The Cleveland Indians could have celebrated winning the American League Central on March 31. Once they sealed a victory against the Seattle Mariners and established a foothold in the win column, there was no turning back in a division as dreadful as the AL Central.
Sure, the Minnesota Twins were supposed to offer some kind of fight after making an improbable and exciting run to the Wild Card game in 2017, but the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Kansas City Royals all projected to be some of the worst teams in baseball, and that’s exactly where they appear to be landing with the season mere days away from wrapping up. Combine that with the Twins utterly and completely flopping and the Indians had virtually no one else fighting for the AL Central crown.
Still, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the same respect as any other division winner, or warrant the same level of concern for other teams in the American League playoffs. They are a damn fine team with two MVP candidates at the top of the lineup, a true home run threat in Edwin Encarnacion, a streaky Yonder Alonso, a pair of great defensive catchers, and an outfield that technically exists, and is sometimes even passable.
Even with all that and an other-wordly pitching staff — one that is likely to see it’s other Cy Young candidate return from the disabled list soon — Indians fans don’t seem content with watching their team win their third-straight division title for the first time since Jim Thome was blasting baseballs out of Jacobs Field.
To an extent, I can’t blame anyone. I sure as hell was getting bored towards the end of the magic number slowly winding down to zero. The regular season doesn’t matter going forward and it hasn’t really mattered since mid-June for the Indians — it’s been one long spring training for just about everybody involved.
None of that means anyone — especially Indians fans — should be shorting the Indians’ playoff chances come October. The Tribe’s ability to just “flip a switch” like their basketball counterparts can be questioned, absolutely, but if they can flip it there’s no doubt they are a talented bunch with just as many holes as any other contending team.
If you believed in the chances of the 2017 Indians, you definitely should believe in 2018
While the 2018 starting rotation doesn’t have the same record-setting strikeout ability of a year ago, they collectively have an ERA of 3.44, a full 0.08 points lower than last season, with a FIP just barely higher at 3.42 and they’ve walked fewer batters (2.19 per nine, compared to 2.43 in 2017).
Offensively there is almost no difference between last season and this season except that they are more top-heavy in where their production has come from. The 2017 Indians edge out the 2018 group just barely in wRC+ (105 compared to 103) with slashes of .257/.329/.434 this season and .263/.339/.449 in 2017. There is no Carlos Santana or anti-aging Austin Jackson this time around, but Michael Brantley has made up some of the gap nicely with a 124 wRC+ and nine percent strikeout rate through 581 plate appearances.
And of course the addition of Josh Donaldson, even if he only has a handful of meaningful at-bats can be a difference maker in October. Honestly, a fully healthy Donaldson ready to go by October 1 is a big enough boost to make this year’s Indians far deadlier than last year’s.
Every playoff team has their issues. If you don’t believe me, read it from them
As for the 2018 Indians’ shortcomings, I think a lot of perspective has been lost in the shuffle of a team floating their way through an easy season.
The Indians definitely have issues — the bullpen, streaky hitters in the lineup, a jerry-rigged outfield that could explode at any moment, you get the idea — but so does literally every other playoff team. It’s not even that hard to find them, or to find fans of other teams who share worries about their teams heading into the playoffs.
However, the starting pitching has looked vulnerable of late. Verlander and Cole haven’t been able to go deep into games with regularity like we saw early in the season, and Morton has dealt with control issues (and a brief stint on the disabled list). As we near the postseason, an important question is whether the recent struggles by the starters are simply a change in fortune for the Astros, or indicative of an adjustment opposing teams have made?
Still, excuses aside, there are reasons to be concerned about this group. Even if I think some of the most extreme worries are overblown, it’d be willfully naive to think they’re totally fine. It’s been the biggest focus on this roster since before the season, and it’s going to continue to be just that until this season is over, whenever that may be.
And the Yankees? Oh boy the Yankees seem like they’re in trouble, even with all the shuffling they did at the trade deadline. Giancarlo Stanton has been a major under-performer, Aaron Judge is coming off a lengthy disabled list stint, and Gary Sanchez has been downright awful. They were supposed to be a juggernaut of an offense — and they still can be — but they definitely have issues as well. That’s not even getting into their rotation issues.
What am I trying to say with all this? I don’t know
Definitely not that the Indians are guaranteed to win a World Series this year or anything. Josh Donaldson is a great addition and could be their ticket to something special, but the playoffs are never easy and winning them is never automatic. That works in the Indians’ favor this year, for sure, as they aren’t the odds-on favorite by just about anyone.
I guess all I’m saying is enjoy it. If you were too young or not interested in baseball in the ‘90s and missed out on those great Indians teams, you’re living it right now. You don’t have to look back fondly on those teams anymore to remember what great Indians baseball was about. It’s happening right now, in front of you, every single day.
If you’re not enjoying watching a team loaded with All-Stars make their third straight run at the postseason, just imagine hopping in a time machine, going back to 2009, and telling your past self that you’re bored with the Indians only winning 90 games this season.
Past you would roll up the sleeves on his Matt LaPorta jersey and punch you square in the jaw.