Good news, bad news

The Indians offense got rolling this weekend in Kansas City. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

Since it’s been almost two months since I last blogged, I thought I’d take a few minutes on this Jackie Robinson Day to talk about the Indians after eight games.

Don’t call it a comeback

Nobody expected the Cleveland Indians to do much in 2011. Before the beginning of the season, I think most Indians fans were cautiously optimistic about the offense, assuming the offense stayed healthy, Travis Hafner produced more, Grady Sizemore came back at 100% from his microfracture, and a hitting fairy paid a visit to Matt LaPorta (or really, any right-handed batter in the Indians organization). I think Indians fans were cautiously optimistic about the bullpen, assuming everyone stayed healthy, Chris Perez continued his strong showing as Indians closer, and a couple of veterans like Joe Smith were able to guide the young Indians ‘pen. But I think Indians fans were decidedly lukewarm about the Indians starting pitching, even if everyone stayed healthy, Fausto Carmona kept his mind, and Justin Masterson grew some hair.

In short, there were a lot of things that could have gone wrong. As Indians fans, we’re accustomed to everything that can go wrong going wrong, so no one predicted the Indians riding a 9-game winning streak and a 14-game home winning streak to a 30-15 start. No one predicted them hanging on to first place for much of the summer, and then staying competitive until early September. The Indians fell short of the postseason this year, but there’s no doubt there was tremendous improvement. My year-end grades for the Indians, plus playoff predictions, after the break.

We’re building for a better tomorrow…today!

It’s often said that you can tell how good a baseball team will be by the quarter mark of the season, or after 40 games have been played. The Cleveland Indians are now 43 games into the season, and I already declared the season over on May 18th, when they were 15-21; as of the time of this writing (Tuesday night), they’re 16-27 (although, on a happier note, they’re winning tonight). (Note: as of Thursday night, they’re 17-28.)

It’s not like the Indians were off to a promising start and the recent six game losing streak killed their hope. But the fact is, the Indians being 15-21 was, all things considered, pretty good, and maybe better than we expected. But after losing their rising star shortstop and established center fielder, the Indians lack experience both on the field and in management.

Sounds like a great time for a quarter season report card, right? Read on, after the jump.

Don’t say “it ain’t so”, you know the time is now

It’s just not their year.

The Indians lost a game to the Rays tonight in 11 innings, but worse and more importantly, they lost their starting shortstop to a broken right left forearm. My guess is, best case, Cabrera comes back around the All-Star Break.

What ended up ending Cabera’s night, week, month and half of the season was kind of a freak play. The Indians had the shift on for Hank Blalock, who hit a ground ball up the middle. As Cabrera, diving from the first base side of second base, and Peralta, diving from the third base side, the two collided. Peralta was shaken up but stayed in the game, while Cabrera had to be carted off the field.

A lot of fans are blaming Peralta for running into Cabrera. The problem is that fans also blame Peralta when he doesn’t dive for the ball. Ever since Aaron Boone left the Indians, Peralta has become the designated scapegoat for the Indians (unless you’re talking to those weirdos who think it was Casey Blake). But let’s look at the facts: over the last three years (since Boone left), Peralta’s numbers are .264/57/258. Granted, those aren’t exactly Pujolsian numbers, but Peralta hasn’t been the real problem, especially when you compare his numbers to Sizemore’s over that same time period: .262/75/245. Peralta hasn’t spent any time on the DL, and he went through a position change last season. Give the guy a break.

Despite that injury the Indians were able to take the lead thanks to some clutch hitting by Jhonny Peralta (see? SEE?), Luis Valbuena and Trevor Crowe. This is all ironic because the three scapegoats in this game are also the three Indians who managed to produce runs. Crowe’s moment came in the 8th, when a 2-out sinking line drive was hit his way in center field. Crowe came in, dove, caught the ball…and then dropped it. The tying run scored, opening the door for extra innings. Can’t really do much about that. While I don’t doubt Sizemore makes that play, there aren’t many starting center fielders besides Sizemore who DO make that play and Crowe made a solid effort, particularly indoors.

After Cabrera left, Luis Valbuena played shortstop the rest of the game. While he’s a defensive wizard at second base, he leaves a lot to be desired at shortstop and his continued play there is only hurting his already fragile confidence. The play of the game came in the eleventh, with the Rays batting in their last at-bat with one out. John Jaso hit a slow chopper to in the hole towards short. Valbuena took an awkward route to the ball, looking initially like he wasn’t hustling but really he just didn’t get a very good jump on it. After gloving it, he double clutched before unloading a seed to first. Jaso was called safe. While he was actually out by a hair, the play was closer than it should have been, closer than it would have been had Cabrera or even Peralta been playing short.

Two batters later, the Rays squeezed home the run when Jamey Wright was able to glove the bunt but chucked it over the head of Marson on a do-or-die play. Game over.

