Not to toot my horn, but I was one of the guys who talked you off the roof when the Indians were 8-13. Now that they are on pace for 98 wins, there is endless speculation in the blogosphere about whether they are “for real.” The exhilaration of their recent play is tempered by the fact that they have been in virtually this exact place the past two years and it did not last. But the talent seems deeper, the vibe seems more solid, and the record is more in line with the underlying stats than it was last year. So should we be saving our money for World Series tickets? The answer, as it has all along, comes down to the pitching.
I say that because, in general, the offense has performed about as you would expect. Mark Reynolds is slowly coming back to earth, but Asdrubal Cabrera will eventually pick his numbers up enough to compensate for that, and we have only seen a little bit of what Michael Bourn can do. So it seems reasonable that the Indians can maintain one of the top offenses in the league throughout the season. Even average pitching, combined with this offense, should get the Indians 85-90 wins.
Real contention will probably require a bit more than ninety wins, though. In order to keep up with the Tigers, or even nail down a wild card spot, the Indians will need to pitch at something close to the rate that they have during their recent hot streak. Mathematically, there are two ways to get to 95 wins, to put it simply: either one guy has to go crazy, like Justin Verlander did two years ago, or all five guys have to be solid. Unless you think Justin Masterson has a 25-win season in him, the latter course is what the Indians have to aim for. Whether that happens or not still comes down to that one word that it has all hinged on since spring training: Ubaldo Jimenez.
Look at it like this: Jimenez has probably 23 starts left this year. If he can get to the seventh inning in 80+ per cent of those starts he probably wins 14-16 games and profiles as an adequate number two starter. Your rotation then looks like this: Masterson (a legitimate ace so far), Jimenez, Zach McAllister (who is out pitching most of the number three starters in the league), Trevor Bauer (you can afford a little inconsistency at number four if the high points are as good as what we’ve seen so far), and then either Brett Myers, Corey Kluber or Scott Kazmir in the fifth spot. Odds are one of those guys will be decent.
If Bad Ubaldo rears his head again on a consistent basis the Indians have no incentive to keep him around in his contract year, so I assume he will be traded or DFA’ed. My only hope is that they not wait until the season is sunk before doing that. If that happens, though, suddenly McAllister is your number two starter. That doesn’t mean he faces different pitchers necessarily, but it does mean that on EVERY trip through the rotation he is one of the guys you have to get 7-8 innings from and hand it to the bullpen in position to win. Not sure if he fits that profile just yet. Bauer becomes number three, which means that the inconsistent part of the rotation is now the majority. The last two spots will be chosen from Myers, Kluber, Kazmir, and Jimenez for as long as he sticks around. If my season is banking on one of those guys coming through I can take that bet. If my season is banking on two of those guys coming through , – well, there’s a reason the daily double pays a lot better than just one race.
This is why the national writers are saying we should get some pitching. Some of them are more inclined to get younger pitching that we can control for a few years, rather than bet the farm on this year. Personally, I’ve been watching Carlos Carrasco in Columbus and I can see a rotation of Masterson, McAllister, Bauer, and Carrasco being pretty potent in a year or two. That of course depends on getting Masterson to sign an extension. But, frankly, aside from Danny Salazar I don’t see a lot of help coming from the farm system, and we all know that when you into a season with four starters and no depth you usually end up with two good guys and a bunch of injuries or poor performance.
Also, when the Indians go after pitchers in free agency they end up with third-tier guys like Myers, which is what you get when you are willing to spend less than ten million. So a trade seems like a good idea if it nets them someone who projects to fit into the top three spots in the rotation within the next two or three years. That would probably require trading a front line player such as Chris Perez or Asdrubal Cabrera. Losing Cabrera at this point is probably too great a gamble because it would take Mike Aviles out of a bench role, which would weaken a strong bench and overexpose him.
It is not certain that the Indians are true contenders, but there is no sense in sabotaging this season until they prove they are not. There is enough bullpen depth, however, to replace Perez if an attractive trade comes along. Perez is also making a lot of money and about to make even more, at a position where being elite for more than three consecutive years is a rarity. I would set my price high, but come July when contenders realize that their closers can’t get it done, somebody will meet that price and give the Indians a starting pitcher with potential for Chris Perez.