Most of the talk you heard about the American League Central division coming into this year centered around the Detroit Tigers.
Due to the Prince Fielder signing, and the presence of Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, there was huge hype about them coming in to 2012.
On the other hand, the Cleveland Indians were a team with very low expectations coming into 2012. A rather quiet offseason didn’t render them a favorite to make a legitimate playoff push.
However, the Indians were the first place team in the AL Central through much of the early goings. And despite currently sitting a handful of games out of the division lead, they are still certainly in the mix for a playoff berth.
With just a couple months left in the regular season, there’s certainly been enough evidence presented to answer the question “contender or pretender?” for the Tribe.
Let’s start by dissecting the pitching staff.
Here’s a look at the Indians’ rotation (unofficial order).
- Justin Masterson (7-9, 4.47 ERA)
- Ubaldo Jimenez (8-10, 5.08 ERA)
- Derek Lowe (8-9, 5.09 ERA)
- Josh Tomlin (5-8, 5.87 ERA)
- Zach McCallister (4-2, 3.18 ERA)
As you can tell, their starting staff has been rather lackluster.
With division rivals Chicago and Detroit both having solid, deep rotations, the Indians put themselves far back of the pack with this part of their squad.
The Indians’ bullpen has a 4.10 ERA as a unit, good for 22nd in all of baseball. The Tigers and White Sox are both middle-of-the-pack in this category at 16th and 18th overall.
Outside of closer Chris Perez, who is one of the better, more stable finishers in the league, Cleveland really doesn’t have much going on in the ‘pen, both in terms of experience or potential.
While their pitching staff renders more question marks and worries than than answers, let’s look at the offense and see if the contention potential gets any better.
Given the Tribe’s team batting average (16th), runs scored (18th), slugging % (21st), and hits (16th), I have them as about the 18th best offense in baseball,. That’s a little worse than middle-of-the-pack, once again, like the pitching.
And it’s not like these are faulty stats, either. The “eye test” puts them right around that ranking as well in my opinion.
Their lineup is (usually) as follows:
- Shin Soo Choo
- Asdrubal Cabrera
- Jason Kipnis
- Michael Brantley
- Travis Hafner
- Carlos Santana
- Johnny Damon
- Casey Kotchman
- Jose Lopez
That was the most accurate lineup I could put together based on the recent ones they’ve used, so I may be off in a spot or two. While at a glance that may not look like too poor of an order, you have to remember that most of these guys are not playing up to their potential or how they did in their prime.
Middle-of-the-pack is not bad. I don’t want to make it sound like his lineup has been anemic; it certainly has been, at times, formidable.
But Cleveland’s offense is built around Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner being big-time power hitters and raking in lots of runs, which has not been the case. They’ve only combined for 19 home runs and 70 RBIs. While injuries have played a role in that, the Indians haven’t had anyone else to pick up the slack.
If Hafner and Santana hit a hot streak, then Cleveland’s offense can be solid as a whole, but the ceiling is limited.
Also it’s worth noting how lefty-heavy they are, which is something that the White Sox, for one, can combat easily with starters Jose Quintana, Francisco Liriano, and Chris Sale.
After taking a closer look at the team, it’s now time to answer the question of the hour…
Cleveland: Contender or Pretender?
What you have to remember about this question is that it’s not asking whether or not a team is one of the best in the league and will be able to contend for a title. It’s not even asking if they’re the favorite to win their division. It’s just about whether they’ll be in contention for the long haul or if they’ll soon fade away.
I’ve gone back and forth on this debate as far as the Cleveland Indians go, but through Monday’s games, I’m going to have to say that I see them as a pretender.
If you want to win an extremely competitive division in the ultra-competitive American League, you have to have something really going for you. The Indians just don’t have it. Their pitching is definitely sub-par, and their offense is mediocre, at best.
With just two months left, I think most of the wins within the division will go to the Tigers and White Sox, as the race between those two clubs will likely go down to the wire. The Indians took a few steps backward getting swept by the Twins over the weekend, and I think more regression is in their very near future.
General Manager Chris Antonetti has not made any major additions to this point, and I don’t see him doing so before the trade deadline, which is now just an hour away.
If they’re sellers then they definitely won’t have enough on their club to stay even remotely close, but let’s say they keep their current club. I don’t think they’ll be the team atop the AL Central or Wild Card standings come late-September or early-October.
Indians fans shouldn’t be totally discouraged though. This wasn’t a year in which they were expected to have much excitement at all.
They have, at least, learned more about a lot of their young players going forward, which will make it easier for Antonetti to put a contender on the field in the the coming seasons.
This post originally appeared on Zach’s White Sox fan blog, Grab Some Bench! Check out all of his work there at GrabSomeBench.com and follow on Twitter @Grab_Some_Bench