At 47-47, the Cleveland Indians open up the unofficial second half of the 2014 MLB season without a clear-cut established direction.
Will the Tribe make a postseason push – much like the one they made at the end of the 2013 campaign – or is the club destined to find itself on the outside looking in at October baseball?
A great deal of the team’s path will be dictated by four key questions in Cleveland’s second half of baseball:
Will Nick Swisher’s season long slump continue?
In the midst of his worst offensive season as a professional (.208/.288/.348), Nick Swisher has not been the middle-of-the-order force the Indians envisioned. Somehow, the Tribe offense has positioned itself as the fifth-best team in the American League in terms of runs scored – largely thanks to career-years by Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall.
However, Cleveland’s offense has been inconsistent in 2014 and currently sits in the middle of the pack in terms of slugging percentage (.397).
Swisher holds a great deal of the key to unlocking the Tribe’s full offensive potential – and if the month of July is any indication, the best is yet to come. Over Swisher’s last 12 games, he is hitting .289 with an .830 OPS over 45 at bats. During that time, he has hit three homers and drove in 11 runs.
However, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is still an alarming 8-to-1 in that stretch.
Can the Indians rely on Justin Masterson?
No one envisioned Justin Masterson sitting on the disabled list at the All-Star break, sporting an ERA of over 5.50 – yet, that is the case for the Tribe’s Opening Day starter.
This is certainly not how Masterson wanted to play out his final season before approaching free-agency. Now, instead of preparing to lead the pitching staff to another postseason berth, the big righty is attempting to get healthy (right knee inflammation) and prove he can get big league hitters out consistently.
With Corey Kluber emerging as the team’s go-to starter in 2014, Cleveland desperately needs Masterson to regain his command – and ultimately dominate again.
But will it happen? What will the final word on Masterson’s 2014 campaign be?
For the Indians to make a run at October ball, that word will need to be a pleasant one.
Will the defense improve?
76 errors in 94 games leads Major League Baseball in a category no club would prefer to top: defensive errors.
Bad, bad defense sums up the way Cleveland flashed the leather – or didn’t in the first half. 76 errors give the Tribe a seven error lead on Texas in the American League, and a five error lead on Arizona in all of baseball.
Both the Rangers and Diamondbacks are preparing to sell at the MLB trade deadline.
Asdrubal Cabrera (14), Nick Swisher (nine) and Yan Gomes (11) have been the biggest error contributors, though Gomes has more than made up for his early miscues with his play behind the plate.
If Cleveland continues to suffer self-inflicted defensive wounds, in the style the Tribe must win games, a division title or wild card berth are virtually impossible for the Indians to achieve.
Buyers or Sellers?
With less than three weeks until baseball’s July 31 trade deadline, the Indians – like every other club in baseball – are attempting to assess themselves.
Is Cleveland truly a contender? Is it worth going all-in? Does one move put them over the top?
At 47-47, it is difficult to honestly answer those questions with any sort of certainty. By the end of an 11-game road trip to Detroit, Minnesota and Kansas City, the Indians should have a pretty good idea.
GM Chris Antonetti, who spoke with the media last week, said the club must improve on a higher-standard through any trade. They will also look to target players the organization controls beyond 2014, should an opportunity to buy presents itself.
Rumors of David Price are beyond a long shot. However, the team desperately could use another staring pitcher and offensive run-producer.
As far as selling, the Tribe only holds a handful of candidates – thus it is fair to consider a “fire sale” off the table for the Indians. The biggest trade possibility remains Asdrubal Cabrera – a free agent at the end of 2014 whom the Tribe risks losing for nothing.
At this point, unless something drastically changes the team’s outlook, smart money goes on the club banking on a handful of players performing closer to their track records in the second half.
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