As we do each summer at WFNY when the Cleveland Indians hit the All-Star break, we take a look back at the four facets of the team on the field. There’s been been a lot to talk about with this club. Their 44-41 record is good enough for second in the American League Central, but the team has shown some serious flaws. GM Chris Antonetti continues to tell us that the Indians have not played their best baseball yet. I hope he is right. Additions will need to be made and in-house improvements will be a must if the Tribe plans on playing October baseball.
The best laid Indians outfield plans were shelved before Spring Training even started. The decision to bring back Grady Sizemore for another year was good in theory. But the Indians should have known better. While preparing for the season, Sizemore hurt his back so severely that he needed surgery. The team doctors didn’t want to put a timetable on his return, but the earliest we were told we’d see him was mid-June. At this point, the free agent market was completely barren.
The injury began a chain of events which hamstrung the team’s offensive plans. Instead of Sizemore in center, flanked by Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo, Brantley would move back to center (where he belongs by the way), and left field would become a contest between Shelley Duncan and a bunch of former Major League castoffs on Minor League deals. Nobody stepped forward to claim the job other than Duncan, who showed some power in Goodyear, but hit under .200. He was given the job by default.
One of those castoffs, an out of options right-handed bat named Aaron Cunningham (acquired from San Diego), made the team as the fourth outfielder, essentially because he was righty and could play center. A month into the season, Brantley, Choo, Duncan, and Cunningham were joined by veteran Johnny Damon.
As for the DH position, Travis Hafner returned for what was most likely going to be his last in Wahoo Red, White, and Blue.
And away we go….
DH Travis Hafner (.231 BA/.370 OBP/.798 OPS/7 HR/24 RBIs/28 BBs/28 K’s/147 ABs) – The immovable object that is Pronk’s contract will finally be off the books after this season, but we all hoped we could get one more good year in the sun out of him in 2012. We were fed the “Pronk is the healthiest he’s been in years” bit in Spring Training and he started off the season looking pretty good at the plate. In April, Hafner hit .297/.353/.909 with 17 walks and 10 RBIs in 61 ABs. Impressive stuff considering what Pronk is at this point in his career.
However in May he went .197/.314/.737 with nine walks, four homers, and 13 RBIs in 71 ABs.
Then the injury bug bit him again. Hafner’s bulky knee became an issue and forced him to the disabled list (again). He had a scope and missed six weeks, coming off the DL just before the All-Star break. In his first game, he had a profound effect on the offense, reaching base three times and setting the tone with a 10 pitch, first inning at-bat that gassed Ervin Santana. But since then he hasn’t been getting on base. He is one for his last 12.
If you look at his numbers on the season, they won’t wow you. Hafner is getting on base, but this is supposed to be your big bat, middle of the order run producer. Instead, he is essentially a singles hitter. He clearly still has trouble running on his sore knee and as the everyday DH, he hamstrings the team with his lack of versatility. On top of it, Travis needs to be hitting lefties better (.171), considering how the rest of the team fares against them.
Like with Carlos Santana, getting Hafner’s production back up to normal levels is of the utmost importance in the second half.
RF Shin-Soo Choo (.299 BA/.384 OBP/.876 OPS/10 HR/34 RBIs/9 SBs/36 BBs/311 ABs) – Choo looked lost in April. He was a guy trying to get his confidence back after a forgetable 2011 season. It was almost as if he was trying too hard. In the middle of May, Acta had the genius idea to move Choo into the leadoff spot to try and get him going. Let’s just say it worked.
Since the move, Choo is hitting .330 with nine homers, 22 RBIs, and 47 runs scored. He hit .333/.382/.961 in June and has started July .364/.400/1.067. He easily has been the hottest Indian since moving to the top and the offense as a whole has picked up in the process. Defensively, he still has the cannon arm and has been better than last year in judging fly balls.
It’s a great thing for the 2012 Tribe, but not such a great thing if you want him to stick around here long term. Choo is a free agent after next season and this stout play has him pricing himself right out of town. But I am living in the now and the Tribe is in the middle of a contention window, so let me try to stay positive.
You have got to love the way Choo has played since the middle of May. Along with Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera, Choo has helped carry this schizophrenic offense.
CF Michael Brantley (.288 BA/.334 OBP/.743 OPS/3 HR/42 RBIs/10 SBs/323 ABs) – Speaking of consistent performers, how about the Tribe’s center fielder? I picked Brantley to be the team’s breakout performer before the season and I am happy to look good on that prediction. Brantley may not be the best Tribe player this season, but he has been the most on from the start. When Acta moved him to the middle of the order out of necessity he responded. When he hit leadoff, he responded. Defensively, he has been solid.
