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Orbiting Cleveland: An unconventional team

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Is this the end of the road for the Cleveland Indians?

That seems to hardly be a fair question, especially since the team is coming off a 14-3 dominant victory of the Chicago White Sox. However, given some recent developments, some may say it also seems to be a fair conclusion.

Sure, the Tribe may be 78-68 and just 1 ½ games out of the second American League Wild Card spot, but it’s hard to say that their play has been very encouraging as of late. Prior to last night’s win, the Indians had gone 6-4 in their last 10 games, but the offense had also been downright atrocious at times as the team three or less runs in four of those 10 games.

Had the team performed better, the Indians would have certainly gained some ground in the Wild Card race. Yet, despite the struggles, it is now September 13, and the Tribe still sits here in playoff contention. How in the world did we get here? And can we stay here?

That’s not an easy question to answer, though. What makes it so difficult is the fact that the Indians are also suffering through a slew of other problems, including:

  1. Right-hander Justin Masterson has not pitched since September 2 with a strained left oblique. He’s been the Tribe’s workhorse this season as the right-hander has gone 14-10 with a 3.52 while striking out 188 batters in 189 1/3 innings of work. Masterson says he believes that he’ll pitch before the end of the season, but no one is holding their breathe on that one though.
  2. Zach McAllister seemed to be on his way to establishing himself as one of the most consistent middle-of-the-rotation starters in baseball, but since coming of the disabled list, he’s been up-and-down, especially in his last three starts where he’s allowed at least four earned runs in each outing. Some believe that he could still be ailing from the sprained middle finger, and it’s easy to see why.
  3. While Danny Salazar has been electric, the reality is that the phenom right-hander has now pitched a total of 130 innings this season, so it’s hard to believe the Tribe will let him go much longer before they have to shut him down.
  4. The team’s top two free agent signings, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, have both been underwhelming as they’re hitting .241 and .260, respectively. Everyone keeps waiting for them to turn it around, but it’s looking like that time might have to wait for next year.
  5. The Indians unfortunately are plagued by two black holes in their lineup: Asdrubal Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall. Both players have massively underperformed this season and FanGraphs estimates that they’ve been worth -0.2 and 0.7 wins, respectively. That’s not exactly what you calling starting-caliber Major League players.
  6. It could be argued that closer Chris Perez has never been shakier. In fact, in the month of September, Perez has pitched a total of five innings, yet he’s allowed four runs and nine hits. Those type of numbers just are not going to cut it from a closer.

Thus, as you can see, conventional wisdom suggests that the Indians ultimately cannot remain in contention and will have no chance at clinching a Wild Card spot. Except, here’s the beautiful thing about all that — there’s nothing conventional about this team.

The Indians definitely have their woes, but there are also two sides to every coin and two ways to look at every woe. Take a look:

  1. Perhaps it’s best to take Masterson’s word and believe that he will indeed pitch before the season’s end. He played catch for the first time yesterday, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Worst case scenario, he does not pitch again and is healthy for the start of next season. All in all, the Masterson situation does not look too bad.
  2. McAllister’s struggles seem to coincide with the second or third time that he goes through a lineup as the majority of the runs that he’s allowed in his last three starts have come in either the fourth, fifth or sixth innings. Perhaps McAllister could be tiring? Maybe the Indians could look into pairing Josh Tomlin or Carlos Carrasco with McAllister in a piggyback role. With it being September, the Indians have the benefit of having a handful of extra relievers, and this type of role would probably also best suit guys like Tomlin and Carrasco.
  3. Maybe we need to take a step back and relax for a minute. Most did not expect Salazar to pitch as long as he has, so who knows, perhaps he will stay in the rotation until the season ends. At the very least, there’s no use in worrying about it until that point comes.
  4. Swisher and Bourn have been underwhelming, yes, but the team is STILL 78-68 and in the thick of playoff hunt. If that’s not a testament to the unconventional nature of this team, what is? Both players also have been through the September grind and part of playoff teams in the past. The bottom line is that it’s nice to have two players like them on the roster at this time of year.
  5. Cabrera and Chisenhall can’t possibly be this bad for this long, right? Cabrera is at least showing some pop as he now has three home runs in his last six games, so that has to be considered a positive. Also, perhaps Terry Francona will look to supplant Chisenhall a bit more with talented infielder Jose Ramirez. Francona rewarded Ramirez with a start earlier this week, and it definitely seemed to pay dividends. Perhaps that could be the start of a trend moving forward.
  6. Even with his struggles, most of Perez’s numbers seem to be in line with his career averages with the exception of H/9 (8.5 compared to a career average of 7.0) and HR/9 (1.4 compared to a career average of 1.0). Perhaps Perez has just been unlucky and everything will start to even out a bit over these final weeks of the 2013 season.

When you look at it that way, a very different picture is painted. Sure, some things may seem bad, but it’s also important to note that things are never as bad as they seem and that even a shred of a positive can always be found in a negative.

The reality is that the Indians have 16 games left to play — or more eloquently stated, 16 chances left to assert that they belong in the playoffs.

During these final 16 games, each and every one of the storylines noted above will play a role in how the team performs. The hope is that the majority of those storylines have a positive outcome rather than a negative one.

And I think they will.

There are no numbers that I can present that can accurately quantify that opinion. The only thing I can say is that conventional wisdom suggests that the Indians should not even be where they are right now — but they are. That means something.

Following three more games against the White Sox, the Indians then head to Kansas City to face the Royals, who unfortunately beat up on the Tribe a bit earlier this week. Divisional games are never easy, especially on the road, but it’s imperative that this road trip goes well.

The Tribe then closes the season out with series against the Houston Astros, White Sox and Minnesota Twins — the three worst teams in the American League. For a team in the middle of the hunt for a playoff spot, it couldn’t get any better.

Also, one would think that the Indians would be favored in the majority of these contests. It seems as if the perfect recipe for the team as it tries to clinch one of the Wild Card spots.

At worst, the Indians should win all of these series and hopefully even complete a sweep, right?

But that’s the scary part. Nothing has really gone exactly according to plan this season, so why would that suddenly start to change now?

These next 16 games are going to make or break the Indians’ season. For fans watching the games, there will surely be a mixture of emotions, ranging from excitement to anxiousness to anger to sadness — Robert Plutchik’s entire Wheel of Emotions will basically be covered.

Where will the team stand following the final 16 games? Well, only time will answer that. However, one thing is for sure:

To make the playoffs, this unconventional team is going to have to hope for a conventional finish.

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