Orbiting Cleveland: Putting things into perspective

Sometimes perspective is everything.

Perspective is what many Cleveland Indians fans are now searching for after Wednesday.

Some seem to have the perspective that the Indians’ run to the postseason could be considered a flop. Maybe there is some truth to that.

After all, the Tribe was shutout 4-0 by the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Wild Card Game, and some of the numbers are just staggering:

  • The team left nine men on base.
  • They went just 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
  • Their top three batters in the lineup (Michael BournNick Swisher and Jason Kipnis) combined to go 0-for-12.
  • The Tribe actually outhit the Rays 9-8, but could not muster any runs.

Clearly, by all accounts, this was a bad game for the Indians.

Yet, here I am to offer a different perspective, and from my perspective, it appears as if the best is yet to come.

Of course, statements like that seem somewhat trivial, especially following a playoff loss, but this is also a statement filled with accuracy.

The accomplishments and steps made in the first season with Terry Francona at the helm should not and cannotbe discounted. The team made incredible strides this year, including:

  • The Indians finished 92-70 to claim home-field advantage in the American League Wild Card Playoffs.
  • The 92 wins represent a 24-game improvement from the 2012 season where the Tribe finished 68-94.
  • Five starting pitchers (Justin MastersonUbaldo JimenezCorey KluberScott Kazmir and Zach McAllister) all won at least nine games for the Indians.
  • The Indians finished tied for fifth in the MLB in runs with 745.
  • The team’s ERA of 3.82 was 15th in the MLB, but it was at its best in the second half of the season as it was 3.13, which was the fourth best mark in the MLB and second best in the AL.

The pundits may look at the numbers above and say, “Okay, yes that a looks great, but where did it ultimately get you? All it led to was a loss in the American League Wild Card Game.”

Anyone who makes such a claim would be partially correct. Yes, the immediate result of the season was a loss to the Rays on Wednesday.

However, this past season could also have a huge effect on what the future begins to look like for the Indians.

In many ways, the 2013 season was much like the 2005 season. In 2005, the Indians finished 93-69 and just two games out of the American League Wild Card.

That 2005 team was led by a strong contingent of young players who were beginning to come into their prime. For example, that was the first full season for Grady Sizemore and he flourished as he hit .289/.348/.484 with 22 home runs and 81 RBI. Travis Hafner was also an emerging slugger, and he was dominant at the plate as he hit .305/.408/.595 with 33 home runs and 108 RBI.

The team also had a trio of young controllable starting pitchers in C.C. SabathiaCliff Lee and Jake Westbrook, who all made strides during the year. Not one of the three starters was above 27 years of age, and it appeared as if they would play a huge role in leading the Indians to future division titles in the years to come.

Given the talent on that 2005 squad, it seemed reasonable to conclude that the core was in place for the Indians to enter into a 5-year window or so where they would be competing for the divisional crown year in and year out.

Yet, we unfortunately know that that core of players only made it to the postseason once, which came in 2007 when the Indians finished 96-66 and came within a game of winning the World Series.

Similarly, it now appears as if the Cleveland Indians are about to enter into another window of contention. The pieces are in place for the Tribe to remain competitive through at least the 2016 season.

In fact, the following key players are under team control through at least 2016:

That window of contention could really be extended through 2017 as many players on the above list will also still be under team control through that season, including:

  • Jason Kipnis
  • Carlos Santana
  • Yan Gomes
  • Nick Swisher (Vesting option for ’17)
  • Michael Bourn (Vesting option for ’17)
  • Bryan Shaw
  • Cody Allen
  • Corey Kluber
  • Zach McAllister
  • Danny Salazar
  • Jose Ramriez
  • Lonnie Chisenhall

Knowing this, it’s impossible not to be enthused about the future potential of this team. So many of the players that were to key to this year’s 24-game improvement will continue to be in the fold in the years to come.

Also, there are other reasons for further optimism. Two-time All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera will be entering the last year of his contract heading into the 2014 season. While there are mixed opinions as to whether this is a good thing or bad thing, one thing that is for certain is that shortstop is a key position for the Indians.

Thankfully, Cabrera’s status could eventually become a moot point due to the presence of Indians’ top prospectFrancisco Lindor. By all accounts, Lindor has the potential to be a game-changing Major League shortstop, and he could even find himself in Cleveland at some point next season.

Of course, prospects are just that — prospects — and there’s always a chance that he does not quite pan out. Yet, even if that is the case, does anyone expect him to not at least post a WAR that’s better than the 0.6 and 1.2 that Cabrera posted this year according to FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, respectively?

Yes, things are really starting to look up for this Indians club, which brings us back to Wednesday night. The loss was a tough one to swallow, but its value cannot be denied.

This is a team that has aspirations of consistently playing in the postseason, and Wednesday was the first taste of postseason baseball for many of these players. The stage certainly will not feel nearly as big the next time this team is able to advance that far.

Also, many of the key components of a consistent winning baseball team are already in place. For starters, the team has young, bright offensive baseball players in Santana, Kipnis, Gomes and Brantley. They also have seemingly found their ace to build around for years to come in Danny Salazar.

The key now is making a few moves to ensure that consistent winning does become a reality. One of the first steps that needs to be taken is working out some sort of extension with Brantley, and it does appear as if he should come at a fairly reasonable price.

Additionally, the Tribe will be in much better shape moving forward if they’re somehow able to resign two out of three in Scott Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson. They’re in good shape already because they have Salazar, Kluber and McAllister under team control for years to come, but teams can never have enough pitching. We saw firsthand this season how important it is to have a multitude of arms to turn to.

Indeed, it does appear as if this team and its situation mirrors the 2005 team more and more. The 2005 team had many of the right ingredients in place and seemed poised for years of contention.

Unfortunately, we know how that story ended, and it does prove that things don’t always happen just because theyshould happen.

However, there is one glaring difference between the 2005 squad and this team — Terry Francona.

The teams that followed the 2005 season probably did underachieve quite a bit, but they also had Eric Wedge as their manager. Wedge certainly had his moments, but there’s no way that anyone can make a case that he inspires and motivates like Francona.

The reality is that Wedge is probably not even half the manager that Francona is. Just think about what Francona was able to accomplish with this group of players in less than a year.

