How do you categorize a first half in which the Indians trail a team that was projected to lose over 85 games this year, and lead the division winners of a year ago? In all honesty, it’s almost nice to not be in first, no expanded expectations, and now with the second half starting the team has something to aim at (the White Sox, in case you didn’t know) rather than their more nebulous goal of a year ago.
Buster Olney ranked contenders’ schedules for the second half and the Indians actually have the easiest schedule, 36 of 77 at home and only 33 against .500 teams. (That must mean a lot of games against Minnesota and Kansas City.) It all starts north of the border, against a team right at .500, the Toronto Blue Jays. In almost any other divison in baseball they’d be in the thick of a playoff hunt and with that second Wild Card they still are, but right now they’re in 5th in the AL East. They’re a fine matchup for the Central’s second place team.
The Blue Jays delivered the first buzzkill of the season for the Indians, beating Cleveland in 16 innings on Opening Day in Cleveland. J.P. Arencibia did his best impression of a brick wall for six extra innings, blocking potential wild pitches that could have led to runs, then won the thing with a three-run homer. This will be the first time the Indians face the Jays since that opening series, and since then the Jays’ pitching staff has been decimated by injury. The offense, of course, has retained its punch, and being forged in the fires of the AL East it is as tough as they come.
Leading the way is Jose Bautista, slugger extraordinaire. While he’s not having the .302/.447/.608 season he did last year, he’s still leading baseball in homers with 27, holds an .899 OPS, and is a fine defensive right fielder. Sure, I saw him personally misplay four of five balls to the corner last week in Chicago, but he’s smart out there with an arm and range. He also hit 14 home runs in June, and that’s pretty awesome. Joey Bats will never be a Hall of Famer, but he’s one of those guys baseball is so replete with—very good, even dominant for a couple years, and fading into the sunset. Or maybe he just found his groove too late. Either way, he gets to face Ubaldo Jimenez and an elderly Derek Lowe (we’ll get to more of that in a bit) so he’ll be sure to launch one or two.
It’s not just Bautista that does the heavy lifting here. The Blue Jays are blessed with a precocious youngster in Brett Lawrie, who has found his groove and if he develops on the track he looks like he could ride, could be in Cooperstown in 15 or 20 years. Lawrie isn’t blowing you out of the water offensively but he’s doing a darn good job as an all-around player. His .759 OPS isn’t stunning (103 OPS+) but his prowess defensively is—Baseball-Reference has him as a 3.6 dWAR player already this year. He’s also got 26 extra-base hits including two triples, and walks well enough for a young guy.
Toronto also just extended the contract of DH (and sometime first baseman) Edwin Encarnacion. Considering he’s been their best hitter with 23 homers and a 150 OPS+ it’s money well-spent, and something they have to do in that division. Colby Rasmus is another good piece to put around Bautista, with an .821 OPS and 17 homers already.
Meanwhile, the Indians have Travis Hafner back for the stretch run, and even if Pronk isn’t clubbing it his ability to work at-bats and get on base is not to be overlooked. Add to that the expected reemergence of Carlos Santana as chronicled by Brian and the beautiful maturation of Jason Kipnis, how can you not be excited for this offense? A deadline deal could be in the works for someone like Josh Willingham or Chris Denorfia, some kind of pop to inject in the lineup, but overall it’s looking good. Oh, and don’t think about it too much or you might jinx it, but Grady Sizemore has been whispered about again, and could return sometime in August.