Tribe Happenings: Ice cold bats are holding the Indians back
Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…
If it seems like the Indians have really struggled at the plate for the past month, well, it is because they have. The Indians still rank well in season long offensive numbers as they are 4th in the AL in runs (4.6 R/G), 8th in batting average (.253), and 8th in OPS (.732). But a lot of that is from a very hot April where they finished the month ranked 4th in batting average (.265), 4th in on-base percentage (.333), 1st in slugging percentage (.465) and 1st in OPS (.798).
Since then it has been a slow slide into an August thud. They lived off the home runs in April as they cranked out 36 homers in 24 games (1.5 per game), the best mark in the league but since then they have hit 101 homers in 105 games (0.96 per game). Check out the slow slide month to month in all their numbers and then crash this month:
The offense has really gone into a deep second half slump. In the first half they ranked 4th in runs (454), 7th in batting average (.258), 4th in on-base percentage (.330), 7th in slugging percentage (.418), and 6th in OPS (.748). Those are respectable and above average numbers as a team, and if the Indians had been getting that same kind of offense in the second half they would be winning a lot more consistently.
But without the offense in the second half the Indians have sputtered as just when they get going the offensive struggles have kept them from getting on a roll. In the second half they rank 10th out of 15 teams in the AL in runs (138), 13th in batting average (.240), 13th in on-base percentage (.308), 12th in slugging percentage (.379), and 14th in OPS (.687).
Some of the key culprits for the Indians offensive struggles in the second half (there are many):
Jason Kipnis: .246/.322/.362/.683
Drew Stubbs: .232/.323/.305/.627
Michael Bourn: .225/.308/.341/.649
Asdrubal Cabrera: .200/.241/.320/.561
Jason Giambi: .156/.204/.333/.537
Lonnie Chisenhall: .183/.227/.254/.480
Folks, that’s six of the Indians starting nine on some nights, and the three others not listed Carlos Santana,Michael Brantley and Nick Swisher aren’t exactly setting the world on fire either. This means that on any given night they have nine slumping guys in the lineup at the same time, which is something that I don’t think I have ever seen at the major league level. Maybe the hitters are pressing, maybe they will all come out of it together and explode with a big September, or maybe there are huge concerns with some of these guys as lineup mainstays going forward.
Cabrera has just about ruined any trade value he had with his poor season to date. He’s been a major disappointment and at this point they may be forced to either just dump him on someone this offseason with little in return in order to wipe their hands clean of him next season, or just keep him and pray he bounces back with a big season in his free agent year.
And what about Kipnis? Remember last year how he struggled in the second half and hit .233 with 3 HR, 27 RBI and .650 OPS? Well, he’s having a similar dip in production in the second half this year. The similarity between the last half of last season and this season makes you wonder about him a little going forward.
Typically, when a team hits such a wall offensively and has so many underachievers, a team may turn to injuries. But aside from Nick Swisher’s shoulder injury earlier in the year and some bumps and bruises along the way to Cabrera and Bourn, the Indians have been healthy. When injuries cannot be blamed for such a massive underperformance, then the hitting coach is often the patsy which means Ty Van Burkleo may be in danger of losing his job. But then again, Francona has just as much loyalty to his coaches as he does his players, so it does not appear that Van Burkleo is on the hot seat – although he probably should be.
On top of all the offensive issues in August, the Indians have been unable to make a trade to pick up a bat. That is probably the most disappointing aspect of it all for the Indians as while they are drowning offensively this month, the front office has not thrown out a life raft to offer up some support with a trade or two for a bat. Whether they have too much faith in the guys they have in Cleveland already turning it around this year, or they are overvaluing their prospects and unwilling to part with them for small upgrades, there probably has been a deal or two that could have been made that may have helped.
