Much has been written in recent days arguing whether or not the Cleveland Indians’ season is dead in the water. Which is silly, since they still have to play more baseball, and I’m confident they will win four more games this year, and the Detroit Tigers will lose four more. That’s just how baseball is. You lose a bunch even when you’re good. Still, losing two guys who could have cribbed some Cy Young votes at the end of the season, had they both gone 200+ innings, that’s going to hurt anyone. But here’s the thing about that.
This is not the Cleveland Indians team that was promised in early April. Over the last six months, we’ve seen this team take on a completely different design than was expected. No more are they a rotation-centric team. They can just flat out play ball.
The bullpen has been a huge surprise
It was super awesome when the Tribe was a team that could flat out play ball and out pitch the opponent most days. But those days are gone, and we have what we have. One of those things we have before us is a truly dominant bullpen.
Coming into the season, there were two names that people trusted coming out of the bullpen, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw. Shaw dug himself a hole with a run of bad luck in the first half, but he’s been very good along with Allen. Outside of those two though, it was the usual collection of reclamations, rando’s and failed starters. Jeff Manship wasn’t going to have a sub-1.00 ERA again. And if you really wanted to trust Kyle Crockett to be the LOOGY, more power to you. Some were even excited when Tommy Hunter recovered from surgery, and he's not even on the team anymore. The 'pen was two guys and a bunch of hope.
Then Dan Otero happened. He's one of the best relievers in the league on the season out of nowhere. His 1.54 ERA, 2.39 FIP and 59 percent ground ball rate are all sterling, and he’s been able to just quietly dominate middle to late innings. Quiet signings like this, especially when it involves a reliever from the A's, can really shift a season. Otero has been excellent, a perfect pitcher for this team. He alone gave the Indians three excellent relievers.
Then Andrew Miller happened. Sure, we could complain about how the other trade didn’t go through, but Miller has been an incredible pickup. As I wrote before, and as others have, Francona’s ability to use him in any inning based on the leverage of the situation has helped the Indians become truly dominant. It’s leaked over into the rest of the bullpen, and I bet there will be times we see Allen in the seventh or eighth inning. We’ve seen Cody make more than three-out saves, and between him and Miller that’s just excellence that can spread to eight, even nine outs. This ability and mentality of the bullpen to be used when they're needed rather than being tied to a certain inning will play well come October.
In April, names like Zach McAllister and Trevor Bauer were supposed to be the guys relied upon in the bullpen to get to the Shaw/Allen combo. The real hope was some names from the farm might break out. Instead it was free agency and the trade deadline that did the work. Now Shaw is the fourth best reliever in the bullpen. Thanks to growth, patience, and one excellent trade, the Indians suddenly have a bullpen that will be a strength in the postseason.
Overcoming the loss of Michael Brantley was never supposed to be this easy
There was a time early in the season where the Indians were supposed to miss Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall.
Not to say they don’t miss Brantley -- him getting 500 at-bats instead of a combination of Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer, Coco Crisp and Tyler Naquin would turn the Tribe from a first place in their division to somewhere in the neighborhood of best in baseball. Not Chicago Cubs best, but normal team best. But his loss also led to the flourishing of Jose Ramirez, now one of the best third basemen in the AL, as well as Naquin asserting his Rookie of the Year candidacy. This also allowed Chisenhall to ease back into the season, and he’s been very good in a platoon role. More than that, a stunning number of breakouts and out-of-nowhere seasons have really lifted the team.
Francisco Lindor’s 2015 has proven to not be a ruse, asserting himself as one of the best at a stacked position. Jason Kipnis is having what should now be considered a routinely excellent year. Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana hitting more than 60 homers wasn’t really expected at season’s opening, just hoped for. With breakout players like Ramirez and Naquin joining them, the offense went from an April question mark to scoring the second-most runs in the American League.
The Indians don’t have to scrape together two runs and hope for another shutout like in years past, they just slug and bloop and walk and do everything else to get runs. There was a lot about the offense that was just blue sky and desperate hope in Spring Training, and so much of it has come true.
Versatility is a thing recent Indians teams haven't had, but the 2016 squad has it in spades
Then there’s the versatility of the team. There were so many unknowns coming into 2016, the biggest perhaps being what to expect out of Rajai Davis and Napoli. All they’ve done is have career years, Davis leading the league in steals. Nobody expected the Indians to just rob baseball blind like this.
From Davis to Lindor to Kipnis to Ramirez and even on down to Naquin and Crisp, there’s just athleticism and speed all over the lineup. Plus Kipnis decided to hit home runs again. You could tell they were building this sort of team over the last few years, eliminating one trick ponies if at all possible in favor of all-around talent, and it’s finally coalesced into some of the most fun baseball I’ve seen in awhile. Watching the RKansas City Royals last year was very much like this team. They can hurt you in so many ways.
So it does stink the rotation has fallen apart. It was such a blast to watch for four and a half months or so. But from another angle, the Indians right now are a fascinating amalgam of several recent World Series participants. From the Royals with their excellent defense and bullpen, to the San Francisco Giants and having a star and scrubs rotation (not really a positive, just a fact of life), to the 2009 New York Yankees and their excellent offensive infield. Not mirror images of any of these of course (especially that Yankees infield, that was an absurd team looking back) but they have many pieces they'll lean on that other champions have used before them.
All this is perhaps the most specious reasoning in this article, but suffice it to say, just because the Indians lost two very good pitchers doesn’t mean they don’t have the tools others have used in the past to hang pennants.
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Simply put, the Indians have completely changed their makeup over the last few months, and if anything it’s prepared them better than merely a great rotation could for a deep run. They’re nothing like what we saw in April. You need that bullpen, that defense and timely hitting (this means Ramirez) and a couple paint bomb launchers in the middle to win those close games that one swing can decide. Maybe I’m just polishing a turd here. Maybe it is all broke and finished. But The Indians have the tools to make it interesting in October. Calling them an underdog is underselling what they have going for them.