Will The Indians Rejoin The American League Heavyweights?

The Cleveland Indians have lurked below the headlines of the American League so far this season. The Tribe are on a pace to win 89 games in a league where four teams are on a pace to win 100-plus. But none of those teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Astros, Mariners) are in the AL Central, so Cleveland is still in first place.

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Indian fans know as well as anyone that it’s simply about winning your division—last year, they won 102 games, including 22 straight down the stretch…but lost in the Division Series. Conversely, in 1997, they stumbled to first place in a weak division, but found their mojo in October and reached the World Series. So our focus here is twofold—what needs to happen to ensure Cleveland maintains its margin in the AL Central, and where do they need to get better between now and the postseason?

Cleveland is a mammoth 1-15 favorite to beat out Detroit and Minnesota for the division crown. Even with the Indians relatively middling pace so far this year, they still have a five-game lead going into a weekend series with the Tigers. There’s only one thing—short of something apocalyptic—that can get in the way of that continuing and it’s the bullpen.

The Indians rank 14th in the American League in bullpen ERA and it’s the sole reason they aren’t in the group of teams on 100-win pace. The main reason is that Andrew Miller first struggled to a 4.40 ERA and then went on the disabled list. He’s due back at some point before the All-Star break. Cody Allen, the closer, is better than his 3.86 ERA indicates. And while bullpens for every team have a roll of the dice feel to them, the teams with the best managers usually get something figured out over a six-month regular season. Terry Francona is nothing if not one of the best managers in the game.

So in a worst-case scenario, Cleveland’s bullpen struggles continue and they stay in a close division race with mediocre opposition and likely still survive. In a best-case scenario, the bullpen locks in and the Tribe blow away the Central. I think the latter is what’s going to happen, but in terms of a strict focus on the AL Central, I don’t know that it matters all that much.

That brings us to a longer-term focus on October and the goal of winning three playoff rounds. For the sake of discussion, let’s say the Indians would have to beat the Astros, Yankees and Cubs in succession. Right now, they simply don’t have the starting pitching depth to do it.

On the surface, Cleveland’s starting pitching is fine, ranking second in the American League in ERA. But they are heavily dependent on Corey Kluber, the two-time Cy Young Award winner having another vintage year, with a 2.10 ERA in 16 starts. He’s got 11 wins and is rivaled only by Houston’s Justin Verlander at the top of the American League.

For now, Trevor Bauer (2.50 ERA in 15 starts) and Mike Clevinger (3.00 ERA, 15 starts) are pitching well, but I don’t know how much confidence I would have in them against the best teams in baseball. The Indians survived a Kluber-heavy rotation in 2016 to get to the World Series, but that was when their bullpen was a huge asset, not something that needed to be fixed. And even then, Kluber and Miller eventually ran out of gas from overuse in Game 7 of the World Series against the Cubs.

The ideal would be a silver-bullet solution to get another big-time starter in at the trade deadline, but that’s easier said than done. It’s usually easier to add depth or to improve it from within. In that regard, the biggest thing to watch in Cleveland during the summer is Carlos Carrasco. His ERA is 4.24 and his on the disabled list right now. Carrasco will be back before the break, but the injury was elbow inflammation, so we’ll need to see how he holds up the rest of the way.

The other name is Danny Salazar. His last two years have been marred with injuries, he’s currently on the DL and there’s no timetable for return. But if he could make it back, even in September, find his form and be the kind of pitcher that gives Francona some reliable innings in the playoffs, it might be just the little nudge the Indians need to get over the top.

Sitting here on June 21, Cleveland doesn’t have the look of a World Series team. But sometimes, for a long-suffering team, lurking below the radar is the better place to be. It turned out that way for the Washington Capitals in the NHL. We’ll see if it does for the Indians.