Curiously, the team that didn’t spend truckloads of cash in the offseason and wasn’t anointed a preseason World Series contender is in first place in their division. The Cleveland Indians, of three straight losing seasons fame, are your American League Central leaders and among baseball’s most intriguing teams this spring.
After losing 90-plus games in 2009 to 2010, the Indians surprised many last season when, despite injuries to its more established players, they held the division lead over the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers until mid-July. The Indians were within reach even in mid-August before fading behind the Tigers.
But this season, along with pleasant surprises such as the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers, the Indians have been riding a wave of strong play and solid contributions from its young players. It seems like last season was just a preview of which direction the Indians were headed.
And this week, they swept a three-game series against the Tigers — even besting all-world pitcher Justin Verlander’s complete-game performance on Thursday.
The Indians, who are averaging an MLB-worst 16,374 fans per game, have been carrying the banner for tight-spending, smaller-market teams. If the season ended Friday morning, the following teams would miss the playoffs, even in the new expanded format: Boston, the White Sox, the Tigers, the Los Angeles Angels, Miami, the New York Yankees, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Of those eight teams, five have the highest payrolls in baseball; all eight are in the top 11.
How have they done it? In most major statistical categories, they have a middle-of-the-pack offense and pitching staff. Of the teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended now, they have the worst run differential (plus-one).
They have a left-handed-heavy lineup that has excelled in only one facet so far: Indians batters lead the majors in walks by a sizeable margin, and are near the top in on-base percentage. While they may not outhit or outslug other teams, they’ve gotten on base and scored when needed.
The core of the Indians’ team is young. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is 26 years old and continues to impress following his breakout season (.273, 25 home runs and 92 RBI) a year ago. Switch-hitting catcher Carlos Santana is 26, and second baseman Jason Kipnis is 25. These three players have accounted for just under 40 percent of the Indians runs so far.
At the ripe age of 38 and member on his fifth major-league team, starter Derek Lowe is among the American League’s best and the ace of a young staff, which has given up the fewest home runs in the league. When starter Ubaldo Jimenez sorts out his mechanics, he, Lowe and youngsters Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin could form a solid rotation.
The Indians’ defense, a weakness last season, is already on a better pace behind the offseason additions of players such as Casey Kotchman, a slick-fielding first baseman.
The Indians have some of the pieces needed even if the Tigers improve and make a summer push as they did last season. But for now, here’s to watching the little guys win.