Looking for a Hit, the Cleveland Indians Have Doubled Down on Pitching

The Cleveland Indians have as good a shot at a World Series berth as any team in the AL. If things had worked out better at the deadline, it'd be even better.

by Jonathan Bernhardt
Aug 4 2016, 1:10pm

Photo by Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Picking a surprise team in the AL Central has been something of a game for baseball writers the past couple years, given the staying power of the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals. The Cleveland Indians were my choice in both 2013 and 2014, but then I also thought the Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn deals were great moves with infinite possibility. Only now have the Indians truly reached their team's potential—a year after the guy responsible for setting it all up, Mark Shapiro, left for Toronto.

I picked the Chicago White Sox to be the sexy upstarts in the Central this year, mainly because the Indians looked too good; even by the predictive standards of "maybe signing Nick Swisher is actually good" this one has not worked out. The Tribe were a problem for the rest of the AL Central before the season started, a bigger problem for the rest of the AL Central once the season began, and they've mostly been a disaster for the rest of the AL Central since taking first place. Cleveland, along with Texas in the West and Baltimore in the East, form a trio of frontrunners that was ... let's say, lightly represented among prognosticators to begin the season.

Still, the way things have shaken out so far makes sense. The Indians have some of the best pitching in Major League Baseball, and great pitching is what everyone's chasing all the time. It has been that way for almost a hundred years, and probably will be for at least another hundred. And this works for teams with yawning lineup holes like Cleveland's as much as it does for everyone else.

Read More: For The First Time In Generations, Youth Is Being Served In The Bronx

Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco are, as a rotation, having a year that dreams are made out of—Salazar will miss 2-3 weeks with elbow inflammation, but should be back in time for the stretch run—but even so, a team can never actually have too much pitching, especially in the bullpen. Cleveland has been great there as well, with Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen all turning in excellent seasons so far. That was what led the Indians to trade a collection of top prospects for Yankees reliever Andrew Miller, who ... well, has a 27.00 ERA as an Indian following a 0.1 IP appearance against the Twins in which he gave up a homer to Joe Mauer, but is still Andrew Miller, one of the five or so best relievers in baseball. Also Mauer is still a really good hitter despite what some Twins fans might tell you, but maybe that's beside the point.

Miller was acquired for a hefty package headlined by Clint Frazier, a nearly MLB-ready outfielder the Indians drafted fifth overall in 2013. Frazier is only 21 years old, has spent this season beating up on Double-A ball, and is currently with New York's Triple-A team in Scranton. He will be a major leaguer in the next year or two, and he fills a corner outfield role for the Yankees that needs filling. The runner-up in the package is Justus Sheffield—no relation to Gary, it's complicated and please do not ask—a pitcher who could turn into a middle of the rotation starter or better. The other two guys, J.P. Feyereisen and Ben Heller, are relief prospects, but relief prospects are good to have, especially when you've just traded two of the three best relievers in baseball; with Miller in Cleveland and Aroldis Chapman sent to the Chicago Cubs, Dellin Betances will take over as closer for New York. The Indians paid the proper price to get Miller, and while he's not a rental—the Indians have him until the end of the 2018 seasons—his services do not come especially cheap, as he'll be paid $9 million a year until the end of his contract.

But acquiring Miller comes with an opportunity cost. And that opportunity cost was ... adding Jonathan Lucroy.

You've noticed this isn't an Indians jersey. Photo by Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Lucroy, lately of the Milwaukee Brewers and more recently of the Rangers, has been a trade target for all of baseball's competitors for the past three seasons. He was merely underrated until the quantification of pitch framing came around; at that point, he became arguably the best catcher in baseball, a great hitter and one of the best defensive minds behind the dish. In his debut for the Texas Rangers on Tuesday against the Baltimore Orioles, his starting pitcher, Yu Darvish, gave up three homers. They were the only runs that Darvish allowed. On all three of those homers, Darvish shook off Lucroy's pitch call.

The words of highest significance in the preceding paragraph, for our purposes, are "Texas Rangers." Lucroy could have gone to the Indians—there was a deal in place before the Miller trade that would have sent him to Cleveland—but the Indians were unwilling to accommodate Lucroy's desire of either a fair extension to his current contract or an agreement not to pick up his club option for 2017. And since Cleveland was a team on Lucroy's limited no-trade list, he—as was his absolute right—blocked the deal. The Indians, unable to bolster both their offense and, in a roundabout way, their pitching, began looking elsewhere. They chose Miller, and chose well.

But. just got Naquin'ed. Photo by Peter G. Aiken-USA Today Sports

The second-most fundamental fact of baseball is that you cannot win if you do not score. The most fundamental fact of baseball is that you cannot stop playing if no one scores. The best hitter on the Indians, right now, is a young man named Tyler Naquin. He has fewer than 300 PA this year, and an OPS over 1.000. There are a bunch of other decent hitters on the Cleveland roster: Mike Napoli, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor—probably the team's best player, as he combines a very good bat for shortstop with excellent defense—and even Lonnie Chisenhall. But with Michael Brantley on the 60-day DL and the offense otherwise running through, uh, Tyler Naquin, the Indians could have used the boost Lucroy would have added. Especially since Indians catchers have combined for a .500 OPS as a group this year, while Lucroy's is .838.

Helped in no small part by Lucroy's decision to exercise his contractual rights, the Indians got better at the deadline in the one place they were already strong: pitching. They did not improve their lineup; in trading Frazier, they divested themselves of one of the few top-tier call-ups that might have improved their hitting without a deadline deal. This is a calculated risk, made more palatable by the fact that Miller has already been paid, while Lucroy-as-an-Indian would have been looking at free agency. Even if Cleveland falters this year, they'll have Miller for next year, and the year after that.

But if the Indians had Lucroy this year, there's probably a bigger chance that that next season would be a title defense. So it goes. Cleveland made the risky move, and the risky move declined to participate. They made the conservative move, and now Miller's locked in. All that's left now is for the Indians to run with it, and hope that either Chris Gimenez can pick up where Jonathan Lucroy would have left off ... or that they pitch so well as a team that it just doesn't matter.

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