Inside the 2019 Cleveland Indians Turnaround

The 2018 campaign for the Cleveland Indians was a quirky one to say the least. A wildly inconsistent season was “justified” by a weak AL Central and yet another cruise to a divisional crown. A Divisional Series matchup with the Houston Astros was sure to snap the Tribe back into reality. Only, that did not happen. The Astros made quick work of the Indians in a not-so-friendly three game sweep that ended in front of a stunned Progressive Field crowd. The “light-switch” that many were so confident the Indians would turn on in October, was left untouched.

WINTER IS COMING…

Fast forward to the offseason, and a fan-base desperate for answers just receives more questions. Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, the two strongest workhorses in the Indians bullpen, were sent to free agency and signed elsewhere. Allen was picked up by the Los Angeles Angels (has since been designated for assignment and signed by the Minnesota Twins), while the St. Louis Cardinals took a flyer on Miller. Michael Brantley, the smooth hitting outfielder that dominated at the plate when healthy, was scooped up by the Houston Astros without a whimper from the Cleveland front office. Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, and Josh Tomlin were among many other mainstays who found new homes in the winter via free agency. 

A couple of trades helped shake up the Indians roster as well. Catcher Yan Gomes was sent to the Washington Nationals in exchange for Daniel Johnson, Jefry Rodriguez (who has already debuted in Cleveland this season), and Andruw Monasterio. Half a month later, a three team trade involving the Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, and Indians took place. To simplify, Cleveland sent Yandy Diaz to Tampa Bay and Edwin Encarnacion to Seattle, while Tampa and Seattle sent back Jake Bauers and familiar face Carlos Santana respectively.

BALLIN’ ON A BUDGET

According to Spotract, the Indians went into 2019 with about $45 million less on their payroll then at the start of 2018. Competing on a budget is nothing new in Northeast Ohio, however. If you compare the payrolls of Cleveland and the New York Yankees over the course of the past five years, the Indians’ come in at about $600 million less than the Yankees. This is a big deal because they have also won 14 more games than the Yankees in that same stretch.

Still, three consecutive playoff appearances did not leave the Wahoo faithful wanting the front office to start pinching pennies. The hopes of a big name free agent signing left many hopeful, but it never came. Instead, a flurry of minor league contracts were handed out to the likes of an aged Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez, who may have had better success at the dish this year with walking sticks.  

WALKING WOUNDED

Early February brought some of the worst news one could hear as an Indians fan. Star shortstop Francisco Lindor suffered a calf injury that would reportedly keep him out around two months, making him unavailable for Opening Day. The dismissal of many key bats in the Tribe lineup, Lindor’s injury, and continued questions around Jose Ramirez’s bat left many wondering what kind of production this offense would crank out.

ENJOY HIM

The cherry on top of the Indians offseason came in late March, when Indians owner Paul Dolan spoke on the future of Lindor in Cleveland. Superstar Manny Machado had just signed a $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres, and many Clevelanders had concerns about the Tribe’s ability to offer Lindor that kind of money when push came to shove. His answer? A simple “Enjoy him. We control him for three more years. Enjoy him and we’ll see what happens”.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that is dead last on my list of “Things to Say to an Angry Fanbase Desperate for Positivity.” My goodness. How out of touch can an owner be with his own people? Perhaps the funniest part of this whole matter came on Cleveland’s home opener on April 1st. Dolan was featured on Fox Sports Ohio’s pregame show where he explains his Lindor comments, right as the gates opened. 

SWINGING WET NOODLES

The 2019 season started against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field on March 28th. The Indians, as many fans had assumed, trotted out a lineup resembling a AAA ballclub. Tribe ace Corey Kluber went seven strong innings, allowing just two runs. However, he was bested by his counterpart Jose Berrios who threw seven innings of shutout baseball. The fears of Indians’ fans came to the limelight once again. A two-hit, scoreless loss on Opening Day brought a familiar question up once more: How would this offense score runs?

That question, for the most part, would remain unanswered through April. Lindor suffered an ankle sprain during a rehab assignment that further delayed his return. By the end of the first full month of play, the Indians were hitting just .215 as a team and in the bottom third of just about every offensive category league-wide. It was clear that the likes of Eric Stamets and Max Moroff (who combined for a dynamite .174 batting average in Cleveland this year) were not going to cut it. If the Indians offense were an individual player, they would have been designated for assignment.

CAN’T CATCH A BREAK

The injuries continued to mount for Cleveland, and in about the worst way imaginable. Mike “Sunshine” Clevinger suffered a “significant” back injury in early April. May 1st also saw Corey Kluber take a line drive off his right forearm, causing a fracture and keeping him out until later in 2019. Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, the other mainstays of the Indians rotation, were also having roller-coaster type seasons. Jose Ramirez’s 2018 struggles carried over to 2019, as he sat with a pedestrian .213 batting average after May. 

