Tribe’s problems easy to spot, but solutions may not be
The Tribe came into the season with high hopes and looking to build on the momentum of making the Wild Card play-in game in 2013. But the team came up short of a return trip to the playoffs, meaning the Tribe hasn’t had consecutive playoff appearances since the last millennium (1998 and 1999). They did the season at 85-77, in the process managing to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2001 and 2001, so at least they can hang their hat on that.
It was readily apparent, even just from watching a handful of games, what was wrong with the team this season. The Tribe’s defense had a major-league leading 116 errors; the bullpen was inconsistent; and the offense had a major drop off in the second half of the season, especially in September, which helped to stall any thoughts of repeating last September’s 21-6 record.
Diagnosing the problem is only half the battle, however, as finding a cure could prove to be more difficult.
The defense may take care of itself as it seems unlikely that the Tribe will be this bad again next year. Bullpens are weird by nature, with a dominant pen often struggling to repeat its success in back-to-back seasons, so that may self-correct as well.
Fixing the offense may be a bit trickier, especially with the albatross that is Nick Swisher hampering any moves the Tribe can make to improve the team’s performance at the plate. If general manager Chris Antonetti could somehow hoodwink another team into taking on Swisher, his broken-down body and his onerous contract, the off-season would be a win no matter what else the Tribe did.
But that is a topic for this winter. As the 2014 season comes to a close for the Tribe, let’s look at what went right and what went wrong over the past 162 games.
Thumbs up: Corey Kluber
We were going to go with the entire starting rotation, but Kluber deserves to be singled out.
Kluber’s 18 wins are tied for the most in the American League; his 269 strikeouts lead the league, and are the sixth-most in a single season in franchise history; he only walked 51 in 235.2 innings of work; and after the All-Star break he posed an ERA of 1.73 while holding opposing hitters to a .210 batting average.
The Tribe went from Gaylord Perry in 1972 to C.C. Sabathia in 2007 without a Cy Young winner. Kluber is now a leading candidate to receive the American League Cy Young Award, which If he wins would make him the third Tribe pitcher since 2007 to be named the league’s top pitcher.
A bad signing (and an even more embarrassing recruitment process) from the beginning has only gotten worse for the Tribe.
Swisher was an average player to begin with, and now that he is getting older and injury prone, he’s only going to get worse. He only played 97 games this season (which was actually a blessing for the Tribe) and is currently recovering from operations on both of his knees.
A .168 batting average with no home runs against lefties, 111 strikeouts in only 360 at bats, a .278 on-base percentage and a .609 OPS, Swisher was a mess from the first pitch of the season until the last.
And to think the Tribe still has three years and $42 million left on Swisher’s contract. Wahoo!
Michael Brantley quietly went about becoming not only the best player on the team this year, but one of the best players in the game.
Brantley finished the season with 200 hits, the first Tribe player reach that milestone since Kenny Lofton in 1996. He is also the first batter in Cleveland history to have at least 20 stolen bases, 20 home runs, 40 doubles and 200 hits in a single season.
According to MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian, Brantley joins Jacoby Ellsbury, Larry Walker, Ellis Burks, Chuck Klein and Babe Herman as the only players in major league history to have a season with at least a .320 average, along with at least 20 homers, 20 steals, 40 doubles, 90 RBIs and 200 hits.
Brantley led the Indians in batting average (.327), RBI (97), on-base percentage (.385), hits, slugging percentage (.506) and OBS (.900).
And he did it all for a fraction of what the Indians are paying Swisher.
It wasn’t that long ago that many Tribe fans would have expected the previous section to be about Kipnis and not Brantley.
Kipnis reportedly came to spring training out of shape and then suffered an oblique injury that he never seemed to recover from. He was limited to 129 games and after sitting out the season’s final two games, finishes the year with a batting average of just .240, with six home runs, 41 RBI and 61 runs scored.
After Aug. 1, Kipnis batted .235 with no home runs and just five RBI.
Not what the Tribe was expecting when they signed Kipnis to a six-year contract extension worth $52.5 million in April.
You want to point to the injury for Kipnis’ struggles, but unfortunately they date back to last season. Since the 2013 All-Star break (which covers 745 at bats), Kipnis is batting just .247 with 38 doubles, 10 home runs, 68 RBI and a painful 160 strikeouts.
