Indians

Top Five Things To Watch For During Indians’ Stretch Run

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tribe fans are spoiled right now.

As most division races and both wild card races still need sorted out, the Indians are sitting pretty. With a 15.5-game lead on the AL Central (the largest division lead in baseball by a sizable amount) and a firm grasp on the third seed in the AL playoff picture, there really isn’t much else for the Tribe to play for this month. As a result, the excitement from the fanbase isn’t where it normally is for a 90+ win playoff team simply because…this is what we all expected to happen.

With wins and losses essentially out of the picture for the remainder of the regular season, fans will need to look more closely for storylines, of which there are some juicy ones. The front office acquired a former MVP at the 11th hour, a veteran mainstay is moving to the outfield (again) and there is still champagne to be popped. Let’s dive into the most important things to keep an eye on in September, ranked from most intriguing to least.

 

1. There’s Rain in the Forecast

Ok, sorry for being the thousandth writer to use the “Bringer of Rain” nickname in a headline since August 31. It’s catchy.

The swap of Josh Donaldson for right-handed starter Julian Merryweather has little probability to go wrong for the Indians. Merryweather, who entered the 2018 season as the organization’s No. 17 ranked prospect, is soon to be 27 years old and is currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Considering the potential impact that Donaldson could have on this team, a price tag of Merryweather plus $1.3 million in salary is a gamble that the Indians should take 10 times out of 10.

As we await his return to the bigs, Donaldson has been rehabbing a calf injury that has hampered his 2018 campaign, causing thousands of Indians fans to scour the internet for blurry MiLB videos of his highlights. The fact that he raked in his rehab assignments (small sample size alert!), surely can’t be a bad sign. In his first two minor league games with the organization – one with Columbus, the other with Akron – the 32-year-old went 2-for-5 with two home runs and six RBI.

Donaldson is eligible to come off the DL on Tuesday and will take his natural position of third base, moving Jose Ramirez to second and Jason Kipnis to the outfield. As a result, he won’t have to worry about a position change in addition to playing in his first MLB action since May. When he comes off the DL, he has 18 games to get going before the playoffs, including three against a potential postseason opponent in the Red Sox.

A player’s ability to perform in a small sample size is put to the test in the playoffs – and even more so in the five-game ALDS – but a return-to-form September would ease many doubts about Donaldson’s rocky 2018 season and would be flat-out fun to watch.

 

2. Bauer’s Return

It was disappointing to see Bauer have his season disrupted and Cy Young candidacy cut short in what had been the best statistical year of his career. After getting nailed by a line drive in an August 11 game against the White Sox, Bauer hit the DL with a 2.22 ERA and a 5.9 fWAR.

The attention now turns away from his season-ending stats to his readiness to pitch after a month and change on the DL. A checkpoint in the rehab process might come on Wednesday when he is tentatively scheduled to throw a bullpen session. If all goes well in the bullpen session, he would likely throw again on Friday or Saturday, according to Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com.

Bauer’s return would obviously be huge for the rotation. The top three starters still remain rock solid in Kluber (2.91 ERA), Carrasco (3.41) and Clevinger (3.16). However, in the event that Bauer isn’t ready to rejoin the team as a starter, 23-year-old Shane Bieber would likely be thrust into the four-man postseason rotation, unless they opt to tough out the five-game division series with only three starters. With a 4.63 ERA and a 9.16 K/9, Bieber has certainly shown promise this season, but throwing him into a postseason start would undoubtedly be a gamble.

The fact that the injury is not an arm-related one gives me hope that it won’t take Bauer too long to get back into game shape, but these things are obviously difficult to predict. There’s no set return date in sight just yet for Bauer, but with the amount of value that he brings to a World Series contender like the Indians, this should be one of the top storylines to follow in September.

 

2. Kipnis in Center

With Bradley Zimmer out for the season with shoulder surgery and Leonys Martin coming down with a life-threatening virus, the Indians were put into an awfully unfortunate situation in center field this year. The likes of Greg Allen, Rajai Davis, and Brandon Guyer have shuffled through at one point or another, but Terry Francona has yet to find a sufficient everyday starter at the position.

In all likelihood, centerfield will remain a platoon spot for the Tribe, though Kipnis’ arrival could bolster the offensive production significantly.