Look, I want the Indians to win just as bad as anyone. And losing hurts. But this isn’t the Indians of 1995. It’s not even the Indians of 2005 or 2007. These guys are learning every game (with the exception of Valbuena at short, I guess) and there’s no question that they’re trying. And there have been some bright spots on this season so far, including the return of Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona.

But for the Indians to win this year, everything had to go right. Injuries couldn’t hurt the Indians much (no pun intended), the starting pitching had to be good, the defense had to be lockdown and the offense had to be as good as or better than last year. So far, only the starting pitching has been good. The defense, while making among the fewest errors in the league, have given up more unearned runs than most other teams in the league. And the offense…well, let’s just say that when Russell Branyan teed off for the first time against Kansas City the other night, it was the Indians’ first home run by a first baseman, catcher or left fielder. Between them.

The 2010 Indians are young and inexperienced and it shows almost nightly. And really, what other options do the Indians have? Sure, there’s Lonnie Chisenhall knocking the cover off at AAA Columbus, but as we’ve seen particularly in the last couple years, AAA success does not translate into major league success. Sure, there’s high-priced or medium-priced veterans, but the Indians are on pace to draw less fans this year than any season in the Jacobs/Progressive Field era. Baseball is a business; something has to pay the bills.

I love baseball enough that despite the karma not falling the Indians’ way this season (I blame the Cavs for that Z trade – karma like that can cross the street), I’ll keep watching. But it’s not their year.

Maybe next year.

Leaving behind that empty feeling inside

Man, it’s good to have baseball back.

We’re three games into the season and I’m already addicted again. I originally planned on going to bed around ten tonight, but ten turned into “after the seventh”. In the seventh inning, the White Sox took the lead on a two-run homer by Carlos Quentin, and I was disgusted that the Indians bullpen gave up a lead (a sign, I was sure, of things to come). This added to my disgust at the home plate umpiring throughout the rest of the game (one particular call cost the Indians a White Sox run), and I prepared to go to bed.

As I got in bed, I grabbed my iPod and started surfing around the web, catching up on the important news and not-so-important news of the day. And like an addict, I checked ESPN, and I was sure that the Indians were still losing.

The game was tied at 3-3.

I retrieved my laptop from my backpack and resumed watching the game and watched ’til the end, when Asdrubal Cabrera drove in Luis Valbuena on a go-ahead single, Grady Sizemore added an RBI double, and Chris Perez recorded his second consecutive save in routine fashion. And now, here I am, blogging about it, knowing that I’ll pay for it in the morning.

I just watched my team take two of three from the Chicago White Sox. It wasn’t the World Series; it wasn’t the Yankees; it wasn’t even a division rival that’s considered a front-runner. It was the first series of the year, an insignificant three-game stretch in a 162 game season. And yet, I’m excited.

It wasn’t that the Indians won two games; it was how they won those two games. They scrapped. They clawed. They played flawless and sometimes spectacular defense. And they recovered fully from the goose egg on Opening Day.

Asdrubal Cabrera is making me wonder why he hasn’t always batted leadoff. Grady Sizemore’s displacement to the number two spot is already paying off (5 RBI in three games). Michael Brantley doesn’t look intimidated, Matt LaPorta looks worlds ahead of where he was last year, Lou Marson is holding his own behind the plate. Jhonny Peralta looks more comfortable at third and has made some nice plays, and had the clutch game-tying hit tonight. Travis Hafner has a couple hits and has put some good swings on the ball. And I’m not worried about Shin Soo Choo’s slow start.

Justin Masterson’s outing tonight was, at times, dominant, and could have been better if not for the aforementioned umpiring. Fausto Carmona’s performance last night was just downright gutty. Even the bullpen looks decent, with Chris Perez anchoring the back end.

This might be the only series the Indians win all year. But I’m reminded that the last time the Indians were above .500, it was 2008 and C.C. Sabathia was still an Indian. So rather than focusing on how this start in no way proves anything, I’m going to focus on the fact that this start is certainly better than last year, and is certainly better than a lot of people expected. This team is going to surprise people.

This weekend the Indians go into Detroit, where the competition will be far stronger, and will give us a better idea of where the Indians are.

You never know. Maybe. Welcome back, baseball.

Six years gone

Eric Wedge

2009 wasn’t supposed to go like this for the Cleveland Indians. After getting off to a terrible start in 2008, the Indians rallied to finish the year 81-81, with the help of some promising young talent from Buffalo. The 2009 Indians brought back Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, added free agents Mark DeRosa, Kerry Wood and Joe Smith, and were poised to compete in the weak AL Central division.

It didn’t work out that way. Whether it was injuries, ineffectiveness, or just plain bad luck, the 2009 Indians had their worst season in almost 20 years. When you assess a season like this, where do you begin? My review of the 2009 Indians is after the jump.