First place out of the All-Star Break certainly is an uncommon comfort for the Cleveland Indians. You have to go all the way back to 1999 to see the Indians in first place in mid-July, so it’s right to understand the heady glee fans are dealing with right now. Still, the hope is to keep the ball rolling, and that means making a trade as the July 31st deadline approaches. There is always a need to get better no matter the position of the team, so there’s a knee-jerk reaction from all angles that a deal has to be struck.
But what if that’s not the case? The Indians find themselves in a curious position -- due to an insane two weeks and unlikely emergence of excellence from young players, combined with veterans reassuming their own dominance, they are firmly in first without even being at full strength. A deal would be nice, much like rearranging the furniture or changing the sheets on your bed something new and different is always exciting or at least nice, but the Tribe could well improve on their first half play by simply letting the world come to them.
The most obvious part of this is, letting injuries heal and letting the lineup take the shape it was supposed to have out of spring. This comes in the form of Michael Brantley, who is in the midst of a rehab assignment and goodwill tour through the minor league system. From Class-A Lake County he will take in some games in Akron, then likely on to Columbus before ultimately retaking his place in left field at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Reports are ranging from cautiously positive to glowing, but assuming everything breaks pretty well for him and he returns to 80 to 90 percent of what is expected of him, he will likely outstrip Mike Napoli for actual impact on the year.
The last two seasons Brantley has logged a 153 and 135 wRC+ respectively, meaning he’s been 53 percent and 35 percent more productive than an average offensive player. Like OPS+, but more exact. Thus far this season, the Indians are led by Tyler Naquin at 155, followed by Carlos Santana at 126. I trust the second one a bit more, since this isn’t the first time Santana has produced like this, but Naquin, well, he at least allows a baseball fan to dream. For your curiosity, Mike Napoli’s all or nothing approach puts him at 111 for the year. Number one in our hearts for the beard and bombs, of course, but seventh best on the team.
I fully expect Brantley to produce something like what he did most of last year, since 2014 had that absurd first half where he hit 15 of his 20 home runs. He’s more a 12-15 home run type of hitter, but that can work, especially with the speed the Tribe has put on the basepaths. Even if he’s not quite up to snuff though, I figure he’ll hit in that 125-135 range, around or better than Santana is right now, and really stretch that lineup out. It won’t approach the Red Sox still, but that’s a dose of offense you can be excited about.
It's not just Brantley though. Carlos Santana and Michael Napoli, both keystones in the offense, also happen to be notorious second half players. For Santana, his wRC+ is 10 points higher in the second half for his career, his OPS leaps 40 points, everything is better except his home run to fly ball ratio, which drops less than one percentage point. Napoli’s splits are even more stark his career wRC+ jumps from 115 to 139 in the second half, his OPS leaps 93 points, or roughly the difference between Nick Swisher and Paul Goldschmidt for their careers.
Napoli is absurd with these second halves. He went crazy in 2011 when he slashed .232/.344/.529 in the first half, then turned into Barry Bonds with a .383/.466/.663 line in the second half. It was insane. It shouldn’t be expected since his BABIP jumped from .226 to .427, but something more than what he’s been so far should be. If he and Santana follow their own trends, the Indians lineup turns from just above average to great, and that’s even without Brantley. With Brantley, thinking about Francisco Lindor as your fourth or fifth best hitter gets a little silly.
Whether from inside the system or from somewhere else, one necessity is fixing the Yan Gomes problem. As great as the Tribe catcher is defensively, and he is great, he’s also having one of the worst offensive seasons ever. For anyone. Ever. The expectation is either he’ll be replaced by the homers and walks of Roberto Perez once he rounds into form in the minors, or a trade, perhaps for Jonathan Lucroy of the Milwaukee Brewers. For the front office, it’s not prudent to just "hope" that he gets better, but there’s some precedent for a player having a first half in the tank and then turning it around. Just last year Robinson Cano saw his wRC+ leap from 83 in the first half to 153 after the break. He just turned back into himself.
Gomes has had a really rough year, and there’s likely a mechanical issue crushing his output. I wrote about it just a couple weeks ago. His line drive rate is in the hole and he’s making contact like he did when he had a knee injury last year. The time off could do him some good and there’s a slim chance that he could reassume being the power hitting backstop that gave Tribedom the vapors. It’s not expected, it’s probably not even likely, but the good news is, there’s several weeks between now and the deadline, so it gives the Indians a chance to see if he keeps bringing a banjo to the plate every at-bat.
Admittedly, if the Indians do stand pat and do experiences some of the aforementioned improvements, they could still suffer as some of their players have been playing over their heads. As excellent as it is to see Tyler Naquin hit like he’s Mike Trout Jr. (even though he’s a year older), there’s a good chance this whole thing isn’t tenable. He’s always hit .300 in the minors, but not with this power, he doesn’t walk enough for comfort, and his BABIP is 120 points above league average and maybe 6 0 or 70 points above where a player of his style could hope to expect. Maybe he is legit, but without a track record we have nothing to hang a hat on.
Josh Tomlin has been challenging reality as well, and if stats like Fiedling Independent Pitching have any credence, he has to suffer some regression. He’s outperforming his peripherals immensely, a 3.51 ERA versus a 4.94 FIP. Pitchers have done this in the past, Tomlin himself did a year ago with a 3.02 ERA against a 4.43 FIP in ten starts and 65 innings, but it’s dangerous turf to tread. Jason KIpnis and Lonnie Chisenhall have a history of killing the ball in the early summer then petering off, that could happen too. I wrote a little while back about Kipnis, and how he might be becoming more consistent, but with him, and with Lonnie, it’s very much a wait and see approach. They're both getting into their prime so one would hope they know how to keep things consistent. But both of them have a history of less than stellar second halves.
Standing pat when you can make improvements isn’t a good approach no matter your business or game, but neither is making change for change’s sake. I expect a trade or two, but I also think the Indians to be able to achieve what they hope to with just what’s in their hand. A reliever couldn't hurt, and everyone wants more bats, but there's a bit of time to see if things will keep cooking, or if a change truly is needed, or even warranted.