Thursday, May 24, 2018

Winning In The Windy City

Whoa, where did that month go? I've been absent from the blog these past four weeks, and sadly I don't always get the time to write on here as much as I would like. Y'know, life and all that.

In my time away from England Tribe, our Cleveland ball club have had mixed experiences. Win one, lose one, win one, lose one, repeat. The bullpen have taken the brunt of the blame, and that big Bryan Shaw sized hole has been harder to fill than perhaps anticipated.

Nevertheless, the Indians have just completed an eight game road trip, going 4-4, and topped it off with a nice series win against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Let's take a quick look at some of the talking points from their trip to north side of Chicago.

Michael Brantley Is The Hero You Don't Deserve

Have I mentioned how much I love Michael Brantley? It's ridiculous that a man closer to 30 years-old than 20 still has such a thing as a "favorite player" but I do, I really do. Brantley has been my favorite guy on the Indians for most of this decade and I was overjoyed when the team picked up his option for 2018. It was frustrating to see fellow fans deride and dismiss him on Twitter, criticizing the Indians for apparently making the mistake of resigning him (but what else should I expect on that hellish platform).

Despite all his issues with injuries in the past, I have always been a firm believer in his ability. I still think he's the best all-around hitter on the team, and that's quite a statement when the Indians are carrying All Stars like Lindor, Ramirez and Encarnacion. He's undoubtedly the best outfielder at the very least.

Recently, Brantley has been proving me right, performing like the Brantley of old. Currently he leads the team in batting average at .338, he's second in RBI with 30, third in OPS at .937, third in runs scored with 23, third in total hits with 51, and he has the least strikeouts among guys with over fifty at-bats, with just 12 in 163 plate appearances. That's an incredible statistic, and he's actually fifth-best in the entire league, and second-best in the AL, only behind the Angels' Andrelton Simmons.

As the Tribe roll out of Chicago and head home, Brantley carries a 12-game hitting streak and he was absolutely key to the Indians' success in the Windy City.

During Tuesday night's demolition of the Cubs, a 10-1 rout for our boys, Brantley had 2 hits and scored 2 runs but it was on Wednesday night he really proved his worth.

With the sun setting on the lush green of Wrigley Field, Brantley stepped to the plate in the third inning with Rajai Davis stationed at second base, with two outs already recorded. Cubs starter Jon Lester fell behind 2-0 to Brantley, and on the next pitch the veteran outfielder laced a single into right-center field, dropping just over the outstretched arm of Javier Baez. It was enough to get the speedy Davis around third and heading home, and put the Tribe on top 1-0. It was all the Indians needed in the end, as they held on to record the win and the series sweep.

I'm realistic and appreciate we haven't even started June yet. The dog days of summer are yet to come, so perhaps it is too early to start believing in Brantley's health. But all the signs so far have been positive, and with a healthy Brantley in the lineup these Indians are a much more potent and dangerous team.

Here a few other scraps of note:
  • Jose Ramirez has really made up for his slow start to the season, and has been on an absolute tear of late. He had 2 hits in the series, one of which was a 3-run homer in Tuesday's win, and he recorded 3 walks that day as well. Ramirez currently leads the club in home runs with 14, and leads the team in RBI (34), walks (27), OPS (1.000), SLG (.609), and OBP (.391) as well. He's a force of nature at the moment.
  • Trevor Bauer and Adam Plutko were the Tribe's starters for the series and both had seriously impressive outings. Bauer pitched on Tuesday night and lasted 6 innings, scattering 7 hits and 2 walks over the course of the night with 6 strikeouts, to collect his fourth win of the year. Plutko, in just his second spot-start of 2018, was outstanding and carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. He ended up with a very respectable pitching line of 6 innings, 2 hits, 4 walks and 4 strikeouts. Plutko's performance was good enough to earn him permanent residence in the rotation (for the foreseeable future), as he replaces Josh Tomlin as the fifth starter, with Tomlin joining the bullpen.

The Tribe now begin a lengthy homestand, welcoming the reigning champs to town. The Indians are currently 24-23 and will play the 32-18 Astros over a four game series, with both teams set to start their aces in Thursday's opener. Corey Kluber will face off against Dallas Keuchel in a hotly anticipated matchup.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tribe Overcome Mighty Machado and O's

Despite dropping the first game of their series at Camden Yards, the Indians won their next three to clinch a four-game set against the Orioles, taking their overall record to 12-8. With a week still left in April, the Tribe have already established a slim lead in the AL Central, with all of their rivals currently sporting sub-.500 records.

Let's take a look at some of the talking points from the Indians' successful trip to Baltimore:

Rotation Domination

I'm running out of superlatives for this pitching staff. Everyone knew heading into this season that the strength of this team lay in the rotation, but it still astounds me that they can be this good.