Our very own Gage Will proposed a center field model that could work well for the Tribe’s purposes. Kipnis handles the early innings and the majority of plate appearances. Allen handles the late-inning defense and provides speed on the base paths. Simple enough, right?

“You can bank on Greg Allen’s defense and baserunning, even if the plate appearances aren’t there. Additionally, you can utilize Kipnis for the first half to two-thirds of games, then opt to Greg Allen for defense should your team have the lead. In the alternate scenario, you are left with just Kipnis on the bench – someone you don’t want to utilize late in the outfield – which doesn’t make much sense given the fact that you aren’t yanking Donaldson, Ramirez, or Francisco Lindor.”

-Gage Will

Even if the Indians can get slightly below average production from center field the rest of the way, that would be an improvement. At the very least, Kipnis should be able to provide that. The 31-year-old owns a 97 wRC+ with a .239/.322/.409 slash line in the second half of the season. If his bat remains steady throughout the position change, any positive outcome on the defensive side is icing on the cake.

Additionally, the chance is always there for Kipnis – who has had a streaky career in Cleveland – to get red hot for a short period of time, which makes him a tough player to bench come October. Since his infamous magazine-related revelation on August 26th, for instance, he has hit to the tune of a .306 batting average with four doubles, four home runs and 15 RBI. That short-term upside is too hard for Francona to pass up in a five or seven-game series.

Allen has a clear ceiling at the plate. Davis doesn’t seem to have it anymore, save for his speed. With a center field landscape as barren as any in the majors, relying on Kipnis might be the only way to go. He, like his new teammate Donaldson, will have 18 games to get acclimated before it gets serious.

 

4. Miller returns to action (again), Allen returns to form (hopefully)

The bullpen has been cause for panic all year long, with Miller’s DL stints and Allen’s struggles being at the forefront of the issue. Even with the acquisitions of Brad Hand and Adam Cimber in July, the Indians’ second-half reliever ERA (4.67) still ranks sixth-worst in the MLB.

These last few weeks represent the last hope for the Indians to stabilize their bullpen. The good news: Miller is back and Allen seems to be turning a corner.

The six-foot-seven Miller returned to game action on Monday night in Tampa Bay, striking out two in a one-two-three inning.

The outing was nice to see, but his health will be the biggest factor in the homestretch of the season. We know what he can do in October, it’s just a matter of getting him there in a healthy state.

As for Allen, he has been on a tear since being booed in his home stadium on August 29 against the Twins. In his seven appearances since then, he’s allowed no runs, two hits and four walks in 6 2/3 scoreless innings while striking out nine.

The story of “who will win the closer job?” will probably get some running from the media in the next couple weeks, but if Allen can keep teams off the board that’s what is really important here, not the inning that he’s pitching in.

 

5. Popping the Champagne

The Cleveland Indians are going to win the AL Central, and that’s always something to celebrate.

Heading into Tuesday night’s affair against the Rays, the Tribe’s magic number sits at four. This means that they could clinch as early as Wednesday and celebrate as early as Friday night at Progressive Field since they play in the afternoon on Wednesday while the second-place Twins play at night.

This year will represent the Indians’ third straight AL Central title, which is something they haven’t done since winning five straight from 1995-1999. This would also be the franchise’s 10th AL Central title overall, which is the most amongst the division since it came about in 1994 (the Twins are second with six division banners).

Here’s to hoping for another GoPro recap from Trevor Bauer this time around.

 

Honorable Mentions…

  • Lonnie Chisenhall (calf) was put on the DL in early July with an 8-10 week timetable set for his return. That has since been extended, when Francona said that the longtime Indian was “not as close as we had hoped” on August 21, as MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian reported. The chances of Chisenhall returning in time for the playoffs seem slim, but with how thin the Indians’ outfield remains, he is worth monitoring throughout September.

 

  • Yonder Alonso is struggling badly. The first baseman has followed up a productive July with a .194 batting average in August and a .133 clip so far in September. The installation of Donaldson into the lineup could take some pressure off Alonso, but the poorly timed slump is worrisome for the former All-Star.

 

  • The Indians preseason over/under win total was set at 94.5 by Bovada back in March. With a .563 winning percentage on the year, the Tribe is on pace to finish with 91 wins. To hit the over, they would have to go 14-4 over their last 18 games. The only redeeming hope for those who have the over: the Indians only have five games against a winning team on their schedule, while the rest are against weak AL Central teams, a group which they have dominated all season.