After sweeping the Tigers, the Pirates head home for a series with Cleveland. Here's what to expect from an Indians team that hasn't performed to expectations, despite a recent sweep of the Rays.
POSITION PLAYERS: .253/.325/.392. 9.4 fWAR, ninth in the American League. The Indians aren't a big home run team, but they have a worthy lineup -- second baseman Jason Kipnis is in the midst of a monster season, outfielders Michael Brantley, Brandon Moss and David Murphy have been big helps as well, and bench player Ryan Raburn has been terrific in a part-time role for the second time in three years. Those players have helped cover for poor offensive performances by catcher Yan Gomes and infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez (who are both now in the minors), along with Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. (Consult your doctor to see if splashy free agents are right for you. Side effects may include rapid aging, frequent strikeouts and involuntary use of the word "Brohio.")
In the field, though, the Indians are dreadful, ranking 25th in the majors in defensive efficiency. The outfield, in particular, is terrible. The Indians' infield defense hasn't been great either, although the recent promotion of Francisco Lindor (a legitimately terrific shortstop) provides a big boost.
PITCHING: 3.97 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 3.44 xFIP. 8.8 fWAR, fifth in the AL. Note the difference between the Indians' ERA and their FIP. The nastiness of their rotation has been masked somewhat this season by their brutal defense, but nasty it is. Fortunately, the Pirates will miss both Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland's two nastiest starters. On Friday, they'll get Trevor Bauer, who strikes out his fair share of batters but walks too many, allows a ton of fly balls (although a ton of those are infield flies), and stinks at rapping. He's beatable, particularly if the Pirates can knock a couple of those fly balls over the wall.
On Saturday, it will be Cody Anderson, who will be making his third career start. I'd never heard of Anderson even though I see the Indians' Triple-A team play frequently. It turns out he pitched fairly well at Double-A Akron, then made only three Triple-A starts before being promoted. He got good results in his first two big-league starts, but he isn't terribly scary -- he's a fastball/slider/changeup guy with decent stuff but without an intimidating minor-league track record.
On Sunday, the Bucs face Danny Salazar, who I did watch a lot in Triple-A and who was one of the best pitchers I saw at that level. He had dazzling stuff, with a blazing heater and an even better change. His control was dicey, but he's since tightened that up a bit and finally seems to be emerging as one of the better young pitchers in the AL.
The Indians' bullpen is about average -- not inspiring, but not a problem, either. Closer Cody Allen is in the midst of a weird season, striking out more than 14 batters per nine innings, but walking more than his fair share as well, and with a .371 BABIP against. Nonetheless, he looks like the real deal, with a very good fastball and a terrific power curve. Former starter Zach McAllister, lefty Marc Rzepczynski, Bryan Shaw and Nick Hagadone have all helped to varying degrees as well. In April, the team also signed veteran righty Ryan Webb, who's still a perfectly decent middle reliever despite being the subject of a series of bizarre transactions in April.
OUTLOOK: I liked the Indians a lot heading into the season, but in spite of a four-game winning streak, they're buried near the bottom of the AL Central. Their talent is obvious -- Kluber and Kipnis are outright great, and Carrasco, Salazar, Brantley and Allen aren't far behind. But their defense has hurt them badly, as has their fifth starter situation, which has been unstable since Gavin Floyd (who was kind of a wild card to begin with) got hurt in March. Anderson is just the latest in a procession that has also included T.J. House, Bruce Chen and Shaun Marcum, all of whom have been terrible.
Prior to the 2013 season, the Indians signed Bourn and Swisher to four-year contracts. That won them praise, or mostly praise, at the time. And maybe there's still a case you can make for those signings based on the Indians' strong 2013 season (for which Bourn and Swisher deserve at least a bit of credit, even if they weren't nearly as important as Kipnis, or Justin Masterson, or Gomes' out-of-nowhere breakout) and the difficulty of luring fans to Cleveland.
To me, though, those signings didn't make much sense. The Indians had gone 68-94 the year before, and Bourn and Swisher required significant commitments. As it turned out, the Indians did make the playoffs in 2013, but got ousted in the Wild Card game. They finished 14th out of 15 AL teams in attendance. Then, in 2014, they finished last in attendance and missed the postseason. Now, Bourn and Swisher are both terrible, the victims of entirely predictable declines. And the Indians owe them a combined $28.5 million this year and $29 million next year.
Meanwhile, the Indians now have the core of an actual good team in place, thanks in part to the somewhat surprising emergences of Kluber and Brantley. And yet this offseason, they traded for Moss, signed Floyd, and ... that's pretty much it. Had they not had Bourn and Swisher on the books, they could have upgraded a lot more aggressively. Maybe their current fifth starter problems couldn't really have been foreseen, since House was helpful last year and has had shoulder trouble in 2015. But if they had waited a year or two to make a splash, they might now have players in place who are a bit better insulated from decline -- Colby Rasmus in center, maybe. They might have done something to upgrade their defense. And, of course, they would have benefited from simply not having Bourn and Swisher in their lineup, which would have been addition by subtraction.
Maybe the Indians' surprisingly good 2013 season makes it all worth it. I didn't expect them to be as good as they were. Maybe the Indians couldn't have known they'd continue to have attendance problems. Maybe they would have been able to spend a lot more last winter if more fans had turned out, as they likely hoped they would when they signed Bourn and Swisher.
And maybe upgrading the 2015 team would have been complex enough that the Indians wouldn't have been able to dramatically improve themselves with more money to spend last winter. The Indians were a trendy World Series pick heading into the season, and improving a team like that is probably tricky. But I think a good GM with a reasonable budget would have found a way. The Pirates likely would have, judging from their last few offseasons. (The evidence strongly suggests, by the way, that Neal Huntington is a much better GM than his former superiors are.) The Bourn and Swisher deals looked problematic at the time, and the Indians are still paying heavily for them. Free agent contracts have costs, and rarely do they look as good at their ends as they did at their beginnings.