Even in the Indians' 3-1 loss to begin the series on Friday, the quality of the pitching performance by Trevor Bauer was still better than what most of the league can trot out every fifth day. Bauer was on the hook for the loss that night, but his performance was decent: 7 innings of work, 5 hits and 3 walks given up for 3 earned runs, one of them a homer off the red-hot bat of Manny Machado (more on him later). Bauer had 6 strikeouts as well, and over four starts this year has a tidy total of 27 K's in 27 innings. He's off to a great start this season, and this loss is just a case of poor luck. The offense took a night off and couldn't support Bauer, and he was unfortunately matched up against Dylan Bundy, who was absolutely dealing Friday night, with that nasty slider of his.

Saturday afternoon saw the Tribe back on track, with Mike Clevinger having a career day on the mound, pitching his first complete game shutout in a 4-0 win. Clevinger, who has struggled with high pitch counts in the past, was completely locked in against the Orioles, utterly dominant for nine scoreless frames, allowing just 2 measly hits and 2 walks, with 3 strikeouts. It was a seriously impressive performance from the 27 year-old right-hander, who is off to an amazing start in 2018.

Corey Kluber got the nod on Sunday afternoon and pitched well in the Baltimore sunshine, picking up his third win of the campaign in the Indians' 7-3 victory. Kluber lasted 7 innings, surrendering 6 hits for 3 earned runs, to go along with 4 strikeouts. It wasn't a vintage Kluber display but, like most teams, the Orioles' lineup still struggled to give him much trouble. All except Machado (again), who tagged the Tribe ace for 3 hits on the day, including 2 home runs. Machado's first home run of the day simply destroyed the baseball, with an exit velocity recorded at 107.9 mph. Sheesh...

Carlos Carrasco was sent to seal the series win on Monday night and he delivered, pitching beautifully in a tight 2-1 Indians win. In yet another pitching duel, Carrasco prevailed over Kevin Gausman, allowing 6 hits for 1 run over 7.1 innings, with 7 strikeouts and 2 walks. Carrasco preserved his perfect record and is now a clean 4-0 to start the season. He constantly mixed his pitches to induce swings and misses, and gave the Baltimore lineup nightmares all evening.

Manny Mania Is A Real Thing

Manny Machado was a one man wrecking crew throughout this series, and did everything he could to help his Orioles to victory. Thankfully for Indians fans his efforts were in vain, but Machado is an interesting talking point.

Over 4 games and 16 plate appearances, Machado batted .500 with 6 hits, 4 walks, and smashed 3 mammoth home runs. These weren't home runs that just cleared the fences, these were absolute monsters, with two of them coming off reigning AL Cy Young winner Kluber. That's no easy feat.

On the season so far, Machado is batting .360 with 8 home runs, tied for second in the league, only trailing Mike Trout (who has 9). He has 14 walks and 15 strikeouts, a relatively promising ratio for such a young slugger.

Baltimore have surely resigned themselves to losing Machado, as the 25 year-old is a free agent at the end of this season. His availability was a hot topic at the Winter Meetings, with trade rumors for the O's franchise player doing the rounds. Surprisingly, Machado stayed put, but most observers don't expect he will last the season at Camden Yards, and will be dealt to a contender by mid-summer.

Could the Indians be one of those contenders? Will they enter the race for "Manny Machado, Super-Rental?"

Because that's exactly what he would be, a 4-5 month rental player, available to the highest bidder at the end of October. Realistically, the Indians will not be one of those bidders, as a player of Machado's quality will be far too expensive and command too much for Cleveland's modest bank balance.

Which leaves the question, would a trade for Machado on a short-term basis be worth it?

Baltimore would obviously demand a high ransom for their star player but if Machado is the last piece of the puzzle to clinch a World Series, then you have to consider going all-in. In my opinion, Machado is a talent that could swing a World Series in Cleveland's favor.

For fun, let's look at a possible trade scenario:

  • Indians receive: Manny Machado SS 
  • Orioles receive: Jason Kipnis 2B, Triston McKenzie RHP

Before you come at me with flaming torches and pitchforks, just hear me out.

McKenzie is considered by most analysts to be the Indians' top pitching prospect, a 6-5 starter who throws a 90-95 fastball with unbelievable location, and an excellent curveball. At just 20 years-old, McKenzie is the kind of prospect a General Manager like Dan Duquette could fall in love with.

So why include Kipnis I hear you ask? Adding Machado would create a real logjam in the infield, so someone has to make room and as much as I love Kip, he's the odd man out in this hypothetical situation.

