This week has, at times, felt like a heavy weight pressing down on the Cleveland Indians (and their fans) and nearing that critical point at which the skeletal frame of the organization would snap. The team is 11-19, 7 games out of first place, at the end of the first week of May. We have the worst record in the AL and the only team we are out-performing in all of baseball is the woeful WAAAshington NAAAtionals. Panic buttons, white flags, and parachute packs...
But is it as bad as it seems? Is the season really almost over three weeks before Memorial Day? When I was in college I always used to tell myself - "better to fall behind early, it gives you more time to catch up." Is there any truth, and therefore hope, to that phrase when it comes to the Indians? What is so frustrating is the Indians were supposed to be good. Multiple, smart sources of information thought Cleveland was a favorite in the AL Central, a team which should end up with a victory total in the high 80s, if not the low 90s. The three images below show the Indians actual performance at this point in the season (measured by wOBA - hitters, FIP - pitchers) compared against their projected performance (I used the CHONE projections, available on fangraphs.com).
What can we say? The offense is not the problem. As a whole, the offense is doing what it should be doing, and possibly even out-performing expectations. Which isn't to say it doesn't have some problems. Grady's slump is definitely hurting the team, especially given the number of plate appearances he gets. Peralta's performance has hurt.
The starting pitching, especially after the rough start, also as a whole does not seem to be the biggest issue. Fausto is a problem. He needs to find his control and pitch better. Clifton looks great. Pavano has been (at least to me) surprisingly good. Reyes has been getting lucky and does not generate a lot of confidence. Laffey obviously had been good, but just got shipped into the bullpen.
The bullpen, of course, has been catastrophically bad. Everyone. The real challenge here is that you expect one or two guys to periodically struggle in the pen. When the entire pen is struggling - the potential "fixes" aren't very attractive. You can't just swap the pens in Cleveland and Columbus. You need a few guys who you can confidently insert into high leverage situations to allow other guys to find their stuff in less critical settings. Right now, the Indians don't have that.
There's reason to think the bullpen has to start improving to some degree. They really aren't all this bad. Betancourt has shown signs of improving of late. Wood's stuff has looked good, even if he hasn't deployed it effectively. Laffey might be a plus and take some pressure off the absence of Perez. Speaking of which, Perez now has the chance to sort himself out in Columbus. Jensen Lewis might be (should be) joining him in the Clipper's fix-up shop soon. The struggles are going to give Sipp a shot to prove himself. If the bullpen continues to be a black hole of death and despair, however, the team is screwed. You can't always hand off a 6-run lead to the bullpen. But if the bullpen does get better, the other problems aren't as frightening.
The starting pitching depth at the major league level, especially with Laffey in the pen, is thin. Sowers is, and should be, on a short leash. Reyes should be on that same leash. But...Westbrook is supposedly only 4-6 weeks away. Scott Lewis might be back by the end of the month and may or may help. David Huff isn't far away, and Hector Rondon gets closer everyday. If we can get through May, our depth starts looking a lot better in June. A return of Fausto remains critical, but by the end of June a rotation featuring Lee, Carmona, Westbrook, Pavano and whoever is best among the other options - actually looks pretty good.
One of the things not visible in the charts above is the poor defense. Shapiro made reference earlier this week to the poor defense from the left side of the infield. But here the offensive and defensive solutions might come together. Last night featured the first pairing of Valbuena and 2B, Cabrera at SS and DeRosa at 3B. If Peralta doesn't start hitting better, keeping his offense in the lineup increasingly fails to justify not giving the Indians a (presumably) better defensive alignment. DeRosa is on the team because he has a good bad, which has definitely come alive of late, and because of his defensive flexibility. Valbuena may not be ready to be an everyday offensive starter, but he might be a good semi-regular option, at the expense of ABs from Peralta and/or Ben Francisco (w/DeRosa in the OF). There's good reason to think Grady will start hitting better, and maybe we can hope his not-HR last night is a sign of that.
The Indians 7 game hole is real and presents them with a significant challenge. But that the two most important parts of the team, starting pitching and offense, are doing at least passably well, is significant. If the team can play .500 ball over the next three weeks and begin to stabilize the bullpen, I think the season will still be alive. I would not go so far as to say we're in a good position. No. We are in a terrible position. But perhaps there is hope for Indians fans that in baseball, it is better to fall behind early in the season than late in the season.