Indians have the pitching, but are they wasting it?

Cleveland sports leave fans shaking their heads in disgust plenty more often than waving their arms in jubilation. Financial limitations often force sporadic success, and routine letdowns have become the city’s calling card.  It’s easy to quip about its sports teams and the fans have embraced the ineptitude, however, are the Indians doing its team and fans a disservice?

Nearly a decade ago the 2007 Indians won 96 games, a pair of 26-year-old pitchers — C.C. Sabathia and then Fausto Carmona — each won 19 games, veteran Joe Borowski saved nearly 50 games, five players swatted over 20 HR and they made it to the ALCS before losing to the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox. Victor Martinez was the offense’s leader acting as one of the best backstops in baseball, while Grady Sizemore appeared to a be a phenom-in-the-making.

Of course, Cleveland fans know how that story ends. Sizemore battled injuries playing in just 210 games in his final three seasons with the Indians, Sabathia was traded to Milwaukee during the 2008 season, Martinez was dealt to Boston in ’09 and Carmona watched his production deteriorate before he was found to actually be a now 35-year-old Roberto Hernandez. The Indians didn’t finish above .500 again until 2013, another 90-win (92-70) season, a stretch spanning five years including a low of just 65 wins in 2009.

Coincidentally enough, that 2013 season was Terry Francona‘s — the same manager who stumped the Indians in the ’07 playoffs — first in Cleveland in which he promptly won the AL Manager of the Year award. But the Indians success, surprisingly to many, didn’t stop there. The Tribe put together three consecutive winning seasons through last season, a feat the Indians hadn’t done since their streak of winning seasons from 1995-2001.

But of course with Cleveland, it certainly isn’t all claps and grins. Now entering the 2016 season, just three years removed from 92 wins and a playoff appearance, only a handful of players remain from that roster.

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Chisenhall’s growth hasn’t manifested as some once thought it could as a five-star prospect, and he has since been forced to switch positions to remain in the lineup. Santana has averaged about 22 HR in each of the past five seasons, but has gradually been moved from behind the plate to roles at third base, first base and now what appears to be a full-time DH gig. He continues to provide solid power and draw walks, but his average both plateaued and regressed and is no longer viewed as the impact bat that some thought he could be. Gomes has been a pleasant surprise with the gear on, but injuries and inconsistency leave the position as a question mark going into 2016. Ramirez remains a utility infielder, while the two building blocks are Brantley and Kipnis. However, Brantley will begin the year on the disabled list, while Kipnis has seen his HR-power turn into doubles power and his base stealing-threat taper off — despite sporting a career-high .303 AVG in 2015.

But where Cleveland’s success currently hinges is on the arms of what is arguably the best rotation in baseball. Pair that with one of the game’s best closers and the Indians’ pitching staff is as dominant as it gets. Since that 2013 season, the Tribe have developed three extra starters into crucial rotation pieces, watched Kluber materialize into a legitimate ace, placed McAllister into a role where he can flourish, and developed Allen and Shaw into an exciting end-of-game tandem. Honestly, this pitching staff is one of the most exciting in baseball, but nobody outside of Cleveland seems to care.

Why is this so you ask? Because, while not at all surprising, Cleveland is wasting its pitching talent by not pairing it with a formidable offense. Shelby Miller was a great example last season on how a pitcher can dominate from outing to outing, even notch his first All-Star appearance … and still lead the league in losses due to a lack of run support. While Cleveland’s offensive issues probably don’t fall off the deep end quite like Atlanta’s, it’s an issue nonetheless.

Instead the Indians will roll out a lineup that features offensively-challenged Abraham Almonte, defensive-minded Giovanny Urshela, a declining Mike Napoli and the disappointing Lonnie Chisenhall. Of course, Kipnis remains in the lineup, Brantley should return in May and last year’s rookie phenom Francisco Lindor are exciting pieces atop the order, but without the ancillary pieces to fill out the order, and even more so in the Indians case without an impact power bat in the middle of the order, the Indians’ pitching will be wasted in yet another disappointing, ho-hum, Cleveland-esque season.

The power-deprived lineup in Cleveland is evident after ranking 22nd in homers as a team last season. This caused a 22nd-place finish in total bases, 18th in RBI, 18th in runs scored and 16th in slugging percentage. However, despite the lack of home-run power, Cleveland finished 16th in extra-base hits, but also finished 16th in total ground balls compared to 12th for fly-balls. The thought is that the Mike Napoli signing will help fix some of the pop problems in the lineup, but sometimes, even in Cleveland, the right answer isn’t always the cheap one.

Instead, despite free agents such as Chris Davis, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes being on the market, Cleveland elected to sign Napoli and aging, no-longer-speedy, power-deprived outfielder Rajai Davis. Dexter Fowler remains on the market and plenty of others have been available in trade including recently-traded and offensively-gifted Corey Dickerson. Atlanta was thought to be listening on recently-acquired Ender Inciarte, Carlos Gonzalez is rumored to potentially still be available and last year’s playoff-hero Daniel Murphy signed a three-year deal in which he will make just $1.0M more in 2016 than Napoli.

There is an argument against most of these acquisitions, however. Cleveland features two of the best outfield prospects in baseball with Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier. Thus, committing a long-term deal to an outfielder would only further complicate the grass situation in Cleveland in the coming years. Regardless, Chisenhall isn’t seen as an answer, Almonte is better suited for a bench role and Brantley could miss two to three months, leaving Cleveland with one of the more underwhelming outfield situations to begin the upcoming season.

A less than intriguing outfield paired with question marks at first, third and catcher leave the Indians with yet another mediocre offense. Will the pitching take another step in its development and override the middling bats littered throughout the Cleveland lineup? It’s certainly possible. But it’s also possible that the pitching staff regresses, Lindor’s offensive production slightly falters, Brantley misses more time than expected, Kipnis doesn’t repeat his 43-double season, Santana doesn’t embrace his DH role and the Indians early-season struggles prompt a trade of one of their prized rotation arms and Cleveland fans are forced to await the young guys once again in hopes of competing in 2019.

Sure, a lineup of Lindor, Zimmer, Frazier, Bobby Bradley and others is exciting to dream about, but another four years of waiting — while something Cleveland fans are used to — is something that Indians fans shouldn’t be subjected to when their chance at competing is plenty good enough right now. And by 2019, maybe it’ll be Cleveland’s lineup that’s over compensating for a lackluster rotation and Mike Pelfrey will be the Napoli-esque free agent signing.

I’m not saying it’ll happen, but when it inevitably does, I won’t say I told you so. But with disgust and disappointment aside … there’s always next year!

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