Knowing that, what do you think he can accomplish in two years? Three years? Four years?

There are always so many debates about what’s most important for a team to have consistent winning. Some may claim it’s a slugging hitter while others may point to an ace. The truth of it is that it’s neither — it’s the manager.

And that’s the best thing about the Indians right now. This team already has the most important thing that it needs to be a consistent winner in Terry Francona.

He’s been to the top of the mountain before, and he’s determined and energized to have the Indians enjoy the same success he had while managing the Boston Red Sox.

So now think back to Wednesday’s loss. Ignore the bad statistics. Ignore the shutout. Ignore the lack of production from the top of the lineup.

Instead, think of the red sea of screaming fans waving their white towels.

Think of a fanbase that may finally be starting to regain faith in an organization.

Think of 10-straight wins, and a team that needed every single one of them to get in the playoffs.

Think of a core of young players that will remain a part of the Indians for years to come.

But most importantly, think of how you felt exactly one year ago after the Indians had finished 68-94.

Yep, sometimes perspective is everything, and I dunno about you, but from my perspective, things are looking good.

Notes From the Wigwam: Tribe clinches Wild Card spot

When the Cleveland Indians brought Terry Francona on as manager last October, it seemed to signal a new approach by the organization. The bold hiring indicated that the team believed it could win right now despite what others might think.

That notion came full circle on Sunday after the Indians defeated the Minnesota Twins 5-1 to win the American League’s top Wild Card spot.

Overall, the Indians finished 92-70, and all attention now shifts to Wednesday’s Wild Card contest where the Indians will face the winner of tonight’s play-in game between Tampa Bay and Texas.

It’s astonishing to think of how far this team has come. We all know that the schedule did look favorable down the stretch, but the bottom line is that teams still have to play the games. Also, the Indians closed the season on a 10-week win streak, and that was crucial as the team ultimately needed all of those 10 wins.

The Indians are now in the postseason for the first time since 2007 when they came within just a game of reaching the World Series. It’s just incredible to think of the turnaround from last season when the team finished 68-94.

So, what lies ahead?

Well, that question will be answered Wednesday when Danny Salazar takes the mound for the Tribe.

Until then though, let’s revisit the week that ultimately proved to be the most important of the season for the Indians…

Weekly Results

September 24 vs. Chicago White Sox, W 5-4 (WP: Shaw, LP: Reed)

September 25 vs. Chicago White Sox, W 7-2 (WP: Salazar, LP: Axelrod)

September 26 at Minnesota, W 6-5 (WP: Shaw, LP: Albers)

September 27 at Minnesota, W 12-6 (WP: Kluber, LP: Hernandez)

September 28 at Minnesota, W 5-1 (WP: Kazmir, LP: De Vries)

September 29 at Minnesota, W 5-1 (WP: Jimenez, LP: Diamond)

Player of the Week

Ubaldo Jimenez — Starting Pitcher

2 GS, 1-0, 13 IP, 3 R/ER, 4 BB, 20 K

The progression of Ubaldo Jimenez has just been astonishing. Ask yourself this: Would the Cleveland Indians be in the playoffs without Jimenez? Even the most prideful individuals would probably have no choice but to concede that Jimenez has been one of the most important players to the Indians this year. His turnaround is nothing short of amazing as the big right-hander finished the season with a 13-9 record and a 3.30 ERA while striking out 194 batters and walking 80. His strikeout rate of 9.6 K/9 is the highest of his career while the walk rate of 3.9 BB/9 is the lowest he’s posted since 2011. On Sunday, Jimenez had one of the best starts of his Indians career as he struck out 13 batters across 6 2/3 innings of work to lead the Indians to a win and clinch a home playoff game. On last night’s episode of Cleveland Sports Insiders, the IBI’s Jim Pete said it best when he said, “Today’s game is why they traded for Ubaldo Jimenez.” There’s a lot of accuracy to Pete’s words. While the trade has been scrutinized over the years, the bottom line is that Jimenez pitched like an ace when the Indians needed him most. He was outstanding down the stretch, and he was brilliant in a game that the Indians desperately needed if they were going to be able to clinch a playoff spot. Many will still point to the Indians’ trade for Jimenez in July of 2011 and label it a failure, but the reality is that that trade begins to look better and better each day. Now, let’s just say Jimenez goes out and pitches another gem or two in the postseason? Then how good does this trade start to look? Perspective is everything, and it’s nice how Indians fans have been able to receive some of that more than two years after the initial trade.

A Rough Week

NO ONE

How could any Indians player possibly be singled out for having a bad performance this past week? Let’s consider some of the facts. The Indians went 6-0 this past week. Those six wins followed four straight from the previous week, so the team has now won 10 straight games. Overall, the Indians went 21-6 in the month of September. Knowing that, it’s hard to say that really any individual had a bad month, let alone week. The greatest thing about the Indians this season is that the team played its best baseball when they needed to. There may have been some players that went through their ups-and-downs, but there was always another player that was there to pick the other player up. A great example of this is the resurgence that we saw from Jimenez. When Justin Masterson went out with an injury at the beginning of September, there seemed to be a lot of Indians fans worried about how the season may progress, especially if the team would be without its most consistent starter in the final month. However, Jimenez answered the call and put together one of the most impressive September performances (4-0, 1.09 ERA in six starts) that any of us have seen for quite some time. That’s kind of been the theme for the Indians during the entire season. Someone was always willing and able to step up when needed. That also plays into the idea that this team is the ultimate “team,” and that should help the Indians as they seek to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Standout Stat

7

With their 5-1 win over the Minnesota Twins Sunday, the Indians completed their seventh four-game sweep of the season.

