It is hard to fathom that the Indians are about to reach the halfway point of the season. With 75 games now under their belts, it is possible to draw some conclusions about how things are trending. There are definite signs of hope for the pitching staff. The current rotation has two members with earned run averages below four, three when Zach McAllister comes off the DL, and four if we could get the league office not to count April in Ubaldo Jimenez’ stats. The fifth spot has not been solidified, but with Scott Kazmir, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco to choose from, there is every reason to believe that somebody will step up and give the Indians a rotation that will be at least league-average.
The bullpen has disappointed so far, but there are enough good arms available to remain optimistic. The greatest uncertainty revolves around Chris Perez, who has had enough arm problems and personal issues that he can’t be counted on until he comes back and displays some consistency. Still, some combination of Vinnie Pestano, Bryan Shaw, Matt Albers, Cody Allen, and Joe Smith should be good enough to handle the last three innings. The biggest worry is that it takes a month or two of on-field struggles for Perez to either regain his mojo or pitch his way out of the plans. That’s why the Indians are holding off on bringing him back until he has some sustained success in his rehab assignments. Better to let him figure things out against Pawtucket than against the White Sox.
Which brings us to the offense.
To me, the question of whether this is a championship-caliber offense remains unanswered. The Indians are currently sixth in the American league in on-base percentage, seventh in slugging percentage, and fifth in runs. They higher rank in runs indicates either some opportunism or a fluke that will revert to form.
If you look at position by position it is instructive. The Indians rank second in the American League in OPS at two positions: catcher and, surprisingly, right field (Vicious people would use this opportunity to post a link to my preseason blog ripping the Indians for keeping Ryan Raburn, the stronger half by far of the right field platoon). They rank between fourth and ninth at five other positions: second base (fifth), shortstop (sixth), left field (ninth), center field (sixth), DH (fourth). So at seven out of nine positions the Indians are either above or very close to average.
The most encouraging aspect of this is that, aside from Raburn, nobody is really outperforming what was expected of them before the season. There may be a small regression from Jason Kipnis in the second half, but he does not have enough of a track record to know if this is what he is really capable of, so maybe he will keep it up. In fact, there is room for some improvement. Shortstop and overall depth should be strengthened when Asdrubel Cabrera gets healthy and Mike Aviles returns to a utility role, and Drew Stubbs is below his career norms for power. The other encouraging thing is that the presence of guys like Raburn, Aviles, and Yan Gomes should enable the starters to stay fresh all year and also keep the lineup from being weakened when a regular gets a day off.
That leaves two spots that are pulling the Indians down: first and third base. They rank 13th in the league in OPS at both positions. This is good news, from the standpoint of potential for improvement. It is easier to fix two positions that suck than to be mediocre everywhere. Nick Swisher’s numbers are so far out of whack with his career norms that one has to assume he will pick things up at some point, unless his shoulder issues are more serious than the Indians are letting on. A normal second half by Swisher, which would mean an OPS in the .800 range, would by itself be enough to raise the team OPS about three notches in the rankings.
The other issue, which seems to be lingering, is Lonnie Chisenhall. He has not played the last two games, because of left-handed starting pitchers. That worries me, because neither of these guys was exactly Cliff Lee. If the Indians had any faith that Chisenhall had figured out left-handed pitching, these were the guys to test him on. Since his recall, Chisenhall has hit .231, with one double and one walk in 14 plate appearances, so not much to get excited about. I would like to see Chisenhall get as much playing time as possible over the next month, so that the Indians know before the trade deadline if they need an upgrade at third base.
Overall, if the Indians can get decent production at first and third base in the second half, this offense has the potential to score five runs per game (they are currently averaging 4.67). That level of productivity would place the Indians on a par with the elite offense in the league and, if the rotation doesn’t falter, give them a chance to stay in contention all year.