Entering Wednesday, Cleveland had won 13 straight home games, allowing four or fewer runs in each. Even after the club’s loss 12-2 loss on Wednesday, Cleveland’s first to Detroit all season, the Indians still hold a 6.5-game lead on the Tigers in the American League Central division.
The loss certainly didn’t dampen expectations: Baseball Prospectus gives Cleveland a 94.7 percent chance of qualifying for the division series round of the playoffs, the highest likelihood of any American League team. The site also gives the franchise a league-leading 18.1 percent chance to win its first World Series since 1920.
Should the city begin preparing for another parade? A quick glance at Manager Terry Francona’s starting rotation yields a resounding, full-throated “yes.”
Francona’s starting rotation has been the catalyst in Cleveland’s surge in the standings: Cleveland starters compiled a league-leading 4.3 WAR and a 2.50 ERA in June over 194.1 innings, 18 more innings of work than any other franchise’s rotation.
Danny Salazar is pitching like a Cy Young candidate, with 10 wins and a league-leading 2.36 ERA under his belt. Corey Kluber, who, you may remember, won the Cy Young award in 2014, is tied for fifth in MLB in wins above replacement (3.1), ahead of renowned strikeout savants and shoo-in Cy Young contenders Jake Arrieta and Madison Bumgarner.
That Cleveland unquestionably touts one of the league’s top rotations this season makes the fact that most of its starting pitchers are being paid significantly less than market average all the more remarkable.
The Kluber-Carrasco-Salazar-Trevor Bauer-Josh Tomlin quintet is earning a combined $13.68 million this season, according to Cleveland.com’s Zach Meisel. To contextualize that salary figure, perhaps it’s best to consider a sampling of pitchers who are raking in more than that combined total on their own: Zack Greinke ($34.4 million), Clayton Kershaw ($32 million), David Price ($30 million), Justin Verlander ($28 million), Felix Hernandez ($25 million), James Shields ($21 million). Of those pitchers, only Kershaw ranks in the top 12 in starting pitcher wins above replacement this year. Kluber and Salazar, who each make less than $5 million, or less than one-third what the aforementioned trio is netting, rank in the top 12.
Only seven teams have less total cash dedicated to pitching this season than Cleveland; none are projected to qualify for the playoffs. Cleveland, meanwhile, has money to spend, and shouldn’t have any difficulty shoring up what few weaknesses it has.
While Francona’s squad is an elite base-running team, adding power to his lineup would be a valuable step, especially in the outfield and at third base.
Michael Brantley, a Cleveland outfielder since 2009, was expected to enter this season as Francona’s top bat, but he has only played in 11 games this season due to an injury to his right shoulder. Add in outfielders Marlon Byrd and Abraham Almonte, who were suspended for violations of MLB’s drug policy, and Cleveland’s outfield represents a mishmash of players who have exceeded expectations.
The name most often cited in trade rumors is Cincinnati outfielder Jay Bruce, who has publicly stated he’d wave his no-trade clause to be dealt to a contending team. Bruce provides ample power and run creation — he is tied for 11th in the National League in homers (18) and third in runs batted in (62). Furthermore, Bruce provides another left-handed hitter to a team that ranks in the bottom half of the league in runs batted in and 25th in weighted on-base average off left-handed pitching.
Juan Uribe, who has alternated with Jose Ramirez this season at third base, has struggled mightily: He’s hitting just .218 and his on-base percentage is the lowest it’s been since 2012. Ramirez is hitting .299, but he’s been inconsistent and has the worst hard-contact rate on the team among hitters who have at least 65 plate appearances.
The league is arguably the most saturated it has ever been with third-base talent, but few players are available on the market. However, a blockbuster deal for Evan Longoria has been floated, and Danny Valencia is potentially the league’s best-available third baseman this summer. Valencia is hitting .310 this year, the highest of mark of his career since he hit .311 over his rookie campaign.
The bullpen could use another arm, too. Cleveland’s relievers rank 19th in WAR and 22nd in walks per nine innings pitched. Philadelphia’s David Hernandez is ringing up an absurd 11.3 batters per nine innings pitched and could add some firepower to the Cleveland bullpen.
Milwaukee’s Will Smith has dropped his walks-per-nine-innings-pitched figure to the second-lowest of his career, and has rebounded nicely since he returned from the disabled list. He has a dominant slider in his arsenal, which has a whiff percentage above 29 percent each year since 2012.
Tampa Bay’s Erasmo Ramirez is another option — a pitcher who doesn’t walk many hitters and can pound the plate for strikes. The right-hander commands a lethal change-up that he often turns to for strikeouts.
Cleveland has been an average to below-average baseball franchise for decades, but this year’s squad seems poised to make a championship run. For a team that has been to the postseason twice in the past decade, Cleveland fans might not need to wait much longer for a deep, excitable playoff run. The franchise has the money to make it happen.