News & Notes

— Danny Salazar has been picked to start Wednesday’s Wild Card playoff game against the winner of tonight’s play-in game between the Rangers and the Rays. Salazar seems to be an excellent choice as the right-hander has been very impressive this season as he owns a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts. His strikeout stuff has also been electric as he’s recorded 65 strikeouts in just 52 innings of work. Outside of Jimenez, it certainly does appear as if Salazar is the best candidate to start this game, and everyone should expect nothing less than a stellar performance. One of the other things to note is that Salazar has not pitched against either Tampa Bay or Texas this season. That could bode well for the Indians as Salazar is definitely a pitcher that teams probably would benefit from seeing in a previous outing. Salazar’s free, clean delivery is just so devastating that he seems to always have the ability to eat hitters alive. Also, there should be no concern about him making this start as a rookie. Salazar has proven time and time again that he’s not overwhelmed by his surroundings, and that will likely be true on Wednesday as well. Just take a moment to think about all the positives that surround Salazar as he makes this start. For one, both teams have never seen him before, so they’ll have no inside knowledge on how they should approach him. Secondly, Salazar has the highest strikeout rate among the team’s starters. Remember, a team cannot win unless they put the ball in play, and Salazar does an excellent job at limiting balls in play. From his debut, we have all said that Salazar is an ace in the making. However, if he goes out and dominates on Wednesday, we may have to think about removing “in the making” from his description.

— Michael Brantley continued his surge during this past week as he recorded three hits in both games against the White Sox and the first game against Minnesota. For the season, Brantley finished the year with a line of .284/.332/.396 with 26 doubles, three triples, 10 home runs, 17 stolen bases and 73 RBI. All in all, it was a fine year for Dr. Smooth as this was arguably the best season of his still young career. In the month of September, Brantley was at his absolute best as he hit .345. There is no way to accurately explain just how important Brantley is to this team as his numbers cannot depict his value. However, Brantley seems to be somewhat of a poor man’s Grady Sizemore. He does not possess Sizemore’s natural power, speed or fielding ability, but Brantley is still solid in all of those areas. Also, perhaps best of all, Brantley seems to just have this clutch gene where he can come up with clutch base hit after base hit. If the Indians are to legitimately make noise this postseason, they will need Brantley to come up big, and I believe that he will. Remember, the Indians needed all of their past 10 wins to outright qualify for the playoffs, and this was when Brantley was at his best. In other words, the left-handed hitting outfielder has already come up big for the Tribe.

— Former closer Chris Perez finally broke his silence on Sunday. The right-hander had not spoken to reporters since late June following his misdemeanor drug charge. However, he clearly was overcome by a variety of emotions after the Indians clinched their playoff spot as he seemed to have a change of heart. Perez candidly spoke about his struggles and linked his recent poor play to mechanics. Regardless of what you think of Perez, this was a good sign for him to finally open up and let the media in. The reality is that many of his teammates have had to cover for Perez this season when he struggles as they’ll be asked to speak to the media after Perez declines. While no one has said it publicly, it’s hard to believe that teammates do not at least get a tad annoyed with this. With the playoffs ahead, it’s best for all players to be on the same page, and this is a move that seems to help push the team in that direction. While Perez may no longer be the closer, he could still very well be added to the playoff roster where he’ll be expected to perform well again. Now if he goes out and struggles in the playoffs, would you really want to have to have his teammates answer for him? Say what you will do about Perez, but it was nice to see him act in an unselfish manner and finally let this barrier down on Sunday.

— So, here we are. The Indians finished 92-70 and are the hottest team in baseball. How did we get here? Well, aside from the signing of Francona as manager, we knew things were different once the Indians signed Nick Swisher in December, and then we knew things were REALLY different after the Tribe inked Michael Bourn back in February. People can say what they want about the acquisitions and how they have or have not panned out at this point, but the Indians are definitely a much better team with these two players in the fold. One of the things that the IBI’s Jim Pete pointed out on last night’s radio show is the fact that the first two runs in yesterday’s game were scored by Bourn and Swisher. It seems kind of fitting, right? The excitement of this Indians season started with Swisher and Bourn, and the regular season also fittingly ended with them. The playoffs are now ahead, and I think we can all agree that this type of accomplishment could have never been possible had the team not gone out and lured free agents here like Swisher and Bourn. The two obviously came here because they believed that this team could have a chance to win. Now it’s time for Swisher, Bourn and everyone else to do what they can to prove that notion right.

Quick Hits

— While attendance may be down, the Indians’ ticket revenue increased by 20 percent this past season. Perhaps that does signal that the team could be open to using some of the extra cash to lure some more free agents here this offseason.

— Since September 4 when Justin Masterson smuggled a live chicken onto Progressive Field, the Indians have a 19-5 record. Superstitious anyone?

Orbiting Cleveland: A 2007 vs. 2013 comparison part 2

Comparisons, especially when it comes to professional sports, are inevitable.

That’s true for a team like the 2013 Cleveland Indians.

The Tribe currently boasts an 89-70 record, and the team is on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since 2007 when they came within a game of reaching the World Series. That 2007 team finished 96-66, but the season is still widely regarded by fans as the year that got away — with a 3-1 lead in the American League Championship Series, everyone seemed to think it would finally be Cleveland’s year.

Comparing the teams is a difficult practice, and it also may be unfair. After all, both teams are different and Major League Baseball itself was also quite different just six years ago.

However, the reality is that playoff appearances have been far and few between as of late in Cleveland. Since the start of the 2002 season, the Indians have qualified for the postseason just one time, and that trip came in 2007. Also, the Tribe really has never even come close since then… until now.

There are three games left in the regular season, and they will all be played on the road against the Minnesota Twins. If the Indians win two of the three, the team will qualify for a one-game tiebreaker at the very least.

Indeed, these are special times for the Wahoo Warriors, and it’s easy to see why.

Opinions on how far the Indians will actually go if they qualify for the postseason seem to be somewhat mixed. While the team has performed admirably in their first year under manager Terry Francona, there is no denying that the 2007 team appears to be the more talented team of the two.

That 2007 team featured a handful of multiple American League All-Stars, many of whom have since gone on to continue their storied careers with other teams.

Now go ahead and take a look at the roster of the current team. Is there even any one player who remotely resembles a star? There are certainly a handful of quality players who serve their roles well, but it does seem fair to conclude that this is a team void of stars.

Except maybe this team doesn’t need stars.

Yes, it is true there is no Grady Sizemore on this team. There is no player who has numbers that resemble the .277/.390/.462 line with 24 home runs that Sizemore put up in 2007. There is no player who combines the skills of power, speed and Gold Glove defense that the majestic Sizemore seemed to routinely do when healthy. There is no player that can say he’s made three All-Star Games, won two Gold Gloves and one Silver Slugger.

