The Indians Face an Uphill Battle in the Second Half

With a number of looming questions surrounding the Indians’ 2019 season, the most pressing seem to be if they can catch the Minnesota Twins, or should they focus on retooling for next year? Coming off an abysmal month of May the Tribe have been able to cut their deficit in half due to solid performances throughout the month of June from back-of-the-lineup players like Roberto Perez, Tyler Naquin, and Jake Bauers, as well as newcomers like Oscar Mercado, but will this be enough for the Indians to maintain their momentum?

Coming into the All-Star break just 5.5 games behind Minnesota and riding a 6 game winning streak, the Indians looked to gain serious momentum as they faced the Twins to open up the second half. However with a tough start to the series by dropping two straight, the momentum seemed to be halted. With a favorable schedule for the current home stand, the Indians should be able to gain some ground in the division race, but with questions surrounding the starting rotation and pieces to be added in the lineup, there is certainly work to be done. 

Here are four factors that Indians fans should look to in order to keep the momentum going in the push for the postseason, and should these chips fall their way, the Indians should be sitting atop the Central Division, without having to mortgage their future:

The 4 Keys to Success

1. Jose Ramirez: Coming off an All-Star performance in 2018, the Indians looked to Ramirez to continue to be a major cog in the Tribe’s success.  Ramirez however, saw a significant dip in numbers that would seem to be unending. 2019 seemed to be no exception as Ramirez continued to struggle from the plate.

Jose Ramirez

Coming off of May and June boasting about a .200 batting average, it seemed that Jose Ramirez was one of the key contributors to the Indians offensive struggles.  If the Indians expect to make moves in the second half, they are going to need Ramirez to return to his All-Star numbers. With solid performances from both the top and bottom of the lineup, the Indians need Ramirez to anchor the middle.

Boasting a .325 batting average in the last 15 days, it may be safe to say that Ramirez is climbing out of his slump, and with holes in the starting rotation, and a number of injury concerns, consistency from Jose Ramirez should be at the top of Terry Francona’s list.  With a majority of their matchups with the Twins coming in the second half, and with ringers like the Astros, Yankees, Phillies, and Rays on the schedule, the Indians will need solid performances from the whole lineup, but having Ramirez return to his former glory, should give them a significant push to overtake the Twins. 

2. Health: Ok, so we may be stating the obvious with this one, and this is sure to be at the top of every team’s list, but the Indians have had one of their toughest years from an injury standpoint. Having missed time in the beginning of the season, Fransisco Lindor kicked off the injury streak followed quickly by Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber, and Carlos Carrasco, among others.

Coming off one of the best seasons in MLB history for a starting rotation, the Indians put their stock in riding a strong starting rotation, however, the injury bug had other plans. One bright spot for this pitching staff has been the rise of young Indians pitchers like All Star MVP Shane Bieber, and rookies Zach Plesac, Geoffrey Rodriguez (who is also on the I.L.) and Adam Civale who have helped to patch the holes in the starting rotation that has at times, struggled. While the bullpen has exceeded expectations, and has statistically been one of the best in the AL, the Indians need their starters to get healthy to provide consistency, experience, and depth to the starting rotation, especially if they expect to make a run into late October.

3. Brad Hand remaining a Cleveland Indian: It is safe to say that the next two weeks may determine the fate of Brad Hand’s time in Cleveland. With one of the most team favorable contracts among players in the rumor mill, Brad Hand could be a player that yields a major haul in a trade, and if the Indians find themselves continuing to lose ground on the Twins, we could find out exactly what that price tag will be. The Indians however, shouldn’t need to sacrifice their 2019 season in the name of remaining relevant in the years to come and here’s why:

Hand is just one of a few names the Indians may be shopping, and it’s safe to say that even just three weeks ago, found himself with high odds to be packing his bags. Having racked up 25 saves, Hand has been nothing short of dominant in 2019. He has anchored what was considered a questionable bullpen entering 2019, and has helped to provide a great deal of consistency and reliability in the late innings. With one year left on his contract, and a club option for 2021, Hand will be owed $7 million next year, and $10 million in 2021, which, after seeing the going rate for a closer like Craig Kimbrel, it’s safe to say that this is a very team favorable contract.

Because of this, Brad Hand’s value has never been higher, and if the Indians find themselves losing more ground in the coming weeks, it’s safe to say that the Indians will be shopping Brad Hand. With the Dodgers looking to pair a dominant bullpen arm with Kenley Jansen, look for them to be potential suitors for Hand’s services, especially with a number of pieces that they will be willing to deal.

However, there is one thing we need to consider, and that is 2016. If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that shutdown relievers are an absolute necessity for high leverage situations in late inning playoff games. It’s safe to say without clutch performances from Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen, the Indians would not have even sniffed the World Series, and that can be especially true for 2019. If the Indians expect to make any type of postseason run, they’re going to need Brad Hand to anchor their bullpen, especially with the looming questions of the starting rotation, and based on the amount of money he’s owed over the next two years, he will prove to be the most valuable and affordable option at reliever.

cleveland indians

4. Acquiring a major league ready outfielder: This one may be the toughest to consider because of the potential price tag that may be involved. Trevor Bauer has been nothing short of spectacular in recent years with the Tribe (aside from the drone incident), but has made it clear that the Indians would not be able to afford him.  This is definitely a risky proposition with looming questions about timetables for return for Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar. However, one could argue that with the emergence of starters Zac Plesac, Geoffrey Rodriguez, and Adam Civale, filling the void left by Bauer may be easier than you think.

There is one landing place for Bauer that could make the most sense, and could be a win-win for both teams involved. While trading within the American League may not be the most desirable, former Indians prospect, and current New York Yankee Clint Frazier could be a desirable piece for the Indians. With one of the most injury-decimated lineups in the beginning of the year, Frazier boasted solid offensive numbers (.283/.330/.514) while also adding 11 home runs to help fill the void for stars like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

Adding Frazier would provide an everyday player, and allow Francona to use the likes of Jake Bauers, and Jordan Luplow in platoon type roles, and add depth to a position that was one of the biggest questions entering the 2019 season. Frazier is just one name among many that may be on the move come July 31st, but adding depth in the outfield could give the Indians a major boost in their hunt for October.

The Schedule Won’t Help

Sitting 6.5 games behind Minnesota, perhaps the most important factor in being active buyers is the fact that the Indians have a very small margin for error in the coming weeks. With favorable upcoming match-ups with the Tigers and Royals, it is important to win games that should be won, because the Tribe schedule will not get easier come August.

With 10 games still remaining against the Twins, they also will face the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Phillies, and Astros, all while Minnesota has a large number of games against weak Central Division opponents. It is safe to say that the Twins will be active in the trade market, and they have yet to slow down sitting atop the division, which makes it all the more important to fill any gaps in the roster. The Indians are by no means out of the race, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

The Indians by no means have to mortgage their future to be competitive this season, but they also don’t have remain passive in the trade market either. Maintaining control of Brad Hand will be a crucial piece to ensuring depth in the bullpen, and while trading Trevor Bauer may not be the most desirable option, it may be the best move to make to add pieces for both this season and the future.

The Indians injury woes may hopefully be coming to an end as well, with players like Kluber and Carrasco beginning throwing regimens and Danny Salazar beginning his rehab assignment, the coming weeks may see a boost in the starting rotation. Coming off their second straight win in the series opener against Detroit, the Indians will look to begin a push to gain more ground on Minnesota, and if they can focus on these four factors, the champagne will be flowing in the Indians locker room come October.