Write it down. The Indians still have a shot at winning the whole dang thing.
Much like the 2016 Cleveland Indians, a deep run at the World Series isn’t going to be easy, and it’s compounded by a devastating injury to a key player. Where 2016 Carlos Carrasco supposedly ended the Indians’ postseason dreams when he took a comebacker off Ian Kinsler, José Ramírez similarly broke his hamate bone on a missed swing last week.
There’s no need for a doom and gloom session this year, though. And frankly, there’s no time.
Unlike 2016, the Indians don’t have the division sewn up by mid-August. The Twins are a force, and even the Wild Card could slip away if the right teams don’t get hot and the Indians stumble. It was never going to be easy when the Indians entered June trailing the AL Central lead by 10.5 games, but they made an improbable comeback and took the lead for a brief (very, very brief) window. It’s not going to be any easier with barely a month left in the season and one of the most powerful offenses baseball has ever seen standing in their way.
How, then, are they supposed to overcome their current 3.5-game deficit with only a handful of weeks left? And without potentially their best player for all of it?
I mean, pitching: That’s the big one, right? If the Indians are ever going to win the World Series with the core they have now, it’s going to revolve around the pitching staff. Even with 60% of the pre-season starting rotation — including a two-time Cy Young winner — being either on the mend or traded, they still collectively have the second-lowest team ERA in the American League at 3.80. Their ERA-, a measurement of how a pitcher pitched in relation to the rest of their league, is also the second-lowest at 79.
On an individual level, Shane Bieber has emerged as an absolute stud in the rotation. In his 27 starts this season he has just a 3.22 ERA, a 30.9% strikeout rate, and his signature basement-dwelling walk rate of 5.2%. Mike Clevinger was able to fight his back from a lower back injury and is pitching like another stellar season with a 3.00 ERA, career-high 36.2% strikeout rate, and a fastball that can reach the upper 90’s.
Even with the recent setback to Corey Kluber, which may prevent him from starting in the postseason, if the Indians are forced to go into the playoffs with Bieber and Clevinger at the helm, followed by some combination of the walktose intolerant Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac behind them, it could be a whole lot worse. Civale’s high spin rates and pinpoint location make him an intriguing pitcher, and maybe the next future star in the rotation. Plesac, meanwhile, has potentially been aided by some luck, but could still be a reliable fourth pitcher, or even have a short leash with the depth of the Indians bullpen.
Couple that with Carlos Carrasco potentially being another floating bullpen weapon — similar to 2016 Andrew Miller — and the Indians match up well with anyone.
They may have also inadvertently saved themselves at the trade deadline by acquiring Franmil Reyes and Yasiel Puig. Sure, they would love to have Trevor Bauer and maybe give him better information than he’s receiving from the Reds so he doesn’t look like a dumpster fire, but Reyes and Puig could make it so that we hardly even notice José Ramírez is gone.
It is nothing but pure small sample flukery at this point, but Reyes seemingly watched his teammate go down and went into the clubhouse and donned a very large cape. In the three game since Ramírez broke his hamate bone, Reyes is 5-for-11 with three home runs, a double, and three walks. Now, I don’t think he’ll be Barry Bonds combined with Babe Ruth for the entire run to the postseason, but the Indians don’t need him to be. Something even close to his 2018 form — in which he slashed .280/.340/.498 with 16 home runs in 87 games — will do just fine.
Jason Kipnis has stepped up in José’s absence as well, and of course we can’t just ignore the player brought up to take his spot in the field. Yu Chang, the 24-year-old shortstop-turned-third-baseman, always had enough pop to be a solid shortstop. He hasn’t been able to show it yet, but he also doesn’t have a whole lot of playing time. In just 12 PA over five games, Chang has gone 2-for-12 with a triple. Both of hits came on Aug. 25, the first game following his call-up to replace the injured Ramírez.
The potential is there for him at least not be a total albatross in the lineup, though Steamer and ZiPS don’t have high hopes for his offensive production. The former projects him to have a 66 wRC+, and the latter has him at 64 wRC+ — neither inspire much confidence.
It may not matter, though. With Lindor, Mercado, Santana, Puig, Reyes, Kipnis, and a hot Roberto Pérez, the rest of the lineup looks like it can cover a sore spot in the lineup any day. And if teams want to keep throwing Tyler Naquin low off-speed pitches, he’s going to do nothing but help them down the stretch.
I’m not trying to say the Indians are in a better position now than they were a week ago or anything crazy. I’m not even saying I’m that confident they can still take the AL Central with how their roster is constructed right now. The odds are pretty plainly against them. What I’m saying is that there’s a chance. This season already feels more like 2016 than the previous two years. Maybe this is the one where they can finally seal it.