But there is Michael Brantley.

If Sizemore was the engine that made the Indians teams of the past go, then Brantley is definitely the starter on this year’s Indians squad.

Comparing Brantley to Sizemore may seem like a bit of a stretch as Brantley does not possess the pure innate ability that Sizemore seemed to display on a daily basis.

He does not hit for much power, he does not steal enough bases and he’s been relegated to left field despite the fact that he’s a center fielder by trade.

Yet, take a moment to watch him play. He simply has IT.

In many ways, Brantley is kind of a poor man’s Sizemore. While he’s never approached 30 stolen bases as Sizemore seemed to do regularly, Brantley has nabbed a career-high 17 this season. He also may never have the gaudy power numbers of Sizemore, but he has seen his power numbers rise to a career-high of 10.

But there’s also one area where Brantley seems to excel even more than the talented Sizemore.

In 2007, Sizemore hit .265 in September down the stretch and .318 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

In comparison, Brantley has hit an incredible .394 in September and .364 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Most players are worn down come September, but Brantley has saved the best for last.

Ask yourself who you would rather see up in a clutch moment of a big game? The answer is definitively Brantley, whose intrinsic value just cannot be explained.

Of course, that 2007 team was also blessed with Victor Martinez, who hit .301/.374/.505 with 25 home runs and 114 RBI. The 2007 Indians were fortunate as it’s rare for a team to have a power-hitting catcher with that type of offensive production.

The 2013 team has two.

Individually, Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes may not possess the offensive prowess of Martinez. But together, the two make for a deathly combination.

Gomes currently has a .295/.350/.491 line with 11 home runs and 36 RBI in 85 games. Santana has also been impressive and boasts a .267/.376/.446 line with 19 home runs and 70 RBI in 151 games.

Gomes has also been incredible defensively as the right-handed hitting catcher has thrown out 42 percent of base stealers this season. In 2007, Martinez threw out 32 percent.

The other legit criticism is that this team does not have the potent one-two punch of 19-game winners like the 2007 team had in C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona.

That duo was electric that season as Sabathia finished 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA to win the American League Cy YoungAward while Carmona finished fourth in voting after going 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA.

Yes, this is true — the 2013 Indians have no combination of legit front-of-the-rotation aces like the 2007 team could boast.

But here’s what they do have.

They have a rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez, a pitcher who’s been down on his luck more times than a person can count, yet he never stopped fighting and pushing through.

Since the All-Star Break, Jimenez has a 1.86 ERA, and he has looked every bit like the ace the Indians envisioned when they acquired him back in July of 2011.

In the second half, his numbers are better than Max Scherzer. Better than Anibal Sanchez. Better than Yu Darvish. Better than Zach Greinke.

They have a resilient Justin Masterson, who has the ability to just dominate any lineup on any given day and has posted a 3.50 ERA in 190 1/3 innings of work. He’s worked his way back from a strained oblique, and it looks as if he will be a factor come playoff time. The one-two punch of Jimenez and Masterson may not be Sabathia-Carmona, but it’s damn close.

They have a rising star in Corey Kluber, who has always had excellent stuff, but just never seemed to be able to command it. He has done just that this season though and boasts a 10-5 record and 3.61 ERA. What’s even better is that Kluber looks to be the real deal as his peripherals suggest that his numbers should actually be better than they are right now.

They have a revitalized Scott Kazmir, who seems to have come out of nowhere to reestablish himself as a legit, power-throwing left-hander. Just over a year ago, Kazmir was 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA in 14 starts with the Sugar Land Skeeters. Today, the left-hander owns a 4.14 ERA in 28 starts and 152 innings with the Indians. How does one even go about trying to explain that other than conceding that this team is indeed special?

The 2007 team did get a nice boost though in August when they promoted shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to assume the everyday second base duties. Cabrera did not disappoint as he posted a .283/.354/.421 line in 45 games down the stretch to help the Indians secure the Central title.

Cabrera was very much a spark on that team, and played an integral role in the Tribe’s success. This year’s team has had no rookie come up to the Majors and immediately leave such a strong offensive impression.

They’ve got something better.

Instead, an impression has been made in the pitching facet of the game.

Plain and simple, Danny Salazar is well on his way to becoming an ace in the Major Leagues. The young right-hander has gone 2-3 with a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts with the Indians. He’s displayed astonishing strikeout stuff as he’s recorded 65 strikeouts in only 52 innings of work.

There was some concern from fans when the Indians did not make a big move at this year’s trade deadline, but why would they need to? Salazar has joined the big league rotation and has had a much greater impact than any player the team could have acquired at the deadline.

Speaking of the trade deadline, back in 2007, the Indians enjoyed a blast from the past when they acquired outfielder Kenny Lofton.

Always a fan favorite, the 40-year-old Lofton seemed to be the perfect veteran to join the club and help keep everything even-keel over the final months of the season.

Yet, this year’s team seems to have found their Lofton in 42-year-old slugger Jason Giambi. Francona continues to praise the impact Gimabi has had in the clubhouse at every chance he gets.

Also, if there was any doubt of Giambi’s impact on the field, that question was put to rest on Tuesday after his bat rescued the Tribe from the ashes when he hit a two-out, two-run home run to lead the team to a 5-4 walkoff win over the Chicago White Sox.

In fact, this year’s team even has its own, rollercoaster of a ride closer in Chris Perez just as the 2007 team had inJoe Borowski.

That season, the soft-tossing Borowski was up-and-down as he posted a 5.07 ERA and led the league 45 saves, but also led the league with eight blown saves. Similarly, Perez currently has a 4.33 ERA and has blown five saves on the year.

It appears as if much of the good aspects of the 2007 team are present on the 2013 squad. Unfortunately, the same can be said for some of the bad aspects.

So, with that being said, take a step back and look at your current Cleveland Indians. What do you see?

I see a team that stacks up much more favorably to the 2007 team than we might initially think.

I see a team with a handful of young hurlers, who are only going to get better as they progress in their careers.

I see a team that is playing its best baseball when it matters most (18-6 record in September) just like the 2007 team did (19-9 record in September).

I see a team with a manager with a proven track record of being able to compete and win in October.

But most importantly, I see a team that has not even begun to scratch the surface of just how good it can be.

