[Disclaimer: To avoid the slight possibility that answering the question posed in the headline of this article might jinx this year's Cleveland Indians, I am going to provide you with the information to let you, the reader, form your own opinion rather than revealing mine.]
We all know the story. The Cleveland Indians faltered in the second half of each of the previous two seasons after hanging around near the top of the AL Central standings just long enough to garner the genuine excitement of the city and its fans. As this year’s Indians continue to pile up the W’s (the club is currently riding an eight-game winning streak), plenty of fans are still in lingo as to whether or not they should buy into the 2013 Cleveland Indians as being a legitimate contender.
Cleveland fans have suffered long enough.(Photo credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
We want to believe, God knows we want to. But this is Cleveland, a city whose sports fans have suffered through more than its fair share of unfortunate and unlikely mishaps en route to a 49-year championship drought. Some of the city’s more optimistic fans have tried to label themselves and their fellow Cleveland sports aficionados as “Believeland,” but the majority have taken the much safer “glass half-empty” approach.
So, heading into today’s game , the Indians are 60-48 – just two games out of first place behind the Detroit Tigers for first place in the American League Central. If the season were to have ended this afternoon, the Indians would be headed to the playoffs as the American League’s second Wild Card representative. Unfortunately, the season does not end until September 29th, so only time will tell whether or not the Indians can maintain their position amongst the American League’s top six teams.
In the meantime, many fans are left wondering whether or not it’s worth it to finally shed their own pessimistic mentalities for this Cleveland team or continue to expect the worst.
Let’s first take a look at the argument for the 2013 Cleveland Indians:
First off, this team always seems to come through in the clutch at the dish. I’m not just talking about a few guys here, I’m talking about the entire squad. During the team’s current eight-game winning streak, three different players ended games with walk-off home runs for the Tribe (Ryan Raburn, Jason Giambi, and Carlos Santana), while a flurry of others produced timely hits of their own. It’s a trend that has remained consistent throughout the season, and a trend that the club hopes persists during the regular season’s final two months.
The roster, which contains the likes of more than a few pieces considered to be of little value before the start of the season, could very well be classified as MLB’s version of the Island of Misfit Toys. However, the offseason moves made by GM Chris Antonetti and the rest of the Indians front office have payed off beautifully up to this point, as the infusion of both veterans and young talent have given manager Terrry Francona (arguably Antonetti’s best offseason acquisition) and his coaching staff more flexibility to rest starters, move versatile players from position to position, and play the matchups much better than in previous seasons as they have come throughout the course of ball games.
The solid play of former Tiger Ryan Raburn has been a very pleasant surprise for the Indians in 2013. (Photo credit: AP)
Bench depth, a serious weakness in past seasons (Aaron Cunningham, anyone?), has now become one of the team’s strengths as backups Yan Gomes, Ryan Raburn, and Mike Aviles have combined to perform as well as almost any bench trio in the league.
The low-risk, high-reward acquisition of Scott Kazmir has proven to be one of the club’s better offseason moves, as well, as Kazmir has been increasingly productive over the course of the season and has played a key role in stabilizing what has been a surprisingly solid starting rotation that leads the league in shutouts (14).
The offseason acquisitions of Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs, as well as the much-improved arm of Michael Brantley in left field, have given the Indians one of the league’s best defensive outfields. Also, the speed of Bourn, Stubbs, Brantley, and Jason Kipnis has given pitchers fits all season long, as the Indians currently rank sixth in the league in stolen bases with 78.
Patience at the plate has proven virtuous for the Tribe, as well, as the team currently ranks fourth in walks and on-base percentage, thanks in large part to the patient approaches of Santana (58 walks), Nick Swisher (50), and Kipnis (49).
Despite the lack of a true big bat in the middle of the lineup, the Indians still rank third in all of baseball in runs scored with 519.
Finally, for those who have routinely criticized closer Chris Perez for his inconsistent 9th-inning performances over the years (guilty as charged), Perez has put together an extremely impressive stretch of appearances since returning from the DL in late June. He has allowed only one earned run in 17 innings pitched since his return on June 28th while also collecting two wins and nine saves and lowering his season ERA to 2.41 (Perez’s ERA sat at a dismal 4.32 when he was placed on the DL).
Now, let’s take a look at the argument against the 2013 Cleveland Indians:
Considered by most to be the team’s greatest strength heading into the season, the bullpen has underperformed up to this point; most notably, the normally lights-out setup man Vinnie Pestano, who was recently demoted to Triple-A Columbus. While righties Matt Albers, Cody Allen, Joe Smith, and closer Perez have been solid, the Indians have had trouble finding any consistency from their left-handed bullpen arms. Rich Hill, Nick Hagadone, and Scott Barnes all possess ERA’s above the 5.00-mark.
Francona has been forced to use Hill (44 appearances) in key situations against left-handed batters, simply due to the lack of left-handed arms in the ‘pen. The Tribe recently acquired lefty Mark Rzepczynski from the St. Louis Cardinals to help solve the issue, but he has pitched poorly in limited playing time this season (7.84 ERA in 11 appearances) and was not exactly the left-handed bullpen stud that most Indians fans were hoping the team would pursue at the trade deadline.
Speaking of the trade deadline…while the first-place Tigers were out improving their ball club by addressing two of their biggest weaknesses (bullpen and defense) by acquiring reliever Jose Veras and Gold Glove-caliber shortstop Jose Iglesias, the Indians did next to nothing (sorry, Mark). While the argument could be made that there just wasn’t a deal out there that could have satisfied the Tribe’s desires to both win now and hang on to top prospects to hopefully win in the future, it is also clear that the Tigers are now a much improved team on paper, likely making the leap to first place in the upcoming months that much more difficult for the Tribe.
As much as I would like to disregard the Tigers as an illegitimate World Series contender, they are not. A strong argument could be made that Detroit boasts both the best starting rotation and lineup in the league, and they are only gaining steam as the season moves along (they are currently riding a five-game winning streak). On top of that, hot on the Indians’ trail are the surging Kansas City Royals, who have been experiencing a hot streak of their own in recent weeks (the Royals have won nine straight).
Nick Swisher has been “Hot N Cold” during his first season with the Tribe. (Photo credit: Adam Hunger/Reuters)
The streakiness of the 2013 Cleveland Indians can not be overlooked, either, as the team’s theme song might as well be Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold.” The starting rotation has been wonderful of late, but could very well fall back to its early-season inconsistencies. Mark Reynolds, who hit 13 home runs while driving in 41 runs during the first two months of the season, has since hit two home runs and gathered seven RBI. Kipnis, who was as hot as any player during the months leading up to the All-Star break, has since cooled off and is hitting .234 with two home runs and eight RBI since the break. Swisher, considered to be the team’s biggest catch during the offseason, has struggled to perform up to par with his normal run-producing ways (33 RBI).
So, what is the opinion of most Clevelanders? Well, poor attendance (the Indians currently rank 27th out of 30 in fan attendance) says that most are still not sold on this team. Why is this the case? It could be due to an inconsistent bullpen, a lack of deals made at the trade deadline, the team’s streaky play, or a combination of all three. Or, has history simply scarred Tribe fans from showing their support?
There’s no denying that the 2013 Cleveland Indians have been a fun team to watch, especially of late. The roster’s depth is on full display on a seemingly nightly basis. The team’s offseason acquisitions have infused speed and patience into the lineup while also improving the defense. Late-inning heroics by the likes of Ryan Raburn, Jason Giambi, and Jason Kipnis have produced games that will be remembered by Tribe fans for years to come.
So, I ask you. Is the glass half-empty, or is it half-full?