It's only three weeks into the season, but it's not too early for a closed-door team meeting media event: Terry Francona called a locker room get-together after the Indians' loss on Saturday and gave them a speech about, among other things, how much he cares about them as people and as a team. As self-evident as most might think that should be most of the time, it's still a nice thing to hear, as are the majority of things said during pep talks and motivational speeches. There's no particular science to whether or not these things help, but the Indians would at the very least go on to win on Sunday and Monday.
That's a decent enough outcome, considering that going into Monday's games they were still last in the American League Central. Though the Indians had eight wins to every other team's nine, they'd lost ten games -- while Detroit had only lost six, the Royals eight, Minnesota nine, Chicago matching them with ten. By now those numbers have changed a bit, but that only underlines that the AL Central is very much wide-open -- and that Cleveland only needs a moderately sustained hot streak to get back into the action. It's not even time for the league's five win teams to panic yet, let alone the eight-win Indians.
There are still reasons for concern, however. First, it appears the Central itself has gotten better around them, with the White Sox mostly notably leading the charge. The Minnesota Twins are also hitting very, very well to begin the season, but it's less likely that they'll be able to sustain that on the backs of Josmil Pinto, Chris Colabello and Jason Kubel then the White Sox will with Alexei Ramirez, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton and Adam Dunn. The Indians are still the third-best hitting team -- perhaps close to the second-best hitting team -- in the division on paper, but it's no longer the clear, sure thing it was last season, when it was fairly clear the divisional pecking order was Detroit, then Cleveland, then everyone else.
The big problem remains the rotation: Justin Masterson is a good pitcher but he isn't a credible ace, and Corey Kluber, Zach McAlister, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are basically back of the rotation arms -- though both Kluber and Salazar still have top of the rotation potential. The Indians are still hoping that Trevor Bauer can get his head screwed on properly and turn into that kind of a guy, and early signs are encouraging, with Bauer pitching six innings and allowing one earned run in a spot start earlier this year before being sent back down to AAA. If Bauer makes good on his potential this year and bumps someone like Carrasco out of the rotation, then the Indians' chances in the Wild Card or even the divisional hunt this year are going to look a lot better going down the stretch.
Other than Bauer, though, there's not a lot of impact, near-ready pitching talent in the Indians' high minors. The next closest guy is Cody Anderson, whose timetable has him set for arrival in 2015. On the position player side of things, though, top prospect Francisco Lindor should see his first major league action by the end of the season. Lindor is a shortstop, which means he might find it difficult to see regular playing time up the middle -- the team already has veteran Asdrubal Cabrera established at short and Jason Kipnis, a breakout star after last season, isn't moving off of second base anytime soon. Still, there are scenarios where Lindor gets time at short, Cabrera shifts over to third and the current third baseman, either Carlos Santana or Lonnie Chisenhall, gets a day off or DHs. Given team needs and composition, however, it might not be the worst idea in the world for the Indians to test the trade waters with Lindor as the centerpiece of a package for some pitching. Lindor alone wouldn't be able to land David Price, for example (nor is David Price available at the moment barring some ridiculous overpayment in talent), but he'd get most of the way there, and Cleveland has two other well-regarded if not elite shortstop prospects in Ronny Rodriguez and Dorssys Paulino.
So far the team is getting by with offense from unlikely places. Jason Kipnis is hitting just as well as he hit last year, but other than him, the top Cleveland Indian bats at the moment are David Murphy, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley and Nyjer Morgan. Yes, Nyjer Morgan has returned to the major leagues. He stepped in for an injured Michael Bourn in center, and he's hitting .348/.484/.348 to start the season, which is one of the odder small sample size triple slash lines you'll see -- and there's no real concern about whether or not he'll sustain it, since with Bourn's activation from the DL a few days ago, Morgan was optioned back to the minors.
That's the bad news: one of the team's most productive early hitters was an injury call-up who was just sent back down. The good news is that at least the other guys on that list -- Murphy, Chisenhall, and Brantley -- aren't going anywhere, and while they're not going to keep up their torrid hitting, it's unlikely that big-ticket guys Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana are going to continue to hit around replacement level, either. If Chisenhall and Brantley, in particular, have made legitimate steps forward in their development as hitters -- if even one of them takes half the step forward at the plate that Kipnis did last year -- and the rest of the team starts hitting like it should, the Indians are not only the clear second-best offense in the Central, but they might even challenge the Tigers for the top spot.
That's all speculation and what-ifs at this point, however. What the Indians need right now is to buckle down and win some games, and the easiest way to do that is to combine a solid offensive effort from top to bottom with good starting pitching, which the Indians did Monday night with Zach McAlister on the mound. Cleveland is a good enough team at the plate that they don't need their starters to be perfect, they just need to keep hitting, get six innings of three-run ball from the starter, and wait for reinforcements. Do that, and Cleveland should be fine.