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Indians Indians Archive The Weekend Wrap
Written by Brian McPeek

Brian McPeek

WrapWhere does the time go? It seems like yesterday we were talking about the Tribe’s opener and the Browns draft and suddenly you look up and the baseball season is more than half over and Browns training camp is just a couple weeks away. That being the case, this is as good a time as any to sit back, take a breath and take stock of where our Indians are in terms of a playoff spot as well as look at the most pleasant surprise and biggest disappointment of the Indians season thus far.

Oh yeah. We’ll also look at the continuing trend of NBA stars flocking to a limited number of destinations. Because that’s just becoming more and more enjoyable.

Mid-Season Marks

What a gut-wrenching loss that was Sunday for the Tribe. A 5-0 lead lost when Asdrubal Cabrera got lazy on a simple play and opened the flood gates for the Rays to score four, and a 6-4 lead lost in the 9th inning when Chris Perez got the first out and then watched the Rays beat him around for three runs. Much the way the season started the first half ended (with Perez blown saves) and what would have been a really nice home stand ends up leaving a bad taste in your mouth as the Tribe lost a game they simply should have won.

With the All-Star game to be played Tuesday night in Kansas City the Indians have officially reached the unofficial halfway point of the 2012 season. Their play in the last ten days has not only kept them in the AL Central race despite another hot streak from the White Sox, but it has also put them squarely in play for one of the two AL Wildcard spots.

Going into Sunday the Indians trailed the Orioles by just a game for that second wild card position and they trailed the Angels by just 2 ½ games for the first wild card spot. That sets up an interesting (to say the least) second half of the season as the Tribe chases Chicago for the division lead and also tries to fend off the Tigers for all of those spots.

It seems clear to anyone who follows the game closely that the Tribe needs to take advantage of a soft division and the new wildcard setup and make a serious run for a playoff berth. It’s hard to believe they can make that run as presently constituted because they likely need another arm and they definitely need a bat to lengthen their lineup. It’s highly unlikely that Detroit is going to sit still given they sold their soul to win now when they signed Prince Fielder before the season. It’s also unlikely that Chicago is done acquiring talent even though they’ve already dealt for Kevin Youkilis.

So the Tribe is going to have to get better as opposed to treading water. If they’re not getting better their chances to play October baseball will get worse. In talking about lengthening the lineup you can see the effect that Travis Hafner has had since coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery. He’s a presence in the middle of the order and, despite his injuries and his dwindling numbers the past couple years, he still commands respect from an opposing pitching staff. His presence in the fourth spot means you don’t have to see Michael Brantley or Jose Lopez hitting cleanup. Lopez is a platoon player and it says a lot about your offense when a utility guy or platoon player hits fourth in the order when he does play. With a healthy Hafner in the lineup suddenly guys like Brantley and Lopez are hitting 6th in the lineup and you have some quality outside of the first four spots. That’s critical if this team is going to score runs.

So as we put a bow on the first half and look toward what needs to be done in the second half, let’s look at what we view as the biggest surprises and the biggest disappointments thus far in 2012.

Biggest Surprise- For me this is a clear and convincing case for Michael Brantley. You could likely argue that Ubaldo Jimenez rebounding from the ugliness that was his April and May is up there and in contention, and I’d entertain that argument. You could also say that Jason Kipnis’s continued development that shows no signs of slowing down is surprising. But I’ve been high on Kipnis since I saw him arrive in the big leagues and his approach just screams consistency.

Brantley is my choice here. I was horribly hard on the guy for the first couple months of the season for both his lack of production and for the joyless way he sometimes appears to approach the game. But actions speak louder than words or body language and Michael Brantley has, at times, carried this Indians offense for stretches in the first half. After that lukewarm April Brantley is hitting about .300 and has driven in 37 of his 42 RBI. His slugging percentage and OPS have gone up every month to the point that in July he’s hitting .304, slugging .609 and his OPS is .969 this month.

Brantley has played a solid, if not at times spectacular, centerfield and seems to have found himself at the major league level. I’m not going to pound a guy mercilessly for his failures and not give him credit for his accomplishments and Brantley has been an iron man for the Indians in the first half, especially over the past ten weeks.

As has been discussed here before, Brantley is the son a former major league ball player. That can sometimes be the cause of some entitlement issues and lead to what appears to be arrogance. But what it also means is Brantley understands the trials and tribulations that face major league ballplayers every day and that he’s seen a lot of struggles before he experienced them. He has counsel within his family and he has a built in understanding that the game plays out over a long season and that small portions of the year will see you struggle. Brantley’s approach doesn’t appear to see him get too high or too low and as he matures and becomes more of a student of the game you can see that approach bear fruit.

The Indians are extremely fortunate that Brantley’s production came when it did because it’s a big part of why they are where they are.

Biggest Disappointment- I was going to give this to Johnny Damon without a great deal of thought. But then I did think more on it and I can’t help but look at the lack of offensive production from Carlos Santana as a bigger disappointment 80+ games in.