But it has been the improvement at the plate that has us all talking. He is hitting .298/.381/.845 with 40 RBIs with runners in scoring position. With two outs in the same situations, he is hitting .333/.436/1.072. The strikeouts are down and his on-base percentage is up. Michael also carried a 22-game hitting streak in May and June, the longest in the bigs this season.
The five-hole has agreed with him. Since moving to that spot regularly, Brantley has hit .327/.370/.843 with 17 RBIs in 110 ABs.
I love everything Brantley has done during the first half. Hopefully he can keep this going. He is finally showing that promise that we all heard about when he came over in the CC Sabathia trade. The best thing of all, Michael is still only 25.
LF Johnny Damon (.215 BA/.285 OBP/.628 OPS/4 HR/17 RBIs/3 SBs/16 BBs/163 ABs) – You know the old saying “you get what you pay for,” right. Well the Indians became desperate for some offensive punch from the outfield and decided to kick the tires on the 38-year old in the middle of April. Damon’s agent Scott Boras can tell us all he wants that his client was sitting back and waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. The truth is, at 38, clearly on the last legs of his career as a DH with little power, Damon didn’t have many options. The Indians left field situation was a dumpster fire, so they signed him and gave him around two weeks to get ready.
On May 1st, Damon was summoned to the big club and given regular at-bats as the left fielder, despite the fact that he hasn’t played regularly there in two plus years. Johnny’s defense was bad five years ago, so we all could imagine what it would be like when he got here. However, if he hit, the Indians brass figured they could live with his porous D. We are now more than two months into the Johnny experiment and you could say it hasn’t been what we all hoped it would be.
Nobody was expecting greatness, but a repeat of his Tampa numbers from a year ago would be an improvement from what the current crop of left fielders would give them. Damon started as the leadoff man and was last seen hitting ninth. The speed is there, but his at-bats aren’t great. The bat speed that made him great with the Red Sox and Yankees is long gone. The truth is he offers very little other than name recognition. Damon’s most memorable plays as an Indian were his three-run homer in Baltimore two weeks ago and his infamous wall crash that turned a Brandon Phillips single into an inside the park home run (ruled a double with a two-base error).
It’s tough to get angry that a way past his prime 38-year old DH playing left field isn’t producing. Whatever bat the Indians attempt to acquire at the trade deadline will surely be someone who will take Damon’s at-bats.
LF Shelley Duncan (.222 BA/.319 OBP/.743 OPS/8 HR/21 RBIs/24 BBs/158 ABs) – You know what is amazing. People are quick to jump down Shelley’s throat for not producing enough and being nothing more than a spare part. However, look at his numbers and compare them to Hafner’s. Pronk always seems to get a pass, yet he is essentially a left-handed Shelley at this point.
Nobody doubt’s Duncan’s love, or should I say passion, for the game. He tries as hard as anyone out there and takes his slumps or lack of production very hard. But Shelley is great in the clubhouse and seems to be universally loved by his teammates and coaches. The Duncan/Damon left field platoon isn’t yielding the kind of production that the Indians crave, but at least Shelley can get on a hot streak here or there. In fact, just before the break, the big right-hander is on one of his upswings.
OF Aaron Cunningham (.191 BA/.265 OBP/.535 OPS/1 HR/6 RBIs/23 Ks/6 BBs/89 ABs) – What more can I say about the man that I haven’t said in pieces for this site and on Twitter. Cunningham is 4A. A punch and judy hitter with little to offer outside of his glove. The only reason Cunningham has lasted as long as he has is because Grady Sizemore’s rehabilitation continues to have setbacks and he is the only other person seemingly capable of playing center field.
I shouldn’t obsess over this guy the way I do. Really he is a late inning defensive replacement for left field and a once every 10 to 12 days fill in starter. I just wish the Indians had a better option. Cunningham’s lack of any sort of bat when he comes up late in games eats at me, but he is who is.
Choo seems to have found a home as the leadoff man. Brantley has given more than most of us expected. The key guy in the second half in this group is Hafner. He just has to get going. Obviously the Indians are searching for a bat and if/when they do, it will most likely be a guy who can play left field. That hole has been a problem that just hasn’t gone away. I don’t see Damon getting any better and Duncan is still at his best against lefties and being an occasional starter.
The All-Star break is now over and the Tribe starts a three-game road set in Toronto against the Blue Jays. It will be a rematch from Opening Day as the Indians will send Justin Masterson (5-8, 4.40 ERA) to the mound to face lefty Ricky Romero (8-4, 5.22 ERA).