Originally posted on The Outside Corner  |  Last updated 5/14/13
Going into the 2013 MLB season, the Cleveland Indians appeared to be a fringe contender in the AL Central division. The Tribe certainly raised eyebrows around baseball by suddenly becoming big spenders and adding significant talent to their lineup. But could the Indians really challenge a Tigers team that not only could be the best team in their division, but in the entire American League? Additionally, Cleveland had to compete with the Kansas City Royals, viewed as a team on the rise after upgrading their starting pitching. Yet following a series win over the Tigers in Detroit during the weekend and splitting a doubleheader with the New York Yankees at Progressive Field on Monday, Terry Francona's club has the look of a division title and AL wild-card contender.  Is it still a bit too early in the season to make that kind of declaration? We're approximately six weeks into the season.    But entering Tuesday's slate of games, the Tribe is a half-game behind the Tigers for first place in the AL Central. They're also a half-game behind the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox for a wild-card playoff spot.  The Indians are 10-3 thus far through May, pushing themselves into playoff contention. That follows what had to be viewed as a relatively disappointing first month of the season, which left them with an 11-13 record and fourth-place standing in the division.  Cleveland's lineup is beginning to warm up with the weather. Asdrubal Cabrera has an .809 OPS in May after compiling a .655 mark in April. Nick Swisher has a .943 OPS so far this month. Jason Kipnis is slugging .640, giving him a .949 OPS through the first two weeks of May. They join Carlos Santana, Mark Reynolds and Michael Brantley, who started the season off strongly.  That production has helped the Tribe score 179 runs, the fifth-highest total in the AL as May 14. Their +23 run differential is also the fifth-best mark in the league.  However, the biggest difference for the Indians has been their starting pitching. Before the season, the Tribe's starting rotation looked like their primary weakness, the one thing that would ultimately prevent the team from contending. After Justin Masterson, who else did Cleveland have? What's left of Brett Myers and Scott Kazmir?  Well, how about Ubaldo Jimenez? Remember him? The guy for whom Indians GM Chris Antonetti traded three of his top pitching prospects — Drew Pomeranz, Alex White and Joe Gardner — in an "all-in" move to win the AL Central in 2011? So much for the slow build. The Tribe was going for it.  Unfortunately, Jimenez was awful after joining the Indians, compiling a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts for the Indians. (Even worse, the Tigers ended up making a better trade for a starting pitcher, getting Doug Fister from the Seattle Mariners. That was one of many reasons Cleveland finished 15 games behind Detroit that year.) Jimenez has been anything but the top-of-the-rotation starter the Indians envisioned. Last year, he went 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA in 31 starts, leading the league in losses. This year, after giving up four runs against the Houston Astros on April 21, Jimenez's ERA for the season was 10.06. Something seems to have clicked from there, however. In his past three starts, Jimenez has allowed three runs and 10 hits in 18.2 innings. He's struck out 20 batters while walking five. That includes giving up just one run and three hits over six innings on Sunday against the Tigers. Jimenez racked up eight strikeouts and issued only one walk. Combine that improved performance with Zach McAllister's breakout (2.68 ERA in seven starts) and a surprisingly revitalized Kazmir (five runs allowed in 17 innings over his past three starts), and the Indians have the makings of a starting rotation.  Masterson is the ace of the staff, of course, and has been pitching like the No. 1 guy that the Indians need him to be. The 28-year-old right-hander did what an ace does in Monday's win over the Yankees. With Cleveland's lineup curiously able to score only one run against David Phelps, Boone Logan and Preston Claiborne, Masterson clamped down the opposition, pitching a four-hit shutout.  That pushed the Indians' record in one-run games this season to 10-3. Compare that to the Tigers' 3-6 mark in tight ballgames. The Royals are 7-7 in one-run games.  Last year, the Orioles' 29-9 record in one-run games was a huge factor in them challenging the Yankees for the AL East title and ultimately winning a wild-card playoff spot. Could the Indians be a similar beneficiary of winning the close and tight ones this season?  Before getting too excited, however, Indians fans (such as my buddy Jon Cupo) will probably warn you that their team started strongly during both the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Two years ago, Cleveland had a seven-game lead over the Tigers on May 23. As mentioned, the Tribe eventually lost the division by 15 games. Last season, the Indians held a four-game on May 17. They eventually finished fourth in the AL Central, 20 games behind Detroit.  So can we expect a similar collapse from the Indians this year?  Perhaps. After all, the Tigers have the most talented team in the AL Central and figure to bolster their bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline if Jose Valverde still looks shaky in the closer role. One key difference between this year and the past two seasons, however, is that Detroit was not playing at its best. The Tigers were playing far below their talent level and expectations before the All-Star break. Maybe the Tigers still haven't reached their full capabilities, but they're looking quite strong early in the season. Yet the Indians are hanging with them in the division race.  This team also has room for improvement. Even with his May surge, Cabrera is still hitting only .231 with a .712 OPS. Jason Kipnis is batting .225 with a .719 OPS, and can seemingly only hit home runs in the first inning.  Can Lonnie Chisenhall turn himself around after being demoted to Triple-A Columbus on Monday? He was batting .213 with a .604 OPS. Reynolds can take over at third base in the meantime, but Cleveland's lineup is surely better with Chisenhall at third and Reynolds at designated hitter.  Another player to keep an eye on is Trevor Bauer, arguably the Indians' most important acquistion — especially in terms of the future — of the offseason. The 22-year-old phenom (or is he a former phenom, since he was traded?) was called up from Columbus to start the second half of Monday's doubleheader versus the Yankees and was relatively impressive. In 6.1 innings, Bauer allowed two earned runs. Most importantly, he walked only two batters. Bauer was sent back to Triple-A after the game, but his start shows some promise for later in the season if and when Cleveland needs pitching reinforcements. Adding a top pitching prospect to the rotation could be a difference in a tight division race.  That is, if the Indians hang in the AL Central race into July and August this year. All indications thus far seem to be that they're capable of doing so, however. If so, this could end up being the AL's most exciting division race this season. 
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