Notes From the Wigwam: Indians control their own destiny

We’ve officially reached the stretch run.

With just six games left to play in the 2013 MLB season, the Cleveland Indians’ record sits at 86-70, and the team is in possession of one of the two Wild Card spots.

Texas is close behind as the Rangers trail the Indians by just 1 ½ games.

The Tribe will face the Chicago White Sox twice this week before they head to Minnesota to face the Twins in a crucial four-game series that will close out the season. While it may be a cliché, the reality is that the Indians do in fact control their own destiny. As long as the team takes care of business this week, they will be in the postseason.

Of course, the Indians’ current strong position has a lot to do with this past week, which was a week that saw the Indians go 5-2 and gain significant ground in the Wild Card race.

With that being said, let’s take one look back at the week that was as the Indians prepare to begin the most important stretch of their entire season…

Weekly Results

September 16 at Kansas City, L 7-1 (WP: Shields, LP: Kazmir)

September 17 at Kansas City, W 5-3 (WP: Allen, LP: Davis)

September 18 at Kansas City, L 7-2 (WP: Chen, LP: Salazar)

September 19 vs. Houston, W 2-1 (WP: Shaw, LP: Cruz)

September 20 vs. Houston, W 2-1 (WP: McAllister, LP: Oberholtzer)

September 21 vs. Houston, W 4-1 (WP: Kazmir, LP: Clemens)

September 22 vs. Houston, W 9-2 (WP: Kluber, LP: Bedard)

Player of the Week

Michael Brantley — Left fielder

7 G, 11-for-26, 3 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 1 BB, 3 K

Very few Indians are more consistent than Dr. Smooth, and he proved that even further this past week. The left-handed hitting Brantley is currently in the midst of seven-game hit streak, which started this past Monday against Kansas City. Brantley can certainly endure his fair share of ups-and-downs at the plate, but at the end of the day, the reality is that there are very few offensive players on the Indians that match his level of consistency. Brantley had one of his best performances of the year on Sunday against the Astros. In that contest, he collected three hits and also managed to drive in a pair of runs. Brantley is not thought to be much of a run producer, but here we are at the end of September, and he now has 68 total RBI, which is not bad for a player that really does not possess much power. If the Indians do indeed manage to hold on to their playoff spot this week, you can probably bet that Brantley will play a big part in that. Also, if the team does make the playoffs, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Brantley could be one of the catalysts that will ultimately determine how far the team goes. He’s certainly taken on that role all season long, and that was definitely evident this past week.

A Rough Week

Jason Kipnis — Second baseman

7 G, 5-for-27, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 9 K

While Brantley has been the model of consistency for the Indians, that unfortunately has not been the case for Kipnis. Kipnis’ second-half slump continued during this past week as the left-handed hitting infielder collected just two hits in 27 at-bats. Overall, Kipnis is hitting just .243 in the second half after he hit .301 in the first half of the season. Kipnis’ struggles have been magnified in September as he owns a .239 average for the month. There are a few theories that can be applied to Kipnis’ struggles. Perhaps he is just tiring, which would make sense, especially when you consider the grind that is a full Major League season. The other theory is that Kipnis and his numbers may just be evening out as it was probably unrealistic to expect him to hit .300 for a full Major League season. Regardless, it is imperative that Kipnis begins to turn things around at the plate. He is arguably the most complete offensive player on the entire roster, and the team is definitely going to need him if they’re to have any chance of making some noise in the playoffs. Whatever is going on with Kipnis, the bottom line is that he is going to have to get things figured out sooner rather than later.

Standout Stat

6

With their win over the Houston Astros Sunday, the Indians completed their sixth four-game sweep of the season. According to STATS, the Indians are the first team since the 1961 New York Yankees to sweep six four-game series in a single season.

News & Notes

— Ubaldo Jimenez had his latest impressive outing this past week as the right-hander allowed just one run across seven innings to lead the Indians to a 2-1 win over the Houston Astros. Jimenez also continued to show off his impressive strikeout stuff as he recorded nine punchouts in the contest. The numbers just continue to get better and better for Jimenez, who now has a 1.77 ERA in 11 starts since the All-Star Break. The Indians have Jimenez lined up to start Tuesday’s contest against the Chicago White Sox, and he’s also in line to start Sunday’s regular season finale against Minnesota Twins. By all accounts, this is a tremendous move as there’s really no one that the Indians would probably rather have out there in a key situation than Jimenez. Additionally, this allows the team some flexibility down the stretch. If the Tribe is fortunate enough to already clinch a postseason spot before Sunday’s game against the Twins, then they can simply decide to hold off on starting Jimenez until that playoff game. Regardless of what does happen, it’s clear that Jimenez is going to play a crucial role in what the Indians ultimately accomplish in the coming days and weeks. In fact, he’s already played a crucial role in the team getting this far.

— Right-hander Corey Kluber made two starts this past week, but it does appear as if he’s just not yet himself since returning from the disabled list. Kluber, who missed time with a sprained middle finger, just has not provided the length that we had become accustomed to before he got hurt, and he also seems to be allowing a greater number of runs. This past week, Kluber pitched a total of 10 innings and allowed five earned runs. So far, since returning from the disabled list, Kluber has a 4.05 ERA in four starts and a total of 15 strikeouts in 20 innings of work. The numbers are certainly not bad by any means, but they’re not in line with the type of performances Kluber was routinely having before he got hurt. Right-hander Zach McAllister seems to be going through a similar type of thing as he has a 4.34 ERA in 12 starts since he came off the disabled list. With this team now on the verge of a playoff appearance, it’s imperative that at least one of these two players go out and regain the consistency that they displayed prior to coming down with the sprained middle finger injury. If the Indians are fortunate to make it past the Wild Card playoff game, there will be plenty of questions as to what kind of rotation the team will put out there for the American League Divisional Series. We obviously know that Jimenez would be a lock, and now there even seems as if there’s a chance that Danny Salazar could be in the rotation. However, beyond that, one has to wonder who the Tribe will pick out of the bunch of Kluber, McAllister and Scott Kazmir? A month and a half ago, the answer to that question would have definitely been Kluber, but it’s not a sure thing anymore.