TURNING POINT

The lowest point of the Tribe’s first half may have came on June 2nd. Cleveland lost to the Chicago White Sox 2-0, and fell to a game under .500 at 29-30. This “cruise” to the AL Central was headed straight for an iceberg, as the Minnesota Twins were surging at 40-18 and commanded an 11.5 game division lead.  The season grade at this point was a well deserved “F”.

Currently, as we sit at the All-Star break, the Indians are twelve games over .500 at 50-38, and sit just 5.5 games back of the Twins in the Central. How on earth have the Indians gotten themselves back into the divisional race so fast?

THE YOUTH

With an injured rotation and unproductive lineup, changes needed to happen. Exit Brad Miller, Eric Stamets, Hanley Ramirez, etc. Enter Oscar Mercado, Zach Plesac, and a plethora of young talent. All have stepped up immensely for manager Terry Francona and have been key in closing the gap on the Twins. Mercado, who was put on notice after an electric spring, has been perfect in the two-hole in the Cleveland lineup. He’s hitting .281 with 17 RBI’s and 6 stolen bases so far this year. On top of helping produce runs, he’s also saving runs in the outfield with his glove.

The Indians rotation hasn’t missed a beat despite injuries. That’s because of guys like Zach Plesac (nephew of Dan Plesac), Shane Bieber, Adam Plutko, and others. Plesac’s last couple of outings haven’t been as sharp, but the kid still sports a 3-3 record with a 4.00 ERA and 33 strikeouts in just eight games.

Bieber has been even better at an 8-3 record and 3.45 ERA. He’s also seventh in WHIP at 1.01. Bieber just earned honors as All-Star game MVP after being named an injury replacement earlier this month. He struck out the side in his one inning of work, fanning Willson Contreras, Ketel Marte, and Ronald Acuna Jr. 

The Indians have also gotten nice bonus performances from guys like Aaron Civale. The 24 year old threw six innings of shutout baseball against the Detroit Tigers on June 22nd, striking out six in the process. These kinds of unexpected contributions have helped keep the Indians afloat throughout this first half. 

Familiar Face

The return of Carlos Santana this past offseason brought some joy to Indians’ fans whose love for Carlos never left. However, I don’t think anyone could have predicted what he has done so far this year. Santana, named the starting first baseman for the American League in the All-Star game, was deserving of the honors. He’s posting a .297/.418/.540 slash line, 19 home runs (good enough to get him into the Home Run Derby), and 52 RBI’s. The versatile veteran could prove dangerous for playoff opponents if the Indians make it to October. 

THE BULLPEN

Perhaps the unsung hero, or heroes, of the 2019 Indians would be the bullpen. Cleveland’s pen has been one of, if not, the best group of relievers so far this year. They feature an 18-8 record as a unit and have been tough to hit, sporting a 9.21 K/9 ratio. They also have the best ERA of any bullpen, sitting at 3.45. The group is led by All-Star Brad Hand, who is having one of the best years of his career. He is 23-24 on save opportunities, has a .991 WHIP, 13.3 K/9 ratio, and a 2.17 ERA. He also leads the league with 38 games finished this year. 

HEALTH

The biggest concern now for Cleveland is getting healthy. Mike Clevinger is still dealing with ankle issues, Corey Kluber’s return is still distant, and Carlos Carrasco is now dealing with leukemia, despite saying he wants to pitch again this month. Injuries have hurt the Indians at crucial points in the season before, but overcoming that is familiar territory for this bunch.

LOOKING AHEAD 

Frankie Lindor is back to his usual self, posting a .296/.356/.511 slash line since returning from injury. Jose Ramirez continues to struggle this year, but posted a .318 batting average in his final twelve games before the break. That’s the Jose Ramirez the Indians need the second half of the season. 

The lineup now is very different than it was on Opening Day, and for the better. This once pathetic offense that exhausted the viewers watching them try to score runs has found its stride. They are 17-7 in their last 24 games and have posted a .295 batting average in that same stretch. 

The plan for the Indians in the second half should be simple. Just keep playing. That may sound cliche, but this is a unique season for Cleveland. There is no coasting to another divisional title again. This team has to scratch and fight for each win, and they know that. The improvement of the Twins, who have boasted the best record in baseball at various points this season, just reaffirms that. 

However, Minnesota has won just nine of their last twenty and have cooled off from their scorching hot start this year. They are still a very talented ball club, and boast a lineup that most would still choose over Cleveland’s. The Tribe’s strength is in their pitching, though, and now the offense is starting to click. 

Considering where this team was at the start of June, a mere 5.5 game gap in the division, and a current wild card spot isn’t the worst spot to be in. Remember that “F” I gave the Indians in early June? They still do not deserve an A, but I will give them a B+ for bouncing back in the fashion they have, despite all of the injuries that they have had.

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