There may be no impact bats available in a trade, but sometimes even the smallest of additions can help. Look how the Yankees have sort of stabilized their lineup since they acquired Alfonso Soriano. He’s been a big boost to their lineup – as well as the return of A-Rod and some others – and they picked him up for almost nothing. They gave up a low level prospect for him and the Cubs are even paying all of the remainder of his salary this year except for $1.8 million and are paying $13 million of his $18 million salary for next year! So the Yankees have Soriano for $6.8 million for two months this season and all of next year!
Even the offensively challenged Rays are trying to throw things at the wall and see what sticks as they claimedDavid DeJesus and signed Delmon Young a few days ago. Yet, the Indians have not done anything. Fans are right to be frustrated when your team does not appear to be doing all it can to win now. I am with the front office in that you have to have a proper balance on winning now and building for later and not mortgage too much of your future, but two straight July and August trade periods with nary a return other than Lars Anderson, Brent Lillibridge andMarc Rzepczynski is the kind of stuff which puts the fan base off.
Blame the bullpen or blame Terry Francona’s decision-making in games all you want, but those inconsistent offensive performances in the second half is what is to blame for the Indians inconsistency and if they miss the playoffs will be the main reason why they did. Thankfully there is still some time to turn things around offensively and maybe even make a move or two.
The Hunt for October
With 33 games remaining, the Indians sit 6.0 games out of first place behind the AL Central leading Detroit Tigers and are 2.5 games out of the second wildcard behind the Oakland Athletics. As we close up August and roll into September, it means most of the games remaining on each of the playoff contender’s schedules will be divisional matchups.
In a nutshell, if you review all of the AL playoff contender schedules, the four contenders in the AL East are going to be in a dogfight over the next five weeks as they will all be playing one another and beating each other. This is something that the four teams outside of the division the Tigers, Indians, Rangers and Athletics could take advantage of down the stretch.
Check out the winning percentage of the remaining opponents for each team (going into Friday):
The difference between the Red Sox’ .525 opponent winning percentage and the Indians’ .472 opponent winning percentage may not seem like much, but it is a significant difference. Each of the eight teams have ten series remaining, but the Red Sox and Orioles have a staggering seven series against playoff contenders, the Rays have six, the Yankees have five, and the Rangers and Athletics each have four. The Indians and Tigers each have just three series left against teams in playoff contention – with the Indians playing all three of them this coming week.
Bottom line, it is clear when comparing the schedules of the remaining opponents for all the playoff contenders that the Indians and Tigers have a decided advantage based on the lower quality of opponents on their schedule. Of course, as demonstrated by the first game of the Indians-Twins series this weekend, sometimes it doesn’t matter who you play or what their record is at the time.
Going a step further for the Indians and Tigers, they don’t play one playoff contender after September 4th. In the final 23 games for the Indians and 22 games for the Tigers they will be playing the White Sox, Twins, Royals, Astros and Marlins while AL East teams square off against each other almost every night.
No matter what happens over the next few games, one thing is for certain, and that is this wildcard race should have a “wild” finish. Just when one team looks to be pulling away, they could quickly fall back because of a tough stretch of games against some quality opponents with good pitching. And even some of those weaker teams could present problems depending on how the starting pitching shakes out for the series. For example, the Mets and Marlins would be much tougher if Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez pitch in a series than if they don’t.
If the Tigers and Indians continue to take care of their business, then it could be a simple process of the AL East eliminating each other. The Tigers should win the division as they are too good and have a weak schedule. The Indians may be hard pressed to catch the Tigers at this point, but they are without a doubt right in the wildcard mix. If they are able to tread water against the Braves, Tigers and Orioles the next week going 4-5 or 5-4, then it sets them up well for a strong finish against some much weaker opponents where they can maybe snag a wildcard berth.
The Indians announced on Tuesday morning that Triple-A Columbus right-handed pitcher Diasuke Matsuzaka requested and was granted his release from his minor league contract with the Indians. He became a free agent and a few days later was signed to a big league deal with the Mets. In his 2013 major league debut with the Mets on Friday night he went 5.0 innings and allowed five runs on six hits, one walk and allowed two home runs.