— There seemed to be some angst from the Indians’ fanbase during this past year’s trade deadline as many believed the team did not make a strong move to significantly improve the club. However, that may not necessarily be true as left-hander Marc Rzepczynski has definitely helped stabilize the bullpen and become the left-handed option that this team so desperately missed. Rzepczynski logged four more scoreless appearances this past week and he now sports a 1.04 ERA in 22 games and 17 1/3 innings of work with the Indians. The nice thing about Rzepczynski is that he is a player that is as much a part of the present as he is a part of the future. He is not eligible for free agency until 2016, so he can serve as the team’s primary left-handed specialist for the foreseeable future. The importance of that role can also not be understated as many fans may remember how valuable Rafael Perezwas to this team during its last playoff run in 2007. In fact, the Indians have really struggled with finding a player to replace Perez since his injury struggles that began in 2012, but it now appears as if they have found their guy in Rzepczynski. The other nice thing to note about Rzepczynski is that he does have major playoff experience as he played a key role in the St. Louis Cardinals 2011 World Series win. When you consider all of these factors, it’s clear that the move for Rzepczynski may have been one of the more underrated moves made by any team at July’s trade deadline.

— Scott Kazmir had his latest dazzling start for the Indians this past week as the left-hander struck out 10 batters across seven shutout innings to lead the Indians to a 4-1 win over the Astros. This was especially nice to see as the outing follows two up-and-down performances by Kazmir in which he allowed four runs in each contest. Kazmir has been a bit of an enigma this season as he has not pitched a full Major League season since 2010, yet here he now sits with a 4.14 ERA after 28 starts and 152 innings of work. Kazmir’s strikeout stuff has been especially impressive this year as the left-hander is striking out 8.9 batters per nine innings. However, perhaps even more impressive is how his control has dramatically improved. Kazmir is walking just 2.7 batters per nine innings, which is a career high and noticeably lower than any walk rate that Kazmir has posted at any other point of his career. The one knock with Kazmir seems to be that for every great start, he has a couple mediocre to average ones. He seems to be either really good or just really average. When he is good though, he does pitch like a top-flight left-handed starter, so the team is definitely fortunate that they’ve had him in the fold this season. It will be interesting to see what happens after this season, but a case can definitely be made that the Indians should do what they can to keep Kazmir a part of the starting rotation moving forward.

Quick Hits

— Justin Masterson is expected to return from the disabled list in a bullpen capacity. It’s expected that the big right-hander could be available as early as tomorrow when the Indians begin a two-game series against the White Sox.

— With his innings total at 46 2/3, Danny Salazar is quickly approaching the 50-inning mark, which would mean he would lose his designation as a rookie for next season.

Orbiting Cleveland: A 2007 vs. 2013 comparison

This is it. The final leg of the 2013 MLB season is upon us.

With just nine games left to play, the postseason is now a real, attainable goal for the Cleveland Indians. In fact, at this point, anything less would almost be a failure.

With their 5-3 come-from-behind win Tuesday against the Kansas City Royals, the Indians became something that they had not been for six years — winners.

The win clinched a winning season for the Indians, which was a feat the team had not accomplished since its 2007 run to the American League Championship Series. Everyone remembers how that season ended for the Indians, but the beauty of it is that new opportunities always arise, and the Tribe is currently staring at its best opportunity in years.

Will this year turn out differently than 2007? Will the team even have a chance at making it that far?

Certainly, these are fair questions when looking at the 2013 version of the Cleveland Indians. At first, it might seem borderline asinine to even think about comparing this year’s team to the great one of 2007, but it’s interesting to see how the teams actually stack up with one another. They’re actually a lot closer than one might think.

When you think about the 2007 team, starting pitching is probably the first thing that comes to mind. That was that team’s calling card that year, and it’s easy to see why.

Left-hander C.C. Sabathia won the Cy Young Award that year for the Indians after the big hurler went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA in 241 innings of work. Of course, Sabathia was hardly the only Indians starter to impress as teammate Fausto Carmona went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA in 215 innings of work. For his efforts, Carmona, who would later be identified as Roberto Hernandez, finished fourth in Cy Young voting.

With the potent one-two punch, it’s no wonder that the Indians were able to make it so far into the playoffs, but Sabathia and Carmona were hardly alone. Veteran journeyman Paul Byrd (15-8, 4.59 ERA) along with Jake Westbrook (6-9, 4.32 ERA) also had a crucial roles on the team.

As a whole, the Indians led the American League with a starters’ ERA of 4.19. The team’s overall ERA was also impressive at 4.05, which ranked third in the AL.

When your starters and entire staff are near the top of the league in ERA, a team is always going to be able to make some noise, which is exactly what happened for the Indians. For Tribe fans, that team was an absolute joy to watch, but the interesting thing is how well this year’s team seems to stack up to the previous version:

So, as hard as it may be to believe, this year’s team pitching staff is actually performing better than the applauded pitching staff of 2007.

Nonetheless, there are still a number of things to consider. The steroid era was still winding down back in 2007 when the Indians were last in the playoffs, and pitching staffs are now performing better as a whole across the entire Major Leagues.

The Indians’ overall ERA and starters’ ERA ranked fifth and second, respectively, in all of the Majors in 2007. In other words, this was the definition of an elite pitching staff. However, the 2013 team’s current marks rank just 17th and 16th, respectively.

To further put it into perspective, Houston currently ranks last in the Majors with an overall ERA of 4.82 while Minnesota is last in starters’ ERA with a 5.16.

In comparison, Tampa Bay finished last in 2007 with an overall ERA of 5.53 while Florida was last in starters’ ERA with a 5.58. Clearly, the game has changed dramatically in the short six-year period since the Indians last qualified for the postseason.

The point is not to be pessimistic, though. While the Indians do not have the one-two punch of Sabathia and Carmona as they did in 2007, this 2013 team has a nice contingent of high-upside arms in Justin Masterson,Ubaldo JimenezCorey KluberZach McAllisterScott Kazmir and Danny Salazar.

None of these pitchers carry the ace distinction that Sabathia had in 2007, but it’s also hard to argue with their results. Overall, the Indians currently have an overall ERA of just 4.05, but the team’s ERA in the second half is 3.28, which is the second-best mark in the AL, and the fourth-best mark in the Majors. This team is starting a bear a resemblance to that 2007 squad after all, right?

