I love sports. My wife would tell you that my interest is excessive, but I could say the same about her and chick flicks. I’ll watch Canadian football, women’s basketball, minor league baseball, whatever is on. I draw the line at women’s softball; sometimes you can watch for several innings without seeing anyone make contact. I don’t watch manufactured sports like poker or hot dog eating, and I tend to avoid sports where you don’t know who wins until a judge tells you. But most nights I’ll grab something to read around 9:00 and turn on one of the sports channels and watch whatever is on until I fall asleep.
All things being equal, my first choice is usually to watch the Indians. I have been a Tribe fan since the late 60s, through plenty of years with no hope whatsoever. I have watched when the personnel was so blatantly inferior that a horse would win a spelling bee before they would win a division. I have watched in September when they had been mathematically eliminated in mid-August. In other words, I am loyal beyond the point of rationality.
But this year has been different. I can probably count on one hand the number of games I have seen enough of to do a thorough recap afterwards. At first I was obsessed with the NBA and NHL playoffs, then I started watching the World Cup. Even when there wasn’t a compelling alternative, though, I haven’t turned on the Indians for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. I have tried to figure out why, because it’s pretty difficult to write about a team without watching them occasionally. The best explanation I can come up with is that I am bored.
Like the tens of thousands of fans who stay home from the games every night, I have been unable to find a good reason to give this team my devotion or my time. It’s hard to figure, because they are 3.5 games out of a playoff spot despite seemingly half the roster underachieving (let’s see…, Swisher, Santana, Kipnis, Giambi, Cabrera, and Raburn; Masterson, Carrasco, Salazar, and McAllister from the rotation, Axford and Pestano from the bullpen, and just about everyone who tried to catch or throw a baseball. Yeah, that’s at least half.) How many of those guys would need to get their acts together for this team to make a serious run in the last two months of the season? A couple of starting pitchers and a couple of hitters just getting back to their career norms would be more than enough, especially when, aside from the Angels, none of the other wild card contenders looks like a 90-win team. At least not to me.
As we all know, if you can get to the postseason, anything is possible. And we also know that this is a team with two postseason bids in the last twelve years, and precious few close calls to boot. So wouldn’t it seem worthwhile to stay on the bandwagon and see if they make a run like last year? Maybe, but the thought gnaws at me that this is just not a good team. I look at the stats and I see that most nights there are three guys in the lineup who pose a serious threat. I see lousy defense at short and third, and really only Michael Brantley at this point is above average at his position. I see a rotation with 42 quality starts. Maybe that’s not the most sophisticated stat in the world, but it’s tough to say a starting pitcher did his job when he didn’t finish the sixth inning.
Add it all up, and 47-47 starts to look like overachieving. The real quandary is that there is no obvious move that can be made to improve the situation. Assuming the front office won’t add significant payroll, one of the top salaries on the team would need to be included in any deal that might move the needle. Well, the top four salaries are a shortstop leading the league in errors, a first baseman/DH with an OPS of .636, a centerfielder with seemingly chronic hamstring issues, and a starting pitcher who ranks 44th out of 45 qualifiers in ERA in the American League. How many phone calls is Chris Antonetti getting about those guys? The only move I could suggest would be to give away Cabrera and Masterson and use the payroll dollars on somebody who could help, but that would involve trading prospects, and that would only make sense if you really thought this season was going somewhere.
So we are left hoping that the guys that are here play better. Unfortunately, Swisher just looks old to me. I keep hoping he just needs to get healthy and get his timing back, but sometimes a slow bat is just a slow bat. Lately he has reminded me of Matt LaPorta, who always seemed to decide whether to swing way too early to compensate for his slow bat, so he could be fooled way too easily. Same now with Swisher. Cabrera is a good hitter when he uses his hips to drive the ball, and mediocre when he just swings with his shoulders. Watch his swing from 2011 and compare it to the last year-plus. Not sure where the swing has gone, but I don’t have a lot of optimism that we’ll see it again before the end of his contract. Unless his bat is in the upper echelon among middle infielders, his glove makes him a problem. I have seen Francisco Lindor a couple of times in Akron now. He should have been in Triple-A a month ago, facing pitchers with major league stuff so he could be ready if a trade for Cabrera materializes. There’s no way to know if Lindor is ready to hit at this point, but he couldn’t be much worse, and his glove is definitely better.
The bright side for me is Jason Kipnis. The lack of passion we have seen from Kipnis so far this year is a major reason why the team can’t hold my interest. It’s just a different team, and infinitely more fun to watch, when he is playing aggressively. I would be stunned if his second half is statistically similar to the first. At some point between now and October, Kipnis will have one of those streaks where he puts up numbers like Joe Morgan in his prime, and when that happens it could lift the whole team. With all that has gone wrong this year, the Indians are one good week away from being in the thick of a playoff race, and Kipnis needs to step up and lead the way.