By Marc Normandin
Early season pushes by the Cleveland Indians are something we're used to. They led the American League Central by four games in 2012 in mid-May, were seven games up on May 23 of 2011, and eventually finished 20 and 15 games out of first, respectively, in each of those campaigns. The 2013 season has been a bit different, though: they were 2.5 games up back in mid-May once again, but now, in August, they're just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot entering play on Wednesday night.
There were all kinds of change between last year and this one that has brought much of this on, some of it planned, some of it hoped for, and some of it seemingly out of nowhere. All of this has combined to keep Cleveland in the race: the question now becomes whether or not the Indians can keep at it for the remaining two months of the season.
First, let's see what's different. The Indians had a below-average offense in 2012, and after trading Shin-Soo Choo in a deal that brought back pitching prospect Trevor Bauer, it wasn't expected to get any better. To remedy this, Nick Swisher was signed as a free agent. While he hasn't been as good as hoped, he's still managed to be an above-average performer with the bat, posting a 108 OPS+. Throw in that he's been at first base rather than a corner outfield spot, and he's managed to provide help defensively. Then there's Michael Bourn, who was also inked this winter -- he too isn't exactly mashing, but he's been a league-average hitter, and was signed for his exceptional defense.
Someone new to the club who has been mashing is former Tiger Ryan Raburn. The outfielder has played in 66 games with the Indians, producing a team-leading 163 OPS+ in his part-time role. The same goes for Yan Gomes, a backup catcher in his first year with Cleveland, who has hit .306/.345/.522 in his 48 games -- that's a long way off last year's horrific offense from backstop Lou Marson.
It's not just the new players who have managed to hit, however. Carlos Santana has increased his already-impressive OPS+ from 2012's 121 to 133, and second baseman Jason Kipnis has had one of the best breakouts of the year, courtesy a .292/.371/.490 line. The 26-year-old was above-average in 2012, but this has made him one of the best at the keystone in the game, and that's exactly what the Indians needed to produce from their farm system after a few disappointing crops.
All told, this bunch of newbies and breakouts has helped bring the Indians from just below-average offensively to fourth in the AL, behind juggernauts like the Red Sox, Tigers, and, for all their other failings, the Angels. While this has helped, the most significant change has been in the pitching.
Cleveland's pitching still isn't quite good -- that's taking things a little too far. The thing is though, the Indians had the worst pitching in the AL in 2012: the relief corps was just about average, but the starters combined for a 5.25 ERA, and the entire unit owned an ERA+ of 82 that failed to match what even the likes of the Astros managed.
This time around, they're at a 94 ERA+ -- still below-average, but no longer in embarrassing territory. The relievers aren't doing so great, but the rotation has seen significant improvement. As a group, they've slashed their ERA more than a full run, all the way down to 4.04 -- the AL's average ERA for starters is 4.18. That's shocking, given that the Indians didn't seem to do very much of anything to improve their pitching before the season, but here we are.
Justin Masterson had an off year in 2012, but seems to have split the difference between his impressive 2011 and his struggling year, posting a 109 ERA+ in a league-leading 24 starts this season. He's not the big surprise, though: that description better fits Zach McAllister and the resuscitated Scott Kazmir. McAllister's peripherals and a plethora of unearned runs suggested he'd be in trouble, but he's cut down on the unearned run issue this year, as well as the homers, and has been a reliable back-end starter because of it in his 14 starts. Kazmir, though, has been about as productive as the most optimistic could have anticipated. There was a chance he could be something, but it came down entirely to whether or not he could locate his secondary stuff, giving his fastball a chance to work for him once more. You might even remember reading as much about Kazmir back in March, in this very space:
The Indians have a thin starting staff, though, so it's easy to see why they are going to roll the dice on Kazmir. He's succeeded with just his four-seamer working before, and unlike with the old Devil Rays' teams, he's not going to be expected to lead. If he can stay healthy and even be an average back-of-the rotation guy, then he's more than done his job as a non-roster invite to spring training.
He's posted a 97 ERA+ and averaged about 5-2/3 innings per start, making him basically an average back-end starter, so mission accomplished by the pitching-starved Indians. McAllister and Kazmir have managed to bring up the bottom-end that destroyed the Indians in the past, so while their seasons aren't exactly sexy, they're still just what was needed.
It also helps that Ubaldo Jimenez has been … well, maybe useful is strong, but tolerable fits. After a 2012 in which he was nearly 30 percent worse than your average pitcher by ERA, Jimenez has also helped bring up the bottom-end by posting a 91 ERA+. Like with the others, it's not perfect, but it'll do.
The issue now becomes replacing the injured Corey Kluber, who, along with Masterson, has managed to be more than just okay by staying healthy (well, he was healthy) and averaging over six innings per start. That task will fall to Danny Salazar until this time next month. Salazar was excellent in his major-league debut back in July, striking out seven batters in six innings while limiting the Blue Jays to one walk and run apiece. The 23-year-old will need to repeat that feat, or some large percentile of it, a few times down the stretch in order to help keep the Indians in this thing.
That's certainly a believable prospect, though. Salazar owns a 2.71 ERA for the year between Double- and Triple A, with 12.5 strikeouts per nine and more than five times as many punch outs as free passes. Even if the rookie only manages to fool the opposition his first time through the league, there isn't all that much season left, and the wins will still count. If Salazar can thrive just long enough until Kluber returns, it's possible that Salazar could then boost the bullpen that's in need of a live, reliable arm -- in the end, this injury could very well work out for the Indians.
It's going to have to. The lineup can hit, but they need the pitchers to keep runs off the board. The bullpen has not been particularly successful at this, so it's up to the starters to try to go deep into games and make things easier on the offense. They have a fairly easy schedule the rest of August that could help them along, too, with six games against the Angels and Twins each sandwiching a three-game set with the Athletics. Things close out a little tougher with the Braves and Tigers, but there's no denying the potential for a serious run in the couple of weeks before that happens.
September is the real key for Cleveland, and the reason they might be able to pull this off. Things start off with the Orioles, a club the Indians are fighting for one of two AL wild cards, but then it's the Mets, the Royals, six against the lowly White Sox, six versus the Royals, a three-game series with the Astros, and the season closeout against the Twins. If the Indians can simply keep within striking distance of either the division or a wild card until those final few weeks of the regular season -- and it's entirely possible they can with that lineup and Salazar in tow -- then they just might pull off what they've failed to for years now.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.