Critics will point to one of the key differences between the two teams being the fact that the 2007 team had a legit ace in Sabathia and arguably two when you consider Carmona’s breakout.

That’s a fair point, but consider this. In 15 second-half starts in 2007, Sabathia went 7-4 with a 2.76 ERA while striking out 90 and walking just 19. Yes, those are indeed the statistics of a front-of-the-rotation ace.

However, this year’s team seems to have found their ace as well. In 11 starts since the All-Star Break, Ubaldo Jimenez has gone 5-5 with a 1.77 ERA while striking out 80 and walking just 23. Yep, those numbers also can be described as ace-like.

There is always the fear that Jimenez’s performance is just smoke and mirrors and that it won’t last, but he seems to prove more and more naysayers wrong with every start. He may not be C.C. Sabathia circa-2007, but he’s pretty darn close.

Offensively, comparisons can also be drawn to the 2007 version. The 2007 team was led by offensive stars Grady SizemoreVictor Martinez and Travis Hafner, and all three of those players hit at least 24 home runs while Martinez and Hafner each recorded 100 or more RBI.

The Indians will likely not have three players hit even 20 home runs this season, and no player is going to drive in 100 runs. However, the key thing to remember is how different the game is from six years earlier.

In terms of runs scored, this current team ranks in a similar position to the 2007 one. Take a look:

The 2007 team finished eighth in the MLB in total runs with 811 while the 2013 team’s total of 688 currently ranks seventh. While the current team’s run total is significantly lower than it was in 2007, the bottom line is that this team is keeping pace with the rest of the league at the same rate as it did in 2007.

Of course, there are still other concerns. As noted previously, there were a handful of offensive catalysts in 2007.

Jason Kipnis has arguably been the best offensive player in 2013, but he’s been dreadful in the second half as he’s hit just .238 since the All-Star Break.

To be honest, the offense is probably where the 2013 team most differs from the 2007 one. While their season run totals do suggest that both teams are top-10 offensive clubs, the reality is that this team lacks the star power that was evident in 2007.

While it can be argued that neither Martinez, Hafner nor Sizemore were ever legitimate MLB superstars, their 2007 seasons sure would look nice on this club right now. Many players like Kipnis, Carlos SantanaYan Gomes and Michael Brantley are having fine offensive seasons, but they’re also not exactly players that a team would look to lean on come playoff time.

Much has been said in the media this year about how this Indians team is the ultimate team and how anyone can step up at any time. That very well may true, but the difference in the 2007 was that it was a known fact that a player like Sizemore or Martinez will step up.

Finally, outside of the offense or pitching, the most important number that indicates the superiority of the 2007 club is simple — 96.

The Indians went 96-66 that year to win the American League Central Division. This year’s team is having a very good season, but they’ll more than likely end the year with 86 to 90 wins.

Also, if the Indians indeed qualify for the postseason, they probably will not be favored to go far as many experts might even pick them to lose the one-game Wild Card playoff.

However, many experts picked the 2007 Indians ton win the World Series, but we all know how that ended. As we all know, experts are not always right.

The nice thing is that the Indians now have a legitimate chance to make the postseason, and that’s really all a team can ask for on September 20. Also, as it’s been proven in the past, getting in is often all it takes as we’ve seen many teams get hot and shock everyone to win the World Series.

Could that happen this year?

If that’s the case, it would be interesting to revisit this 2007 vs. 2013 discussion once again. While the 2007 squad may look sharper now, I think we all know the final verdict should this year’s team go on and make some major postseason noise.

Notes From the Wigwam: Tribes moves to a half-game back

When the Indians made the moves this past offseason to sign outfielders Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, the message was clear: this team wants to compete… and now.

Almost a whole season later, it’s clear that that goal has been accomplished as the Indians sit here on September 16 with a record of 81-68. They’re also just a half game out of claiming one of the two American League Wild Card spots.

This week, the Indians will look to continue to gain ground as they’ll face the pesky Kansas City Royals before heading back home for a four-game set against the Houston Astros. The Indians really could not ask for a better way to end the season, so it’s imperative that they go out there and win the games that they’re supposed to.

Before getting too ahead of ourselves though, let’s take a moment to look back at the week that was — a week that could prove pivotal to the team’s chances of ultimately clinching a playoff spot.

Weekly Results

September 9 vs. Kansas City, W 4-3 (WP: Jimenez, LP: Santana)

September 10 vs. Kansas City, L 6-3 (WP: Guthrie, LP: McAllister)

September 11 vs. Kansas City, L 6-2 (WP: Shields, LP: Kazmir)

September 12 at Chicago, W 14-3 (WP: Kluber, LP: Danks)

September 13 at Chicago, W 3-1 (WP: Shaw, LP: Santiago)

September 14 at Chicago, W 8-1 (WP: Jimenez, LP: Rienzo)

September 15 at Chicago, W 7-1 (WP: McAllister, LP: Sale)

Player of the Week

Ubaldo Jimenez — Starting Pitcher

2 GS, 2-0, 15.1 IP, 2 R/1 ER, 15 H, 1 BB, 18 K

Ubaldo Jimenez has finally become the ace that the Indians envisioned when they traded for him in the summer of 2011. Can you believe that you just read that? While it may be hard to believe, it’s true as Jimenez has been outstanding this year and now has gone 12-9 with a 3.49 ERA in 29 starts and 162 2/3 innings of work. During that same span, Jimenez has also struck out 165 batters. The big right-hander had arguably some of his best starts yet as an Indian this past week as he was dominant in both outings that he started, and he also provided great length as he pitched at least seven innings in both games. Really, the one lingering knock on Jimenez was that he did not provide any length in his starts. While he had been effective earlier in the season, his night would often end after five innings, which took its toll on the bullpen. However, that has changed more recently as Jimenez has been able to consistently post quality starts in the second half of the season. The question that keeps coming up is who should the Indians start if they do manage to make it to the one-game Wild Card playoffs? For the longest time, the answer to that question seemed to be Justin Masterson but with his strained oblique, the most reasonable answer now seems to be Jimenez. That’s just crazy to even think about considering Jimenez was arguably the worst pitcher in all of baseball during his previous season and a half in Cleveland. Now, the only question that remains is will the Indians be able to retain the services of Jimenez this offseason? He certainly could prove to be a pricey investment, but he also could be well worth it.

