Nine Innings: On the concerns of the Indians

1) It’s tough to believe we were all fooled by the Indians fast start and the offseason buzz created by the addition of Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Michael Bourn. The starting pitching was always a concern, but the lineup generated enough excitement to look forward to 2013. A 27-19 start with an 18-4 stretch generated optimism, but a 5-16 stretch has followed, including an eight-game losing streak that ended on Tuesday. A team that a year ago fell apart with an 11-game losing streak and 5-25 month and changed managers to help make sure that didn’t happen again had a pretty futile stretch, even with Wednesday’s win. A week ago the bad stretch was one of those things that happen in a season. Now it’s risen to the level of concern. Losses count just as much in May and June as they do in September.
2) At this point you’d like to think the “Francona Factor” would come into play. Terry Francona was brought in to change the culture, change the team. He changed its vibe in spring training and had the Indians feeling pretty good early in the season. In the past few weeks he looked as helpless as — dare we say it — Manny Acta to stop the downturn. He’s a two-time World Series winning manager, but he’s also showing that when a team has players playing well and up to their potential, a manager looks good, and when the players don’t the manager looks … well … like Francona looked in Philadelphia when he didn’t have a winning record in four years. This is not to say Francona is doing something wrong. Clearly he’s not, and just as clearly he brings more credibility to the dugout than the Indians have had in years. He’s driven, hard-working, loyal, supportive of his players. He brings cache and credibility and smarts borne from a life in baseball. But he’s one man, and one man simply cannot do it all.
3) Doing the math on a baseball season isn’t tough. The Indians are 31-33 with 99 games remaining. Wild card teams last season averaged 92 wins. Say 90 wins makes the playoffs this season. That means the Indians need 59 wins the rest of the season, or that they have to play .596 baseball — which over a full season would equal 96.5 wins. With 70 games against teams with losing records, it’s possible. But tough.
4) Francona’s positives about his players remain unchanged. But when he says someone is “unhittable” (Nick Hagadone in spring training) or has stuff that is “electric” (Carlos Carrasco in a poor start in Detroit) and the guy is struggling, it sounds a tad … shall we say … askew.
5) It might seem nuts, but it might be time to think about bringing Lonnie Chisenhall back to Cleveland. Not because Chisenhall himself would make that much of a difference. But because thelineup just seemed to have better balance with Chisenhall. It gave Francona more options, and at that point the options were working well. The Indians used Mark Reynolds at first base or DH when Chisenhall played third; now Reynolds is solely at third. And whether it’s caused by playing third regularly or not, Reynolds has been in a funk. Nick Swisher could play first, right or DH. There wasn’t the need to have Drew Stubbs in the lineup every day. And with Chisenhall on the roster, the bench had one extra quality player. The concern clearly is that bringing Chisenhall back too soon would hurt him, and his development. But since Chisenhall was sent down May 13, the Indians are 11-18 and in those did not have a single hitter above .300.
6) During his early season hot streak, Reynolds joked with the local scribes that when he went into an 0-for-30 stretch the media would be on his case. Well, nobody has really been on his case, but Reynolds stretch is pretty tough. In the 27 games after Chisenhall was sent down and Reynolds took over primary duties at third, he’s hitting .180 and slugging .250, with two home runs and 10 RBI. He has just three extra-base hits in those 28 games. Reynolds was a huge reason the Indians started fast, and when the team signed him it do so with the knowledge that he could carry a team for a month, but could also struggle like mad at times. Welcome to his world. His batting average since he took over third base has dropped from .291 to .240.
7) Reynolds is hardly the only one struggling since Chisenhall was sent down. though. Carlos Santana is hitting .227, Nick Swisher .208, Michael Brantley .256, Jason Kipnis .270 and Drew Stubbs .214 since the day of that doubleheader against the Yankees.
8) Swisher entered this season with the following averages and at-bats at these positions: .240 and .774 OPS at first base (805 at-bats), and .260 and .828 in right field (2,458 at-bats). Clearly Swisher is most used to playing right, and he’s less effective at the plate when playing first. This season, Swisher has played 36 games at first base and hit. 205. He’s played 10 games in right field and hit .333. It would seem that this is not a simple coincidence.
9) As for the pitching, the Indians got a much-needed good start from Corey Kluber on Tuesday. But prior to that start they ranked 26th in baseball in walks plus hits per innings pitched, 28th in ERA. Since beating Boston 12-3 on May 23, the team ERA was 5.72.
10) Those numbers are more cause for concern than the hitters. There is no reason to think that people like Swisher and Brantley won’t hit, or that Reynolds won’t have another hot streak. But the pitching has been the concern from day one. Now Chris Perez, Brett Myers and Zach McAllister are on the disabled list and Carrasco is sitting out a suspension. The left-handed relievers have struggled and the bullpen remains queasy. The pitching remains the Indians biggest concern.