It feels very much like deja-vu around here...
A year ago, there was talks about "shocking the world" and how possible it really was for our Cleveland Indians. The division was a bit of a mess, with not one team really running away with a total consensus, but there was no faith in the Indians. The idea that they could finish anywhere above fourth place was preposterous among everyone except for some guy on CBSSports and me. And maybe a few others out there.
We know what happened, the Indians raced out to a fast start after two months, going 30-15 and very much giving us some sort of hope for more than just a summer of contention. Of course the Indians faltered, but after awhile, we took a look at that "Shock the World" checklist to see what was going right and how the Indians were actually shocking the world, in a sense.
I mean, if the entire world paid attention to Indians baseball.
This year, the Indians weren't in a position that no one picked them to finish about fourth, but you really had to search to find someone who thought they'd topple the mighty Detroit Tigers and their vaunted lineup of doom that was going to carry them to an AL Central title.
Yeah, about that. Things aren't exactly going as planned in the Motor City and here we sit again in 2012 and the Indians, well... They're shocking the world. No one actually thought they could win the AL Central and while there is soooo much season left to go, they're on top and it doesn't look like their slowing down this time.
We had a check list last time and we went over it, so I guess for some good karma, why not look at it again and see what is going right and any if the "ifs" are coming through.
The Indians can win the AL Central...
If Ubaldo Jimenez is 2010 Ubaldo Jimenez who almost won 20 games and a Cy Young award.
Well, he's certainly not 2010 Ubaldo Jimenez thus far. He hasn't been horrible though. Good enough to win four games and through 2012 his numbers look like this through eight starts: 4-3, 5.09 ERA, 46 IP, 32 BB, 28 K.
Look, maybe expecting Ubaldo to be 2010-like Ubaldo is too much, but for an AL Central crown, the thought is that it is necessary. Maybe it's not. Maybe just a standard Ubaldo Jimenez who can go out and give you six-seven solid on most nights is all we should expect when looking for a ceiling. But he's walking more than he's striking people out, he's not going deep into games, he just is a frustrating character to watch.
The good, in that his past few starts, he seems to be trending upward. He's walking less and he may be honing in on his control a little more. The big story with Jimenez and his former team has subsided, and he hasn't looked like a complete disaster he was starting to look like on the brink of the season's start. But he has had his rough patches that do nothing but infuriate.
Veteran Derek Lowe has also spoken up in defense of Ubaldo, saying that he's working incredibly hard to get better. If anything, it's not for a lack of work ethic.
The Indians can maintain their lead in the AL Central If: Jimenez continues to improve and is at least a viable starter from here on out.
They don't need a top-flight Ubaldo Jimenez, at least not right now. But who's to say Derek Lowe will continue to be pitching like this? Then again, who's to say Justin Masterson will continue to struggle? Of course a lot of this is depended upon the trest of the team, but right now, Jimenez can continue to be a middle of rotation type of a guy and the Indians can contend. Of course, I don't think anyone would have a problem if he turned out to be what he hoped he would.
If Shin-Soo Choo rebounds from a down year.
So far, Choo has been good. He hasn't totally rebounded back to older form, but he is at least better than last season. It seems his troubles are behind him and that he's starting to settle back in to his spot on this team. Lately, he's been put in the leadoff role, which is new, but he's taking to it.
Overall Choo has hit .267 with 2 HR, 16 RBI, but has a .385 OBP going into Monday's action. He seems to be rebounding, but hasn't completely rebounded to the status we expect. One thing he will do is get on base, and that makes him a nice candidate to continue to hit in the leadoff spot, which seems to suit him well right now. He's 11-for-29 with four walks, making it 15 times he reached base in the past week, he scored just four runs, but he's creating opportunities if not knocking them in.
The Indians can maintain their lead in the AL Central If: Choo takes another step towards reformation either being a pleasant surprise at the leadoff spot or returning back to a middle of the order bat.
