It is Sept. 1 and the Cleveland Indians find themselves in the midst of a playoff race. It is truly remarkable. The Indians are without both David Murphy — this season’s only meaningful free agent pickup — and Nick Swisher — the Tribe’s supposed middle of the order power bat. The rotation lost Ubaldo Jimenez to the Baltimore Orioles in free agency, Scott Kazmir to the Oakland Athletics and Justin Masterson to the St. Louis Cardinals via trade. These three veterans combined for 37 wins a year ago. The Cleveland front office couldn’t possibly replace that kind of production internally, could it?
Remarkably, the Indians have struck gold with inexperience; Carlos Carrasco, TJ House, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar have been sterling over the last month. The five have combined for just 180 starts in their entire careers. Let that sink in for a moment.
If I had been shown that list of starters at the beginning of the season, I would have written the Tribe off as too young, lacking the talent and poise needed to contend. I am stunned at Cleveland’s 17-9 August record and in awe of the MLB-best 2.40 ERA posted in that span.
Salazar has been to AAA and back after self-destructing early in the season. Bauer was pitching exclusively out of the stretch towards the end of last year and seemingly lost. Carrasco was sent to the bullpen before reinventing himself. House was an afterthought, a middle of the rotation guy for the Columbus Clippers. Kluber has been the team’s only starter to remain in the rotation all year, but no one expected him to be a legitimate Cy Young contender. He has been exactly that.
Meanwhile, the lineup has leaned on Yan Gomes, Michael Brantley and Jose Ramirez for production. Gomes is the likely silver slugger at the catcher’s position in the AL, ranking 13th in average at .291 — second against lefties at .368 — and 12th in slugging at .480. Once a complement to Mike Aviles in the Esmil Rogers deal, Gomes has become a star. Brantley had been consistent, but never had he shown the pop to hit .310 with 18 homers and 85 RBIs. Ramirez seemed destined to remain in AAA with Francisco Lindor on the rise. Filling in after the Asdrubal Cabrera deal, he hit .304 in August.
Zach Walters led with team with six homers last month. Tyler Holt, Roberto Perez and Chris Dickerson have received significant playing time.
How can this team possibly be in contention, three suspended outs away from being 2.5 games back in the AL Central?
The answer largely has to do with the coaching and the front office. Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro are responsible for the Gomes deal, Brantley’s extension and the constant shuffling of arms between Columbus and Cleveland. Terry Francona won the AL manager of the year award in 2013 and likely deserves it again. Pitching coach Mickey Callaway and bullpen coach Kevin Cash have been miracle workers, taking a young and inconsistent staff and transforming it into the best in baseball.
It has been an unbelievable ride for the Tribe. With one month to go, the Indians are in great position to steal the AL Central and charge back to the postseason for the second consecutive year. So enjoy the meaningful baseball, Tribe fans, get out to the park to support your team over the next four days with the Detroit Tigers in town and cheer your squad to a division title. Let’s prove the Indians’ marketing campaign right and show that Cleveland really is a Tribe Town.