Machado would take over duties at third base, with Lindor staying put at shortstop, and Jose Ramirez naturally replaces Kipnis at second base, a position he has displayed considerable ability at as recently as 2017. I would be very conflicted to lose Kipnis, but in truth, I think most Tribe fans would rank Ramirez above him, which makes Kipnis expendable (it hurts just typing that).

Do I make this trade if I'm Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff? In a heartbeat.

I'm firmly of the belief that Machado is the kind of player that could tip the scales in Cleveland's favor. With a dominant rotation already in place, and with elite bullpen pieces like Andrew Miller and Cody Allen in support, Machado would take the Indians to the next level.

I'm clearly all-in on Machado, and the Indians should give serious consideration towards joining me.

Making Moves For Melky

A final piece of news to end this longer-than-usual series recap: Melky Cabrera has been signed on a minor-league contract. The switch-hitting veteran is expected to report to Triple-A Columbus after a physical has been completed, and he will be looking to add some pop to the Tribe's outfield.

In 2017 Cabrera slashed .285/.324/.423 (BA/OBP/SLG) with 17 home runs and 85 RBI in 156 games, split between the Royals and White Sox. At the very least, he could offer some depth support if our current outfield options get hurt or under-perform.

The biggest question mark with Cabrera is his defense, and the numbers certainly don't like his glovework: in 2017 he had a -20 DRS rating and an overall UZR/150 of -11.4. I'm not a firm believer in defensive metrics telling the entire story, but Cabrera's stats don't exactly fill you with confidence.

Overall, I think he could be a useful signing, and honestly it's surprising nobody picked him before the Indians did. With Lonnie Chisenhall still out of action for the foreseeable future, having Cabrera as an option is not a bad way to go, and comes with very little risk.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Tribe and Twins Split Puerto Rico Series

Having not played since Friday night because their weekend games against Toronto were cancelled due to the inhospitable Cleveland weather, the Indians were raring to go when they arrived in the homeland of Francisco Lindor and Roberto Perez.

Playing a two-game series in legendary Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the warmer climate appeared to re-energize this Indians squad, and the environment certainly reignited their bats (for the opening game at least!)

Why were the Indians and Twins in Puerto Rico you ask? This was organised by MLB last June, and it's the first time regular season games have been played in the country since 2010, when the Mets and Marlins visited the island.

This two-game set might have been billed as Twins home games but it was Francisco Lindor who garnered much of the attention, and rightfully so.

In fact, it was Lindor who ignited the crowd in the top of the fifth inning on Tuesday night. With game scoreless and the count full, Twins' starter Jake Odorizzi left a hanging breaking ball up in the zone that Lindor wasn't going to miss. The ball soon made it's way over the right field wall for a 2-run blast, his second home run of the season.

As Lindor started to round the bases, he motioned toward his mentor and fellow Puerto Rican Sandy Alomar Jr., and was soon pumping his arms at the crowd as chants of "Lindor! Lindor!" rang down upon him. With the raucous crowd begging for more, Lindor emerged from the dugout for perhaps the most powerful curtain call of his young career. It was quite a sight to behold, this native son delivering for his adoring family, friends and countrymen. "I'm just excited. I touched second base and looked in the dugout. Everybody's hands are up, so I put my hands up. I looked around the stadium, everybody's are up, so I keep putting my hands up and running."

Lindor's home run kick-started an offensive outburst that included solo home runs from Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley and Yonder Alonso, all toward a 6-1 Tribe victory.

On the mound, Corey Kluber delivered a fine performance in typical Kluber fashion. He was completely unflappable and unfazed by the ceremony of the game. The Indians' ace pitched 6.2 innings, giving up 5 hits, 1 run (a Brian Dozier RBI double), 2 walks, and recorded 6 strikeouts, picking up his second win of the season in the process.

Wednesday night saw another superb pitching performance, this time by Carlos Carrasco, but he was matched by Minnesota starter and Puerto Rican native Jose Berrios. The two men had one heck of a duel, as Carrasco held the Twins scoreless for 7 innings with 7 strikeouts, and Berrios went the same distance, but with 5 strikeouts.

The second game of the series was somehow scoreless all the way to the fourteenth inning, with both teams emptying their bullpens, but the deadlock was finally broken by Edwin Encarnacion, who connected for his 4th home run of 2018 to put the Indians in the lead.

Sadly, the Twins replied instantly when slugger Miguel Sano hit a home run off Indians reliever Matt Belisle, to tie the game at 1-1. Two innings later, in the bottom of the sixteenth, center fielder Ryan LaMarre sent everyone home with a sharp single to give the Twins a walk-off 2-1 win.

Despite the split result, this series was overflowing with positivity throughout, and definitely appeared to bring some joy back to Puerto Rico, still suffering and rebuilding after Hurricane Maria devastated the nation over seven months ago.