This offense will maintain overall consistent success over the course of their season if Shin-Soo Choo is oneo f their best hitters. He can be that reliable stick who does a little bit of everything and when this offense is at their best, Choo is hitting. He's their starting right fielder and he needs to be in there and hitting well. The Indians have managed to get by with what they have and only a little production from Choo, but if the recent few games is any indication, this offense is more consistent and reliable if he's on.
If Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall ring in a new era.
Hey, Jason Kipnis... Is for real. The "If" was reasoned with Chisenhall not getting to join the party for awhile, but that's okay because he still has time. Kipnis though has gone to work and he ha established himself at the top of the lineup for this Indians team.
Kipnis thus far has a .256 average, but he's leading the team in home runs with six and in RBI with 24. He's been a run-producer at the top of that lineup, seeming coming up with the clutch hits early or late.
And in the two-spot where he's started 28 times? He's got three of his home runs, with 16 RBI and a .261 average. Just as good if he were hitting lower in the lineup. He needs to be up there.
The Indians can maintain their lead in the AL Central If: Kipnis keeps on being Kipnis.
So far, so good for Kipnis who seems to also come up with the big hits when the team needs it. Chisenhall on the other hand is still in Columbus, but has been on the Disabled List for a good portion of the season. He started the season on fire and it seems it may be some time before we see him up here the way Jack Hannahan has played and his own injury.
If "The Mafia" does it again.
The Mafia is doing it again. Sort of. The pieces are different and there has already been some changes in the short time. A Rafael Perez injury has opened up the door for young Nick Hagadone, who was unable to gain a spot over newcomers Jairo Asencio and Dan Wheeler.
Wheeler though didn't work out and is now gone, Asencio is one of the last options for Manny Acta and has had his good and bad moments. The rest? As expected. There's been some hiccups, but the Mafia has really just picked up where they left off in 2011.
Vinnie Pestano: 2.70 ERA, 10 HLD, 16.2 IP, 23 K, 6 BB
Joe Smith: 2.95 ERA, 6 HLD, 18.1 IP, 15 K, 9 BB
Tony Sipp: 5.65 ERA, 6 HLD, 14.1 IP, 17 K, 7 BB
Chris Perez: 3.31 ERA, 13/14 SV, 16.1 IP, 16 K, 6 BB
Those four are really much the main core. But has there been anyone better than Chris Perez? After the blowup on Opening Day and the questions about if he was ready or not, Perez has been fantastic as one of the best closers in the game, saving every contest he had the chance to since Opening Day. The bullpen has settled in and they may have not been able to this season without Perez at the end.
The Indians can maintain their lead in the AL Central If: The Mafia gets Tony Sipp right and Rafael Perez back.
The one odd part of the equation thus far has been Tony Sipp, who's had his struggles and his successes, but more struggles. If they can get him back to regular status as a reliable leftie match-up guy and more, get a healthy Rafael Perez back to eat innings, and continue to see a rise in Nick Hagadone (12 IP, 2.13 ERA, 13 K), the bullpen will fill out. And then, 2012's bullpen is looking even better than 2011's, and that's saying something.
If Derek Lowe, Justin Masterson, and Josh Tomlin take to this infield defense.
Well, Derek Lowe certainly has, but as a whole, the infield defense has been the defensive highlight.
Check out these numbers.
Lowe: 10 GIDP, 109 GO
Masterson: 8 GIDP, 80 GO
Oh and look at this guy...
Gomez: 6 GIDP, 57 GO
Who would have thought Jeanmar Gomez would take to that infield defense to. But with the addition of a slider (which he throws 32% of the time according to Fan Graphs, second to his sinker 43% of the time), he too has become a groundball inducer.
Only the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff has produced more groundball outs this season. So the pitchers are playing to that and the infield defense led by newly acquired Casey Kotchman and Jack Hannahan are coming up strong.
The Indians can maintain their lead in the AL Central If: The groundballers keep chucking.
Kotchman and Hannahan continue to have a strangle-hold on their spots and nothing is happening to Kipnis or Cabrera in their spots anytime soon (and with no real backup middle infielder, who knows when they'll actually get a day off that isn't an off day). The groundballers just have to keep chucking up the garbage and let the defenders do the work.
