The Cleveland Indians have officially reached the midway point of the 2013 MLB season, and they are sitting comfortably at 44-38, tied with the Detroit Tigers for the best record in the American League Central. Given the ups-and-downs of the Tribe season thus far, I would expect that the rest of the 2013 season will move along in a similar fashion. The Tribe’s second-half track record has been dismal in recent years to say the least, but this is not the same ballclub of past seasons.
The signing of Terry Francona as manager of the Indians has proven to be the most crucial of the team’s signings this past offseason, as his arrival allowed the team to make legitimate bids for, and eventually acquire, top-tier free agents such as Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.
The Francona Effect has been even more evident on the field so far this season, as Francona has been able to get the most out of a rather unorthodox mix of veteran leadership and young talent. Manny Acta’s seemingly fireless persona served as a detriment to the ballclub in past seasons, an issue that has been completely alleviated by the outgoing Francona. Francona’s passion for his job has been on display almost as often as his love for bubble gum in tense situations has. His fiery demeanor, along with his vast knowledge of the game, have allowed the club to maintain solid ground within the Central division up to this point.
The offseason additions of Swisher and Bourn have proven their worth so far this season, as both have been solid contributors not only on the field, but in the clubhouse as well. Bourn, hitting just under .300, has given the Indians a speedy, true leadoff hitter at the top of the lineup. Whether it be in the outfield or on the base paths, Bourn’s elite speed is always on display.
Swisher has suffered through a series of slumps at the plate this season, which has contributed to his sub-.240 batting average. A recent string of solid games, however, has given Tribe fans hope that Swisher is on his way back to his normal, run-producing self. Despite Swisher’s offensive struggles, his contributions as the team’s unquestioned leader have given the clubhouse a consistently positive vibe.
While Francona, Swisher, and Bourn stole all the headlines during the Tribe’s offseason, the team also scooped up slugger Mark Reynolds, speedster Drew Stubbs, aging DH Jason Giambi, catcher Yan Gomes, veteran hurler Brett Myers, utility men Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn, relievers Matt Albers, Brian Shaw, and Rich Hill, and enigmatic (for vastly different reasons) starters Scott Kazmir and Trevor Bauer, among others.
Stubbs, Albers, Shaw, and Bauer were all acquired through the Shin-Soo Choo trade with the Cincinnati Reds and the Arizona Diamondbacks. So far, Choo has produced typical numbers in comparison to prior seasons. Stubbs has been his typical self as well, lingering right around the .240 mark offensively while providing a major defensive asset for the Tribe in the outfield with his superior speed and throwing arm. Albers has been one of the Indians’ most consistent bullpen arms this season, posting a 2-0 record with a 2.22 E.R.A. in 25 appearances. Shaw has been solid too, posting a 3.79 E.R.A. in 33 appearances. Bauer is still a work in progress, as evidenced by his recent outing that lasted all of 2/3 of an inning. Overall, the trade has produced quality results thus far for the Indians, but the true prize in the trade was Trevor Bauer, so his development over the next few years will be crucial in evaluating the overall success of the Shin-Soo Choo trade.
The Tribe’s other offseason acquisitions have all produced mixed results thus far. After getting off to a hot start, Mark Reynolds has since cooled off dramatically and is now following his usual trend of taking a low average (.236), all-or-nothing (15 home runs, 95 strikeouts) approach at the plate. Jason Giambi has been underwhelming during limited playing time this season, but his mere presence in the clubhouse has provided the team with a virtual player-manager. Aviles performed well in the recent absence of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera due to injury, and he has proven his worth as a true utility man having played games at shortstop (36), third base (14), second base (8), and even outfield (4). Yan Gomes has provided the Tribe with a solid backup catcher and has proven to be a much better defensive option at the position than Carlos Santana. Gomes’ free-swinging approach (just 7 walks) has produced positive results thus far, as he is batting over the .280 mark. Former Tiger Ryan Raburn has been a pleasant surprise this season, although he has tailed off a bit in recent months. Nonetheless, he is batting .262 with 9 home runs and 26 RBI in just 49 games.
Scott Kazmir has been one of the true comeback stories of the season thus far. When Kazmir broke into the league with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2004, he was widely regarded as one of the top young pitchers in the game, only to have injuries seemingly derail his career just a few years later. Just a year ago, Kazmir was pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, where he performed poorly while his pitching velocity reached a career low, lingering in the mid-to-high 80’s. He has now come full circle, as an increase in velocity and improved health has allowed Kazmir to produce a number of quality starts for the Indians this season. He is currently 4-4 with a 4.83 E.R.A. In his most recent start, Kazmir took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before eventually allowing a hit and leaving the game due to back spasms. Despite the injury, multiple reports have said that Kazmir is not expected to miss his next scheduled start on Wednesday.
Brett Myers got off to a terrible start (0-3, 8.02 E.R.A.) this season before an elbow injury forced him onto the 60-day DL in late April. He is currently making rehab appearances for Double-A Akron, although he could be forced to the bullpen when he returns due to the recent success of the Tribe’s starting rotation and the soon expected return of reliable starter Zach McAllister. Reliever Rich Hill has been equally terrible this season, posting a 6.75 E.R.A. in 30 appearances.
The Indians gave their team a facelift during the offseason, and the results have been mostly positive thus far. Hopefully that trend continues so that Tribe fans will finally be able to root for their ball club in the playoffs for the first time since the year of the infamous Attack of the Bugs on Joba Chamberlain. For those of you who aren’t aware, that was back in 2007, when Terry Francona led his Boston Red Sox past the Indians on their way to a World Series title. Now it’s Cleveland’s turn, Terry.