The AL Central Has Officially Caught up to the Cleveland Indians

It happened: The American League Central caught up to the Cleveland Indians.

From 2016-18, the Indians owned the AL Central. They won the division and did so by eight-plus games each season. In 2016 they went to the World Series; in 2017 they had the best record in the American League; last season they underperformed, but still finished with 91 wins.

Going into this season the Indians were the favorites to win the division again, but posed nowhere near the threat they once did. After trading away, or losing Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, Yan Gomes, and Yandy Diaz, the Indians were devoid of 44.4 percent of their 2018 starting lineup, as well as critical depth. Granted their return on those players featured first baseman Carlos Santana — who spent the first eight years of his career in Cleveland — a powerful young bat in Jake Bauers, and veteran outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, the Indians lineup was going to pose a respectable threat and not much more in 2019. To this point, that has held true.

Going into their Sunday afternoon matchup with the Baltimore Orioles, the Indians offense was 26th in Major League Baseball in runs (169) and batting average (.223), 29th in hits (316), total bases (508), and slugging (.358), 25th in home runs (45), 22nd in on-base percentage (.307), and 27th in OPS (.665). Outside of Santana (.287 batting average, 27 RBIs) and Francisco Lindor (.294 batting average), manager Terry Francona is getting zero consistent, or big-impact production from his lineup.

The improving American League Central has caught up to the underwhelming @Indians, as @RPStratakos explains.Click To Tweet

Jose Ramirez, one of the premier infielders in MLB and one of the Indians’ franchise players, is hitting just .189. Bauers, Gonzalez, Leonys Martin, Jason Kipnis, Roberto Perez, and Tyler Naquin have seen their fair share of encouraging moments, but collectively can’t be relied on to carry the load. This was once a fearsome and potent unit. It has become one of the least productive in the sport; it’s incredible the difference a year can make.

It hasn’t been much better on the mound.

Backbone right-hander Corey Kluber is currently on the injured list with a broken right arm; Mike Clevinger has made just two starts this season due to a back injury; Trevor Bauer has surrendered seven runs in two of his last three starts and is on pace to give up a career-high in home runs; Carlos Carrasco owns an underwhelming 4.18 ERA. The only bright spots on the Indians pitching staff have been Shane Bieber, who is keeping runners off base, striking out batters at a high rate, and pitching with poise, and their bullpen — which was one of the most unreliable units in baseball last season.

The most disturbing element of the Indians, at best, mediocre 25-20 start is how they’re faring against their division rivals. They’re 4-4 against the Chicago White Sox, 0-3 against the Kansas City Royals, and 1-2 against the Minnesota Twins — who are the biggest threat to the Indians missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Right now the Twins own the second-best record in baseball (30-16), and it’s generated from their high-octane offense. With Eddie Rosario, C.J. Cron, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Jonathan Schoop, Mitch Garver, and, when healthy, Nelson Cruz on the lineup card, the Twins have the firepower to hit their way back into any game. The Twins’ most pleasant surprise, though, has been their starting rotation.

While Jose Berrios continues to improve, dominate, and pitch deep into games, it’s the production the Twins have received from the rest of their rotation that has caught the baseball world’s attention. Left-hander Martin Perez owns a rotation-best 2.89 ERA and has been working out of trouble. Meanwhile, Jake Odorizzi owns a career-best 2.63 ERA and has been efficient in the innings he has worked.

A lot of things have to go right for the Twins to win the AL Central for the first time since 2010, but right now it is, and the Indians’ woes are only helping their cause.

The Indians had three chances to win the World Series. They blew a 3-1 lead to the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 World Series, blew a 2-0 lead to the New York Yankees in the AL Division Series the ensuing year, and were swept by the Houston Astros in the ALDS last season. At some point, the Indians were going to fall off their pedestal and other teams in the AL Central were going to rise, even though they were mostly uncompetitive ballclubs throughout that span.

The Twins have emerged as that rising team, and you could argue the White Sox (21-24) are looking up as well given their energetic lineup, headlined by Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, and improving starting rotation. Lindor and Ramirez are an elite star duo, but the Indians can’t bank on them and their starting pitching alone to keep them in contention. That reality check has hit them hard seven weeks into the 2019 regular season.

The Indians’ offseason was extremely puzzling. They moved on from some key individuals, but didn’t endure a complete teardown, yet did little to improve any aspect of their roster. The Indians are in a freeze and conundrum where they’re good enough to compete for the playoffs, but little more. There’s also an argument against them sticking with their core and going the rebuilding route because of the haul they could get back for their starters and perhaps some of their position players. Plus, if they continue to hover around .500, those conversations will be amplified.

Righting the ship and making the playoffs is certainly not far-fetched, but one thing is abundantly clear: The Indians are not alone in the AL Central anymore.

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