The one guy missing from the party? Josh Tomlin, who is currently on the disabled list, but should be back soon. Tomlin had some early season issues that led to him kind of being behind the eight-ball in terms of his starts. To add on the that, he's suddenly become someone who's striking out more people as he's topped strikeout numbers three times he has only done a few times before in his entire career in just a month and a half. Expect him to rejoin the groundball party soon though.
For reference, Tomlin: 27 strikeouts, just 3 GDP, 47 groundouts. He's still in there, just waiting to bust out after he gets healthy.
If the Tigers defense is everything we think it is.
Well, the Tigers are in the bottom third of the game in fielding percentage and defensive efficiency rating. Miguel Cabrera has committed the most errors of any third baseman in the AL, and Prince Fielder the most of any first. Just like we thought, right?
The comedy of errors last week kind of showed a nice snapshot of what kind of defensive squad this is. It may not be comically bad as it was in that one game against the Twins, but as I said, bad defense canc ost you games. And it did. Their pitching hasn't been good, and the bad defense just compounds their problems.
The Indians can maintain their lead in the AL Central If: The defensive issues and pitching continue to fester for Detroit.
The Tigers can't really "fix" their defensive issues. They're stuck with their alignment. They just have to hope they play better and don't make mistakes. They could improve, but their range is still not going to get any better so they won't help their pitching staff out like the Indians infield does theirs. They can only hope Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello all become the strikeout pitchers Justin Verlander is.
[AN OVERALL LOOK]
Hey, it's way too early to be taking this as a declaration of the intentions the Indians have this year. I mean, last season, we examined these "Ifs" and looked at how some of them were coming true. The point that I take from all of them though is that really they're doing the things we knew they were good at. Their strengths are their infield defense supporting their starting pitching and their bullpen. The thing that is happening that was not expected?
The way this team is hitting. Not to say they are hitting well, but they are creating a lot of opportunities and coming through in those opportunities.
Only the Texas Rangers have a higher on-base percentage in the American League than the Cleveland Indians. You read that right. The team gets on base like nobody's business. They've become very much a patient club at the dish.
And only the Rangers have more RBI when there are two outs and runners in scoring position. The clutch hitting has very much been there. Overall there is some lacking parts and inconsistency, but the team gets on base and gets the hits when it counts.
[PICKS FROM THIS JERK]
How are my picks doing?
AL East: Boston, Toronto*, New York, Tampa Bay, Baltimore
Actual: Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Toronto, New York, Boston
Toronto is playing well, but this division is completely reversed.
AL Central: Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, Chicago, Minnesota
Actual: Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit,, Kansas City, Minnesota
The way Kansas City is playing, things might be shifting towards what I think this division will actually turn out as. You have to credit the way the Sox are playing though thanks to their pitching. The Tigers? Heh...
AL West: Los Angeles, Texas*, Oakland, Seattle
Actual: Texas, Oakland, Seattle, Los Angeles
I think everyone was sorely wrong about the Los Angeles Angels... Or rather, the Angels simply have just let a lot of people down.
NL East: Atlanta, Philadelphia*, Washington, Miami, New York
Actual: Atlanta, Washington, Miami, New York, Philadelphia
Hey I got one! The way the Braves are playing solidify my opinion of them. I love their pitching and they just seem like a well-balanced team. I can't really tell you what's wrong with Philadelphia only to say that EVERYONE in that division is above .500 and looking like a contender.
NL Central: St. Louis, Cincinnati*, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Houston
Actual: St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Houston, Milwaukee, Chicago
All goes according to plan, except for that hard-playing Houston team and the disappointing Brewers.
NL West: San Francisco, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Diego, Colorado
Actual: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego, Colorado
Not sure many people saw this coming from the Dodgers. Maybe better than they were last year, but one of the best in the NL?
Nino has a blog that he creates dumb nicknames, even for players not on the Indians. Give it a vist at The Tribe Daily.