That’s not to say the Damon situation isn’t bad. It is. Sometimes it’s gruesome. But the Damon signing was a flyer, and not a terribly expensive one at that. We knew when Manny Acta ran Damon out to LF that the defensive downside was striking. The man cannot throw a baseball from one end of my living room to the other on a line. His routes to the ball are perilous at times and his technique in putting balls away is to take an ugly jab at the ball. He looks like a guy whose never played the outfield before which is scary when you consider he’s been playing out there for damn near 20 years.

And as ugly as his play looks in the outfield his production on the offensive side has been worse.

I was willing to give Damon all of June to get his rhythm. When you watch him hit he looks like a tweaker coming off a 3-day crank bender. He can’t stop moving at the plate. All that movement makes it hard to get into a rhythm. When he was a few years younger his bat speed allowed for that movement and for him to still make solid contact. But we haven’t seen that consistently from Damon this year and any option better than the Damon- Shelly Duncan platoon the Indians are using now needs to be considered.

Still, because Damon was a flyer, and even though I’m fine with calling it quits on the experiment, Santana’s awful offensive first half has been more troubling and has had a bigger negative impact on this team. Santana is a guy the Indians counted on for big production in the middle of the order.

He hasn’t delivered it at all.

His 27 HRs and ~80 RBI last season set up expectations that we’d get at least that from Santana this year. After all, he was a year older and wiser and a year further removed from the grotesque knee injury that nearly crippled him in 2010. We could have lived with the .239 average because Santana’s production could be measured in his .457 slugging percentage and his .800+ OPS. His OBP of .351 was about 115 points higher than his average and showed he was still getting on base and delivering runs when he was in the position to do so.

But this year he’s been poor offensively. He’s on pace to hit 9 HRs and drive in less than 60 runs and for a team without thumpers in their order that’s a killer. He’s hovering around the .220 mark in batting average and his slugging is down about 120 points from where he finished last season. His struggles have come from both sides of the plate so it appears the issue is macro as opposed to micro regarding his switch hitting. To a layman it looks like Santana is anxious and is always looking to hit the 5-run HR as opposed to hitting the ball hard and going with the pitch.

One sign of maturity in Santana’s game is that his offensive struggles haven’t affected his defense. Santana is having a terrific year in terms of throwing out base stealers. He’s thrown out over 33% of would be base stealers and his receiving has also been better (though he can still get lazy in terms of stabbing at balls in the dirt as opposed to moving his body).

The defensive improvement is great to see but the Indians need Santana’s offense to wake up and help carry them in the second half. They’re in the race with Santana having a terrible offensive first half (dare I say Lou Marson has been appreciably better offensively?) but they could make a ton of noise if Santana gets back on track.

The fact that he’s been this bad is a bigger disappointment to me than the fact Johnny Damon proved to be older, and his bat speed slower, than we had hoped when he was signed.

The Six

The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat.

Those six major market/destination locations are, for all intents and purposes, the NBA. That’s especially and specifically the case in this day and age of stars picking their cities and their teammates.

Yes, Oklahoma City is clearly in the mix but they are an anomaly and it remains to be seen whether the Thunder ever win a title and keep the bulk of their club together or whether they go the way of the Cavaliers, Magic and Pacers who all reached the Finals in the past dozen or so years, but came up short.

OKC is in the mix to be sure, but, to use a Hunger Games Trilogy/popular culture reference, they are District 13. There’s something going there, and it’s dangerous to The Six, but whether it’s enough to topple The Six is another story.

You saw it again this weekend when Ray Allen, a title winner with the Celtics in 2008, used his free agency to sign with the current champions down in Miami. Allen said in his statement that he was interested in winning a title, soaking up the sun and golf. It’s hard to compete with that in Cleveland or Denver or Utah or Chicago when the season starts in November and goes through a long winter. Chicago is a major market but there’s no sun and no golf during the season and the eastern seaboard media market as well as that of LA put the Chicago market well back in the pack.

That’s just the way it is. I’m not sure, other than those anomalies like OKC occasionally popping up, that anything is going to change in the next five years. That’s about how long this most recent collective bargaining agreement goes and, despite the lockout and the cries of smaller markets about stars forsaking them to play in NYC or LA or Miami, the current CBA isn’t going to stop it.

Nor was it really intended.

Rather, owners like Dan Gilbert, made sure that they were at least being properly compensated for their franchises basically being a step above NBADL-caliber. Gilbert and other small market owners are making tons of cash. They wanted to make sure that they made as much or more when guys like LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony left the teams that drafted them for bigger cities and brighter lights.

That was always the point of the recent labor strife. It was never about leveling the playing field so that stars were equally dispersed and everyone had a chance to win. It was always about the money and it likely always will be.

From a competitive standpoint all the Cavs have to do to get back amongst the elite NBA teams is be damn near perfect. They can’t be wrong about guys like Dion Waiters and they need their new acquisitions to be immediate contributors, if not stars.  There’s not much time to hope Waiters or Tristan Thompson grow into roles. There aren’t years for Tyler Zeller to develop into a post presence.  Not while the clock is ticking down on Kyrie Irving’s team-controlled status. Soon enough the call of bright lights and big name teammates is going to be calling Kyrie’s name.

And regardless of how we here in Cleveland believe Irving may be different than all the other stars who have come here and gone elsewhere, the bottom line is it will be easier for Irving to follow the siren’s call of The Six if the Cavaliers aren’t winning and aren’t winning big. 

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