Matsuzaka, 32, went 5-8 with a 3.92 ERA in 19 starts for Columbus this season. In 103.1 innings he allowed 93 hits, 11 homers, 39 walks and had 95 strikeouts. He missed a little over six weeks from late April to early June because of a strained abdominal muscle, but since returning he was pitching very well. Prior to his final start with Columbus on Monday where he went 4.0 innings and allowed 5 runs on 8 hits and 3 walks, he had gone through an eight start stretch where he went 4-3 with a 2.54 ERA (56.2 IP, 16 ER, 49 H, 4 HR, 8 BB, 45 K).
There was some belief that Matsuzaka might be called up to Cleveland in September to help fill a rotation need withCorey Kluber on the disabled list, Scott Kazmir wearing down, Danny Salazar nearing his innings limit for the season, and both Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer in non-consideration for the rest of the season. But with Josh Tomlin close to a return the Indians apparently were happy with their internal options or simply did not believe Matsuzaka was a major league option for them this season.
It is important to note that the Indians simply did not just release Matsuzaka as they would have preferred to keep him around for the duration of the season; however, he requested the release and they granted it. Teams often grant releases to veterans on minor league deals who request them in order to allow them the opportunity to find an opportunity and fit in another organization. It is clear that Matsuzaka’s agent was working the phones and found a team interested in him at the big league level, so they asked for his release and the Indians obliged.
Hanging with Mr. Cooper
On August 13th the Indians announced that they signed free agent first baseman David Cooper to a minor league contract. He has since played in seven games between rookie level Arizona and Triple-A Columbus and is hitting .414 (12-for-31) with 3 doubles, 5 RBI and .969 OPS.
Cooper, 26, split the 2012 season between Triple-A Las Vegas and the Toronto Blue Jays. He began the year in Las Vegas where he hit .314 with 10 HR and 52 RBI in 62 games before being promoted to Toronto in May batting .300 with 4 HR and 11 RBI in 45 games with the Blue Jays. His 2012 campaign ended in late August due to a mid-back strain, an injury that led to his March 2013 release from Toronto and required surgery in April.
Reports state that Cooper has an opt out in his contract if he is not added to the big league roster by the end of August. If he proves to be healthy and does not have an injury setback over the next few days, it appears to be all but certain that he will be added to the 40-man roster by next Saturday. The Indians still have an open spot on the 40-man roster left vacant after Mark Reynolds was designated for assignment two weeks ago, just five days before Cooper was signed.
It looks like the Indians released Reynolds with the idea in mind that they would get by with increased playing time for the likes of Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn while they worked out Cooper in the minors. If Cooper is healthy and does not break down, this could end up being a nice move for them to get a player with a proven bat and much needed good approach to help inject some life to a lineup that has struggled in August.
The Tomlin plan
The Indians have right-hander Danny Salazar slated to go on Tuesday, a start which may be his final one of the season. At 116.0 innings for the season, he is just about at his 120-130 innings threshold this season, and it would not be a surprise if after the start the Indians put him in the bullpen the rest of the way and use him in spots in order to manage that workload they are so concerned about. He only threw 87.2 innings last season and typically teams like to avoid more than a 20-25% increase in innings from one year to the next.
Right-hander Josh Tomlin pitched in a rehab outing on Thursday with Triple-A Columbus and went five innings and threw 66 pitches. He had one rough inning but overall allowed three runs on seven hits, did not walk a batter and had two strikeouts. It was a typical Tomlin outing and he looks like he is close to a return and probably will be pushed to six or seven innings and 90 pitches his next time out. The starter for Columbus’ game on Tuesday is still listed as TBA, but it is expected to be Tomlin as that is when his next turn in the rotation would come.