“This is probably the first year he’s ever really struggled,” manager Terry Francona told the team’s website. “I don’t think he liked it very much. I’d bet you he comes back with a vengeance, because there’s so much trust in him not just as a hitter or base runner, but as a player that competes. I think he’ll come back with a vengeance. I think that bodes well for us.”
Thumbs up: Carlos Santana
As the calendar turned from May to June, Carlos Santana was batting .159 with six home runs and just 17 RBI.
Santana righted the ship, however, and over the final four months of the season he batted .266, adding 21 home runs (to lead the team with 27 overall) and 66 RBI. While his .231 overall average on the season was disappointing, he led the majors in walks with 113, was 12th in on-base percentage (.366) in the American League, and 17th in OPS (.794) in the American League.
And he did it while transitioning to a relatively decent first baseman.
Thumbs down: the offense
The Tribe was a middle-of-the-pack team in the American League is just about every offensive category. They were seventh in run scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OBS, hits and RBI; eighth in batting average and ninth in home runs.
But those numbers don’t reflect how poorly the Indians were on offense in the second half of the season.
After averaging 4.4 runs per game prior to the All-Star Game, the Tribe dropped to 3.7 runs per game after the break, and were down to 3.2 runs per game in September, a month that saw them scored two or fewer runs 13 times in 27 games. It’s a testament to their starting pitching that the Indians were still able to go 14-13 in the month with that offense.
The Tribe has to figure this out in the off-season as they can no longer afford to be giving at bats to the likes of Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles and Jason Giambi.
Thumbs up (maybe): Lonnie Chisenhall
No one expected Chisenhall to keep up the pace he set prior to the All-Star break, where he batted .332 with an OPS of .915.
But that doesn’t explain the significant drop off in the second half, where Chisenhall batted just .212 with an OPS of .581.
The 25-year-old Chisenhall still had a nice season, though, and the Tribe would probably take a repeat of this year’s production in 2015 – although they would probably like it if Chisenhall was a bit more consistent.
In 10 starts after the All-Star break, Carrasco posted a 1.72 ERA in 17 appearances (10 starts) while limiting opposing hitters to a .197 batting average. He also struck out 86 in 78.2 innings of work. In his 10 starts after joining the rotation, Carrasco posted an ERA of 1.30, a 0.81 WHIP and held opponents to a .179 batting average.
While not on the level of Carrasco, House put up solid numbers for a No. 5 starter. In nine starts after the All-Star break, he had an ERA of 2.60 and had a batting average against of .256.
If Carrasco has finally figured it out, rather than being 2014’s version of 2007’s Fausto Carmona, and House can settle in as the No. 5 starter, the Tribe’s rotation could be solid again next season.
And, in addition to being in line for a raise, pitching coach Mickey Callaway can spend 2015 working his magic on Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer.
So that’s a wrap on the 2014 season for the Tribe, one where the team probably finished right where it should have been. The Tribe was better this year against Detroit (8-11 vs. 4-15), but that was negated by being worse against Chicago (10-9 vs. 17-2) and Minnesota (11-8 vs. 13-6).
We’ve held the belief that the Indians were not as bad as they looked in 2012 (68-94, 20 games out of first) or as good as 2013 (92-70, Wild Card play-in game). This team has essentially been a .500 team (give or take a few games) that rode an unprecedented bad streak (a 5-24 record in August of 2012) and an unprecedented hot streak (10 in a row to close out the 2013 season) to skew their record.
“It was almost good enough,” Francona said in published reports. “It wasn’t, but I would rather have the disappointment of getting eliminated two days before the season than a month [before]. It’s certainly not our goal, but I do believe that some of the things that didn’t go necessarily as well as we wanted to this year will next year. And other things probably won’t. But that’s just the game.”
The bottom line is that, while this team was flawed, it kept everyone’s attention and stayed in the playoff race until the final weekend of the season. The Tribe has one job each year – get Cleveland to the start of training camp for the Cleveland Browns – and they did that and more this year, so that’s a thumbs up for them.
The Tribe has a lot of work to do and five months to do it. The season may be over, but that doesn’t mean it’s not time to get back to work.
(Photos courtesy of The Associated Press and Getty Images)