On July 29th, 2011, Cleveland Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco gave up a grand slam home run to Royals outfielder Melky Cabrera. Facing the next hitter, Billy Butler, Carrasco let loose with a fastball right at Butler’s head. It resulted in Carrasco being ejected from the game for headhunting, a six-game suspension and a fine, and an eruption of indignation from across the baseball media world over how this just doesn’t belong in the game. It was a low point in a second half full of them, and the Indians slide that had begun earlier in the month continued, ending with an 80-82 record after a 30-15 start to the season. Somewhere in June or July, the Indians just lost their way.
The 2012 Cleveland Indians have been even worse than the 2011 model. After holding on to first place for a couple months and looking much more like a threat to make the playoffs they have just bottomed right out, 10-33 in August and September thus far. When they swept the Tigers back in late May they were firing on all cylinders, seeming like a team ready to run away with the division.
Then they went to Chicago and lost three, then two of three to the Royals. In those six games they were outscored 54-27. In late July they took another two of three from the Tigers in another massive series (since they’d been scuffling for a couple weeks, they brought it on themselves) and what do they do? Head to Minnesota for what should be some easy wins while the Tigers face the best fourth place team in baseball in Toronto, and the Indians get blown away 11-0. The next two were worse if anything, losing 12-5 on Saturday and 5-1 on Sunday.
We could rehash the 11-game losing streak that dragged into August, or the nine-game losing streak that came shortly thereafter, or even the “mini” streak of only six losses. But I don’t to think about that. Point is, this team just fell off, losing badly to bad teams like Minnesota or Kansas City and allowing their hopes to be spoiled. Playoff-bound teams don’t let that happen, they find a way to assert their will on the game and the Indians have not done that. Without that killer instinct playoffs are just not even a thought in Cleveland.
Really though, this faltering when it matters has been a problem the last couple years. There’s just no firebrand leader to put a charge into this team. Sure, Chris Perez is a dynamo out of the bullpen, so is Vinnie Pestano, but we’re going to see them for two innings combined and that’s if the Indians have the lead. They have no impact when the game is just getting going, when a team has to assert their attitude on the game.
The Tigers can trot out Justin Verlander and some opposing hitters walk to the batter’s box like they already have two strikes against them. If not Verlander it’s Miguel Cabrera every night in the three-hole, and now Prince Fielder right behind him. Are they bad guys, are they going to literally murder you? No, but they take obvious pleasure in destroying the other team and do it routinely.
The Boston Red Sox have Dustin Pedroia, who just oozes competitiveness and tiny fury. The Tampa Bay Rays have David Price or Evan Longoria or even Ben Zobrist. The Rangers and Angels have their entire lineups. Heck, even the Mariners have Felix Hernandez and had Ichiro until recently. All these players have an edge to them, a chip on their shoulders of sorts that makes the other team pay them attention. You just don’t want to mess around with them. Meanwhile, the Indians don’t have any firebrands in the clubhouse. Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo or even if we wanted to reach and say Travis Hafner—all these guys are just too quiet and unassuming, and they’re the faces of the franchise.
When Carrasco threw at Butler’s head he showed a little fire and brimstone. Sure it was immature and a little dangerous, but it’s better than him just shrugging like nothing happened. Butler sure won’t dig in against him again. Justin Masterson wouldn’t have done that, he’s too calm. Josh Tomlin doesn’t throw hard enough to make anyone worry, Ubaldo Jimenez would probably miss his spot and end up hitting the umpire, and who knows about Zach McAllister at this point. You need starters who are going to set the tone of a series, and the Tribe hasn’t had that since 2008.
Back when Grady Sizemore was healthy he was always described as a quiet leader who did it by example. That’s great when there’s other guys who will speak up, but not when everyone is looking for someone to take the reins. Manny Acta is likewise quiet and unassuming. We don’t have anyone to look to as an emotional leader, who will call people out and put the team on his back. At least back in 2007 we had CC Sabathia and his deputy, Fausto Carmona. Those guys were struck terror and other teams put themselves in a mental hole from the get-go. Without them the Indians became a very vanilla ballclub. They’re family-friendly, but who cares about that when you don’t win?
We had a shot earlier this season to have a real kick in the pants-er on the squad. Chris Perez repeatedly called out the fans and the front office about their not supporting the team. Empty stands suck to play in front of, I get that, and it’s tough when the guys that control the bank account don’t pony up for some quality players. Problem is, Chris is a closer. Like I said before, he’s only in there for a bit at the end, and it’s only if the team is winning. Maybe he wants to work more, that makes sense, but he’s still just the closer. His impact on the club is small in the best of times. You need someone who’s out there every day (or who controls everything once every few of days) someone we can plan a day around, someone that can show that drive to win all the time. Closers are by theatrical, you can’t take them seriously. Plus he probably talked his way out of town, so we can’t count on that much at all, can we. Someone else has to step up, a big piece that, unlike Perez, is irreplaceable.
This doesn’t mean the Tribe should just go draft and sign miscreants and malcontents. You don’t want a team of Albert Belles, but at least someone that would actually put a charge into the team, the fanbase, and the ball from time to time. There’s nothing worse than a boring, mediocre team and that’s what the Indians are. This season is a wash, but at least they can stay out of last place. What they need to do (and this is probably the toughest thing at this point) is not let themselves get beat. This past Sunday against the Tigers Ubaldo pitched guttily and they kept themselves in it and damn if it wasn’t the young guns winning it. Jason Kipnis doubling to lead off against Jose Valverde, Carlos Santana unaccountably doubling, and Lonnie Chisenhall showing up again to end it with a single. That’s what I want to see, a little fight. Keep this up the rest of the year, maybe those attendance problems won’t be as much of an issue next April.
Is it possible to draft someone for his fire and verve? Maybe, that’s one of the reasons Theo Epstein was so attracted to Pedroia. Maybe you have to focus more on college players, and the Indians have done that with their high picks for some time outside of guys like Francisco Lindor. Obviously firebrandship is not the number one thing general managers look for, but a couple outspoken types should be sprinkled around the clubhouse. Too much and it’ll get loud and irritating, preschoolish, but the right mix. That’s the problem with the Indians now, their attitude just seems too quiet.
Whether this means a new manager or a trade for some new blood to get the Tribe cooking again (we’re likely to see some neat activity this offseason) something has to change. Nobody wants to watch a boring team play boring baseball. It’s almost worse than losing.