Whether by coincidence or not, with the Indians pushing Salazar back a day last week and with Tomlin now aligned to start in Columbus on Tuesday – the same day Salazar will start in Atlanta – it looks like they are preparing to make a rotation swap very soon. Perhaps that comes next Sunday as coincidentally that is September 1st and would be the next turn in the rotation for Salazar and Tomlin and with rosters expanding that day the Indians can simply recall Tomlin and have him pitch and slide Salazar into the rotation.
That may or may not happen, but when you look at how things are lining up, barring a setback with Tomlin in his next outing it looks to be the case. In addition to Tomlin the Indians should add several other arms for September such as Blake Wood, Vinnie Pestano, C.C. Lee, T.J. House and others which should give them plenty of depth and arms to piggyback with Tomlin (or Salazar) until Corey Kluber hopefully returns in mid-September.
SportsTime Ohio ratings are up nearly 30% from last season at the same number of games. July saw an increase of 33% and thus far in August there has been an increase of 168% compared to last year. On the radio side the ratings are up 40% on WTAM.
This is great news for WTAM and Fox Sports, but it does not mean much on the revenue side for the Indians as regardless what their ratings are they get a flat fee each year ($40 million for STO). It will certainly help if these ratings keep up for the next several years, but the next contract negotiation is not for another 7-10 years. Bottom line, it is great because it shows fans are paying attention, but for the club to truly make some money they need a much improved return at the gate, which has barely changed from last year to this year.
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.
Why? Because you start running Aviles out there every day and he is no longer the super sub - like Rayburn - because you are filling out the score card with key parts out of their zone - trying to turn them into everyday quality starters to fill a hole.
Yon is different - he is getting a chance to prove he is the above average answer both offensively and defensively at catcher.
It's been a great season. But Tony's essay exemplifies why every pundit handicapping the season and potential post-season views the Indians as an outlier and longest of long shots. Why until K.C.'s recent 7 game slide they were higher on the Royals than the Tribe.
This is a good lunch pail team with a great developing story - emerging pitching and some solid B-list stars. But it's punching above it's weight - a testament to Tito and staff.
What is missing is the offensive super-stud to carry this team through those 9 player slumps Tony mentions.
Two things though; Carlos has been stepping up to be a serviceable clean up hitter. He deserves credit.
AND: STUBBS SHOULDN'T BE ON THIS LIST. Given expectations this guy has over-achieved. One of the best 9 hole hitters out there. He salvaged this Twins series - and it wasn't some one off.
All the talk about the holes in his swing have been shut down in the overall given his 9 hole production this year. Yes he strikes out. But his D plus his 30% big hit or speed on the bases at the bottom of the order have proven out.
Drew deserves better than to get smudged with the stink of what ACab has been doffing.
If I'm correct, I think he is the "senior" when it comes to experience on this team (I.e. the longest-tenured Indian), I wonder if his constant struggles and lack of production are trickling down to guys like Brantley, Kipnis, and Santana in where they are trying to make up for his lack of production, and are getting themselves into unforeseen funks of their own. Kipnis was always consistent until late last season, where we thought it was due to fatigue and lack of protection. Brantley, we never seen this type of funk with him since he's been an Indian. As Tony said, it seems very unusual to have 9 guys struggling at the plate at the same time. I just wonder if Cabrera's clear falloff is putting more pressure on the other less-experienced players to make up for his severe drop-off in production, and it's causing them to go through prolonged slumps of their own. Hopefully, they can solve this and be hot as a unit these final 1-2 months, as they will need the offense to perform much better in order to reach the postseason, and do something if they do reach it,
I wondered about Dejesus, he would've been a low-cost pickup and a good platoon partner for Drew Stubbs (who isn't really "slumping", unless you consider his last 3 years a super-extended slump). Dejesus has a .786 OPS against right-handers even this year in what was already a platoon role, and still rated as an above-average defender. A Stubbs/Dejesus platoon might mean a .770-780 OPS and above-average defense out of right-field.