It is easy to blame the offseason cost-cutting by owner Paul Dolan for the deplorable state of the Indians, and every nugget of criticism is deserved.
Dolan’s moves that have practically slammed shut the window of championship opportunity are mystifying, especially with the clock ticking on All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor’s time in Cleveland.
Last season’s sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series had already dramatically lowered that window, revealing how far the Indians were from the league’s elite.
But even with Dolan’s face in the bull's-eye on angry fans’ dartboards, where the Indians stand is a result of a total organizational failure.
They misjudged the American League Central-leading Minnesota Twins, whose 36-17 record paced the majors going into Tuesday.
They misjudged their own roster, believing that an outstanding rotation could cover the flaws of an anemic lineup.
President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and General Manager Mike Chernoff kept some players too long (Jason Kipnis) and gave up on others too soon (Giovanny Urshela).
They lost or traded too much — Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, Melky Cabrera, Rajai Davis, Yandy Diaz, Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer and Yan Gomes. Admittedly, the latter three would not have moved the needle; Chisenhall is battling calf soreness with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Guyer was released by the Chicago White Sox and Gomes is hitting .239 with two homers for the Washington Nationals.
Even the Tribe’s successful practice of bringing in veterans either injured or at the tail end of their careers failed when Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez flopped.
The reality is harsh.
Ten games behind the Twins in the American League Central going into Tuesday’s action. A team batting average of .222 that ranked 28th out of 30 major league teams. Five regulars hitting .228 or below, including former MVP candidate Jose Ramirez, so lost at the plate that it’s now affecting his defense.
And this isn’t even rock bottom, with eight games in the next two weeks against the Boston Red Sox, Twins and New York Yankees.
The Indians need to boost attendance to increase revenue, yet continue to put an unwatchable lineup on the field. One can only cringe that not only are the Indians wasting Lindor’s final months in town, but they also are giving Terry Francona, one of the best managers in baseball, so little to work with.
With a batting order lacking consistency and too many players not ready for prime time, even trading Trevor Bauer and/or Lindor before the July 31 deadline might not bring enough help.
To the Indians’ credit, they appear to have done a good job evaluating other teams’ farm talent. Oscar Mercado, Jefry Rodriguez, Daniel Johnson and perhaps Jordan Luplow — acquired in trades from the St. Louis Cardinals, Nationals (both Rodriguez and Johnson) and Pirates, respectively — have shown promise. Outfielder Johnson was promoted to Triple-A Columbus after batting .253 with 10 home runs and 33 RBI in 39 games with the Double-A RubberDucks.
The Indians' bullpen has been better than some expected.
But it’s hard to look at the averages of Ramirez (.197 before Tuesday), Jake Bauers (.215), Kipnis (.225), Roberto Perez (.225) and Leonys Martin (.228) and be optimistic about the remaining 109 games and what lies beyond.
It’s hard not to grate one’s teeth over the relatively modest two-year, $32 million free-agent contract Brantley signed with the Astros in December. When healthy, before Lindor and Ramirez burst onto the scene, Brantley was the dependable veteran that made the Indians’ offense go. Brantley would have filled a void, whether in leadership or in the No. 2 spot in the order, held by Mercado for the past two games.
It’s hard to watch the struggles of Bauer, Ramirez and the rest and have much faith in Francona’s coaching staff. Expected to pitch like the ace he insisted he was, Bauer is 0-3 with a 6.52 ERA since Corey Kluber went down with a broken arm. Kluber wasn’t himself before he was hurt. Ramirez has been unable to hit anything but fastballs since August.
Perhaps some of the young players the Indians’ front office put its faith in will come around, but by the time they do it might be too late. The Twins’ .273 team batting average ranked second in the majors on Tuesday morning. They will visit Progressive Field for a three-game series next week looking to put even more distance between themselves and the Indians. Even if the Twins cool off, the race may be over by the time the Indians host the All-Star Game.
Arrogance doesn’t seem like the Indians’ style, but they acted like they believed they had a cushion, confident they could capture what would be their fourth consecutive division title. Then Kluber and Mike Clevinger were lost to injuries, and the woes at the plate wore on.
So blame Dolan — and he belongs in the bull's-eye, getting no pass here — but evaluating division opponents wasn’t his job.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.