A Rough Week

Jason Kubel — Outfielder

3 G, 0-for-8, 1 BB, 4 K

Since Kubel really only played in three games, this is hardly all that terrible of a performance, but the reality is that not too many Indians had poor performances during this past week. Kubel is not the huge difference maker that the Indians had probably hoped to receive, but he is at least another bat with a decent track record of success. Kubel is a sure-lock to be a part of the Indians’ postseason roster if the team does indeed qualify for the playoffs, but how will he be utilized? So far, Kubel has just played in eight games with the Indians, which really is not all that much, especially since he was a regular starter with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Indians seem content to utilize him as more of a pinch-hitter/utility outfielder, which is a role that Kubel will have to adapt to. Let’s hope he gets some opportunities in that role down the stretch as he could end up being a nice weapon off the bench for the Tribe come October.

Standout Stat

1.83

Ubaldo Jimenez’s ERA in 10 starts since the All-Star Break. All of Jimenez’s numbers are up during that span as well as he’s also struck out 71 batters in those 10 starts and walked just 23.

News & Notes

— Ryan Raburn may not just be the Indians’ best offseason signing, but he may be one of the best offseason signings in all of baseball. He certainly is one of the most valuable in terms of money spent. The Tribe signed him to a minor league deal for $1 million, and he’s rewarded them with a season where he’s hit .286/.379/.600 in 76 games. Raburn was especially valuable this past week as the right-handed hitting outfielder drove in a total of seven runs, including five in Thursday’s game against the White Sox. One of the biggest problems for the Indians this season is the fact that they do not have a legitimate cleanup batter, but it might be worthwhile for the team to explore using Raburn more in this role. There is always the concern that he would be overexposed as we also know that he did not succeed as an everyday player in Detroit, but the reality is that the team needs to desperately find some power, and Raburn can provide it. Earlier this year, the team resigned Raburn to a two-year deal with a possible option for a third season, so it’s clear that he’ll be in the fold for quite some time. Who knows, perhaps a change of scenery is all that Raburn needed, and perhaps he could succeed in a more everyday-type role. At the very least, this is definitely something for the Indians to look into.

— Carlos Santana has really heated up as of late as he currently is in the middle of a 10-game hit streak, and he also drove in four runs this past week. On the year, Santana owns a .270/.379/.449 average, which is plenty good, especially from the catcher position. Nonetheless, Santana is somewhat of a much-maligned player, simply because fans are always hoping for more from the switch-hitter. In his first full season in 2011, Santana hit 27 home runs, which may have led to unrealistic expectations for him. While he’s always been a productive player, Santana did not come close to hitting that number of home runs last season, and he likely won’t this year either. Nonetheless, Santana is still an especially valuable player as he is always willing to take a lot of pitches, and he seems to also always be among the walk leaders in the league. He may not be the devastating power hitter that fans for hoped for, but he is still a very valuable player that any team would be happy to have. Santana currently has 85 walks on the year, which is actually second in the American League. Any way you slice it, there’s value in a player like that even if he doesn’t hit 25-plus home runs a year.

— Jose Ramirez got his first real chance to make an impression this past week, and the undersized, switch-hitting infielder did not disappoint. Ramirez started Monday against Kansas City, and he proceeded to go 2-for-3 with a run scored. Yes, there were some flaws as well as he recorded an error in the contest on an errant throw to first base, and he was also picked off at one point. However, it was clearly evident that he has a nice broad range of skills that definitely can translate to the Major League level. The question just now becomes this: How do the Indians utilize Ramirez moving forward? At this point, it seems as if they’re content to utilize him primarily as a pinch runner, but given his skills, it appears as if a case could be made for Ramirez getting more playing time in the future. He seems to be somewhat of an infield version of Michael Brantley. While he will never hit for much power, he has such a soft stroke at the plate, and he’s capable of racking up base hits. His speed is also an asset as opposing pitchers and defenses have to be aware of him because he could take off at any moment. To be perfectly honest, Ramirez may actually one day profile as an everyday player. It might take some time for him to earn such a role, but he has the defensive skills and patience that teams desire from starting players. It will be interesting to watch how Ramirez finishes in these final two weeks of the Major League season. At the very least, Ramirez probably even further makes Asdrubal Cabrera expendable because he could certainly fill the utility role next year if Mike Avilestakes over as the everyday shortstop.

— Speaking of Asdrubal Cabrera, it appears as if the switch-hitting shortstop may finally be finding his stroke. In the past week alone, Cabrera hit four home runs to bring his season total to 14. His overall line still leaves a lot to be desired at .235/.292/.400, but it at least seems as if Cabrera is playing his best baseball of the season when it matters most. Of course, a one-week tear is not a large enough sample size to ensure that Cabrera has reemerged as a star offensive player, but perhaps it is a sign that he could be on his way. Another thing to consider is that Cabrera very well could still be traded this offseason, and his recent surge may also help reestablish his trade value. All in all, there are really nothing but positives to say about what Cabrera is doing at the plate right now. Not only is his performance helping to play an integral role in the Tribe’s winning ways, but it’s also helping to make Cabrera more valuable as a possible trade bait. He may still be downright atrocious in terms of plate discipline as he’s walked just 31 times this season but struck out 107 times. However, those plate discipline woes are becoming more and more passable because of his improved power and production at the plate. Now let’s just hope that this production can carry over into the playoffs if the Tribe is fortunate enough to grab a spot.

Quick Hits

— Scott Kazmir will face off against James Shields tonight in the opener of a three-game series against the Royals. It’s the second time in as many weeks that the two pitchers are facing off. Shields guided the Royals to a win in last week’s matchup, 6-2.

— Thirteen is often an unlucky number, but let’s hope it’s a lucky one for the Indians. The team has a total of 13 games left this season: three against the Royals, four against the Astros, two against the White Sox and four against the Minnesota Twins. If the Indians can win at least eight or nine of those games, then the team will probably have a very good chance at qualifying for the postseason.

Orbiting Cleveland: An unconventional team

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.