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Five Things the Indians Still Have Left to Play For

The season is all but over for the Cleveland Indians.

The Detroit Tigers clinched the AL Central this weekend, and the Tribe’s elimination number in the wild card race is down to one with 12 games to play. It’s theoretically possible that the Indians could go 12-0 while the Red Sox and Rays completely collapse, but in all likelihood they’ll be free to play golf in October.

But while what Cleveland does over the next week and a half won’t have much bearing on the postseason schedule, there’s still reason for the Tribe not to merely phone it in as the season nears its end.

Here are five reasons why the next 12 games still matter for the franchise:

Free agent compensation picks. There are three players on Cleveland’s roster who are eligible for free agency come November: Kosuke Fukudome, Jim Thome, and Chad Durbin. Fukudome has a clause in his contract that prevents the Indians from offering him arbitration, but Thome and Durbin could theoretically bring the Tribe sandwich-round picks in next year’s draft.

Neither player currently projects as a Type B free agent, but both are within striking distance of the threshold and could make the jump with a strong finish to the season. Offering arbitration to either player would be a risk because both could conceivably accept, but if the Indians give them the chance to earn Type B status, at least they’d have options.

Giving non-regulars a look. Twelve games amounts to just 7 percent of the season—hardly a significant sample size from which to draw major conclusions. But the Indians now have a 40-man roster at their disposal, and now that the wait ’til next year has begun, it’s time to start thinking about 2012.

Can Jason Donald be a big-league regular? What about Trevor Crowe? Is Shelley Duncan more than just a Quad-A player now? Will Luis Valbuena and Cord Phelps learn to handle MLB pitchers? We’re not going to get definitive answers on any of these fronts, but at least we could start to get a better idea of where they are.

More big-league seasoning. Even some of the team’s veterans have never really experienced the grind of a full MLB season. Carlos Santana played in only 46 big-league games last year before his knee injury (he’s at 144 now). Michael Brantley has already made more appearances for the Indians this year (114) than he did in 2009 and 2010 combined (100). Heck, Jack Hannahan is 31, and his 349 MLB plate appearances are the second-most of his career.

While some players (Asdrubal Cabrera is the glaring example) could definitely use a break, the low-pressure end-of-season atmosphere could help some of the team’s more inexperienced players build endurance without too much stress.

Second place. When the history of the 2011 season is written, what will posterity say about the AL Central? If the Indians fall to third place—they’re currently two games ahead of the third-place White Sox—the division would pretty much look like it was expected to before the season with the exception of the cellar-dwelling Twins. In that case, people will remember Minnesota’s stumble, but not much else.

But if the Indians can hold onto second place, it won’t be so clear-cut. Outside of Cleveland Adam’s Dunn’s fall from grace might have more staying power in the game’s collective memory than the Tribe’s hot start, but any team that overtakes two of the division’s three expected titans has to be doing something.

The fans. There’s a big difference between 87-75 and 81-81, let alone 75-87. It’s hard for fans to get excited about a sub-.500 team, and even getting the win total up to the low 80′s wouldn’t exactly set the Indians up as favorites to win the division next year. If they can’t manage to finish significantly over .500, the average fan would have a hard time believing that the rebuild is really coming to an end. That’s something worth fighting for down the stretch.

Ending the season on a high note would give the fans something to remember as the cold winter begins—imagine the catharsis that would come from winning the final series in Detroit—and set the Tribe up as legitimate contenders for 2012. It’d be a big morale boost for the players and it could help put people in seats next season.