last season, the Indians have been up and down performance-wise, though they haven’t put together any lengthy streaks — win or lose. Still one gets the impression that this club has not shown the ability to put together a playoff run, let alone have any success should it reach the postseason.
The overly optimistic fan is simply waiting for the magic of 2013 to show up and carry the team. The response from the players — meaning from Francona — is the same as last year: “grind it out,” “one day at a time.”
That approach worked a year ago and could well again but another option is a trade or two to try to spark things.
Judging from the club’s history, that seems unlikely. In fact, should the Indians start the second half of the season slowly — they have 10 straight road games at Detroit, Minnesota and Kansas City — we might see them unload potential free agents Asdrubal Cabrera and-or Justin Masterson.
But here’s a thought. Perhaps they can make additions to the team without the corresponding subtraction that constitutes a trade. Specifically, the Indians have two pitchers, one a starter and the other a reliever, who conceivably can play big roles down the stretch.
The starting rotation currently consists of two young pitchers with great, sometimes dominating, stuff in Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. They both have shown the ability to keep Cleveland in any game they start even when they don’t have everything working. When they are on both can dominate, though Bauer continues to be a work in progress.
Also in the rotation at this time are Josh Tomlin and Zach McAllister. These two guys are as gutsy as any pitcher and will battle to keep their team in the game, but if they are “off” in any given start it is likely to mean a long day for the bullpen.
The fifth starter is Justin Masterson — if he can overcome a knee injury — or T.J. House, a young guy who has shown flashes but is still a work in progress. Masterson could be considered an addition without subtraction if he can recover and return to his top form, but there is another guy who seems more likely to come through.
Danny Salazar came into the 2014 season fresh off of a great second half in 2013 which included a start in the Indians’ playoff game. The 24-year-old struggled early this season and was sent down to Class AAA Columbus. There he has a 3-6 record with a 4.50 earned run average along with 62 strikeouts in 48 innings. He has been better of late, allowing two or fewer earned runs in three of his last four starts, fanning 34 in 25-plus innings.
If Salazar can come up and pitch as well as he did last year he could make a huge difference.
In the bullpen, the possible “addition” was, like Salazar, in the Cleveland starting rotation back in April. The club gave Carlos Carrasco one last shot at showing what he could do as a starter. That didn’t work out and he finds himself in the bullpen.
Throughout his major league career Carrasco, 27, and another guy with great stuff, has been more effective in a bullpen role than as a starter. Since June 10 he has allowed just one earned run in nine appearances covering more than 16 innings. He has 15 strikeouts in that period.
Francona loves to use his bullpen and, led by the trio of Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Mark Rzepczynski, the relievers have been dependable for the most part. But the three are among MLB leaders in appearances (46 for Allen and Rzepczynski and 45 for Shaw). There is a real danger they could be burned out late in the season.
Carrasco has not pitched in a lot of pressure situations thus far, but has been effective when called on. If Francona starts to use Carrasco more in late-game situations and he is effective it can take some of the workload off the others.
Obviously, the idea of Salazar and Carrasco providing enough of a spark could be considered a longshot. And that doesn’t even address the offense (struggling but getting a little better) or defense (a mess for the most part). But those two could also be just what the Indians need to remain in the playoff hunt without giving up any assets.
Regardless, with the long road trip upcoming, we will find out fairly quickly whether or not this team can contend.
Doug Chapin is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org