Friday, August 15, 2008

Cleveland Indians Get Kicked En Route to 66

After showing some life with a three game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays north of the border and taking the first two games of a four game series with the Baltimore Orioles back home at Progressive Field, the Cleveland Indians returned to their losing ways dropping the last two games to the Orioles, 6-1 and 11-6.

I will spare you the gory description as you probably know the sequence of events by now. A solid but not brilliant effort from the starting pitcher, failure to come through with offense when given a chance to break the game open and a total meltdown by The Son of the Bullpen From Hell. All in all, par for the course for the Wig-Wamers. If you are a masochist and want the brutal details, check out Bleacher Report’s David Wiley’s recap here.

But the bigger story is that the loss Thursday night dropped the Indians to 54-66, a .450 winning percentage. Why is that a huge story? Last year the Indians went 96-66 (.593) en route to the AL Central Division Title. They have already matched last year’s total of losses and still have a whopping 42 games to play. That is a quarter of the season left to play out.

To expect to win 96 games again might not have been a realistic goal for the 2008 Tribe but being a contender in the AL Central was not. Heck, just being a good or above .500 baseball team should not have been an unreasonable thought. But it all seemed to derail before the season even started.

It started in the off-season when Indians GM Mark Shapiro sat on his hands and decided not to address some of the team’s obvious offensive shortcomings. It continued in Spring Training when injuries to closer Joe Borowski and DH Travis Hafner (and perhaps C/1B Victor Martinez) were kept under wraps and the players were allowed to play instead of being placed on the DL.

Those injuries were then accentuated by Martinez’ injury on opening day, for the second year running, and the revelation that he has had been playing through a nagging injury for over a year. The starting pitching kept the team in the hunt early on but a hip injury to Fausto Carmona and season-ending Tommy John Surgery for Jake Westbrook placed both on the DL and derailed the any hope of the Indians contending.

To top it all off the young players who flourished in 2007 came back down to earth, and even lower, in 2008. 2007 catalyst 2B Asdrubal Cabrera earned himself a trip back to AAA Buffalo by hitting under .200 for the first half of the season. OF Franklin Gutierrez and 1B/DH Ryan Garko look lost at the plate on a nightly basis. Relief pitches Jensen Lewis and Tom Mastny fell off the wagon and were hit more often than a piƱata.

The bullpen itself completely imploded starting with Borowski’s injury and subsequent release. This put the spotlight on Rafael Betancourt who responded with a 6.02 ERA in 2008 after a 1.47 ERA in 2007. Rafael Perez has been the only bright spot in the bullpen but even he is prone to starting a fire now and again. Japanese import Masa Kobayashi has already pitched more innings through three-quarters of the season than he did regularly in Japan and is burnt out.

In the end only CC Sabathia, Casey Blake and Paul Byrd remain in the play-off chase in 2008. Unfortunately for the Tribe faithful, it is with the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox, respectively, as all three were traded to help replenish the farm system. A farm system that may have a few pieces for the 2009 Indians, but not many.

So the last quarter of the season is left us to watch auditions for 2009, Cliff Lee’s pursuit of a Cy Young Award and 20 victories, Grady Sizemore’s brilliance night in and night out, and for signs that 2007 was no fluke and that 2008 is not as bad as it seems.

But we are left shaking our heads at this wasted 2008 Indians season. Not because the Indians fell but how they did so, so hard and so fast and without warning. There is no way to ignore that the Indians have serious issues like Mark Shapiro did after 2007. The fact that the Tribe has been kicked to Route 66 on August 14 should be reminder enough of that.

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