The Tribe's attention now turns to Friday's trip to Baltimore, where they will play the Orioles in a four-game series. Trevor Bauer will take the mound for game one and faces off against right-hander Dylan Bundy, as the Indians look to finish their road trip in style before returning home for a long home stand next week.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Tribe Tame Tigers, Sweep Series

The Cleveland Indians continued their winning ways this week with a sweep over their AL Central rivals, the Detroit Tigers. The boys from Motown had no answer for the Tribe's vaunted pitching staff, and could only muster 5 runs in total. The Indians' lineup did just enough to back their starters to begin the series, before finally breaking out as the week progressed. With this sweep the Indians have now won 11 consecutive games against Detroit.

We're going to have a look at some talking points from this series:

Offense Showing Signs Of Life

Cleveland took the first two games of the series solely off the back of the long ball. With the team struggling to manufacture much offense in the freezing conditions, thankfully home runs traveled just far enough to lead the the Indians to victory.

Center fielder Bradley Zimmer got things started with his 2-run blast in the fifth inning of Monday's game, and they proved to be the only runs in the Indians' 2-0 win.

Tuesday night saw home runs bookend the Tribe's 2-1 victory, with Jose Ramirez getting a solo-shot over the wall in the first inning, and Roberto Perez ending the contest with one of his own in the eighth inning.

The offense showed some semblance of returning to normal on Wednesday night, finally recording a game with total hits in double-digits, for the first time this season. Remarkably the hometown team hit no homers that night but chose to do it the old fashioned way, with singles and doubles instead.

Thursday night saw the team really come alive, especially our most important hitters. Francisco Lindor (2-for-4, HR, 3 RBI), Jason Kipnis (3-for-4, double, 2 RBI), Jose Ramirez (1-for-5, HR, 2 RBI) and Michael Brantley (2-for-4, double, 1 RBI) all had key hits in the Tribe's 9-3 rout, and the team racked up 15 hits altogether.

Despite the offense as a whole starting the season slowly (with many of our guys possessing batting averages below .200), the visit of Detroit jolted them to life. As the temperature slowly climbed each day, the bats got hotter as well, and hopefully the lineup can carry this momentum forward.

Rotation Domination

The success of this series largely hinged on the stellar performances from the pitching staff, particularly the rotation.

Corey Kluber took the mound on Monday night and was phenomenal. He had a season-high 13 strikeouts over 8 shutout innings, limiting the Tigers to 2 paltry hits and a single walk. It's gotten to the point where I expect this sort of game from Kluber every time he pitches. He's a superstar in the body of a man not interested in that sort of acclaim.

Carlos Carrasco got the start on Wednesday and, having seen Kluber's impressive outing, decided he had to go one better. These two guys had their own private battle in 2017, to test who was the undisputed ace of this staff, and I think that battle will continue this year. Carrasco pitched a complete game with 6 strikeouts, 3 hits, 2 walks, and routinely displayed his vast array of great off-speed pitches. The only run he gave up was a consolation solo-homer to Leonys Martin in the sixth inning, as the Indians ran out 5-1 winners.

After three starts each to begin the season, Kluber sits with a 1-1 record, a 1.57 ERA, with 27 strikeouts over 23 innings, whereas Carrasco has a perfect 3-0 record, a 3.48 ERA, with 14 strikeouts over 21.1 innings. Win-loss records can be so cruel (and remember kids, not necessarily a good indication of performance.)

Josh Tomlin toed the rubber for his second start of the campaign on Tuesday and, after a dreadful first performance against the Angels last week, Tomlin began the long journey towards silencing his critics. Tomlin picked up a no-decision for his 5 innings of scoreless baseball, limiting Detroit to 4 hits and 2 walks, with 3 strikeouts. Tomlin is no Kluber, obviously, but for the fifth starter, this was definitely an encouraging day at the office for the 33 year-old.

Finally, Trevor Bauer secured the sweep with another impressive display, pitching 7 strong innings to pick up his first win of the year. Bauer scattered 7 hits, for 2 earned runs, gave up 2 walks but struck out 7 Tigers. I've always considered Clayton Kershaw's curveball to be the most beautiful pitch in modern baseball, but Bauer's curve has got to run him close. It's a real weapon for the 27 year-old.


The Indians will now play one more series at home, welcoming the Toronto Blue Jays to Progressive Field for a three-game set. Mike Clevinger pitches Friday night and will look to continue his fine start to 2018. He'll face off against Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman, who usually enjoys pitching against Cleveland (2.17 ERA in five games), but Stroman has struggled in cold conditions so far this season, and the temperature could affect him once again.