The weekend series against the Blue Jays couldn’t have gone worse for the Yankees. After being swept and scoring one run in three games, the Yankees find themselves desperately needing to get back on track in Cleveland before heading to Toronto for another three-game series against their newest rival.
With the Yankees and Indians meeting for the first time this season, Matt Lyons of Let’s Go Tribe joined me to talk about Nick Swisher playing himself off the Indians, the late rise of Corey Kluber and the perception of Terry Francona in Cleveland.
Keefe: After thankfully watching Nick Swisher leave New York following the 2012 season, I couldn’t believe a team was willing to give him a four-year, $56 million deal, but the Indians were that team. But now Swisher is gone and he’s no longer an Indian, as the Braves were stupid enough to trade for him. Even though the Indians have to pay $10 million to cover a portion of Swisher and Michael Bourn’s salary, I think you should be happy to no longer have Swisher on your team.
Swisher finished his time in Cleveland as a .228/.311/.377 hitter and only played one full season (145 games in 2013). I’m sorry your Indians lost the 2013 wild-card game to the Rays, but I happily watched him go for 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in that game to continue his career postseason failures.
Now that Swisher is gone and will play out the final one-plus years of his contract with the Braves, how will you remember his time in Cleveland?
Lyons: It’s difficult for me to hate or blame Swisher personally. He did not ask to be over 30 and have crippling knee injuries. I was not thrilled with the big contract to begin with, but that is more on the Indians front office than Swisher accepting money that was offered to him. On the field he was a total disappointment, no doubt, but it was genuinely refreshing to have a big name free agent come over to Cleveland and be so excited about the city and the team. Even with his lack of production, he still did a lot of good off the field in terms of exciting the fan base. Granted, this is all easier to say now that he’s gone and no longer dragging down the payroll.
However, I will say that the whole “bro” thing got old real fast. At least he toned it down when his production dipped.
Keefe: For the last couple of years, it seems like a lot of preseason predictions favored the Indians to get over the hump and be in position to win the AL Central. After missing out on the second wild card by three games last year, the Indians are in last place in the Central and are 7 1/2 games back for the second wild card.
When you look at the 2015 Indians, while the offense hasn’t been anything special, the entire pitching staff has serious strikeout number and you would think a team with so much power pitching would be in a much better spot than they are in at 51-59.
What has gone wrong for the 2015 Indians?
Lyons: It’s all Sports Illustrated’s fault for picking the Tribe and jinxing it!
No, I think offensively it all comes down to lack of hitting with runners in scoring position and a bunch of players just slumping at the same time. The Tribe as a team has consistently been at the bottom of the league when it comes to hitting with RISP despite being great at nearly everything else. You always expect a player or two to underperform, but almost everyone in the lineup not named Jason Kipnis was bad to start the season.
Pitching wise, don’t forget that this staff struggled early. The fifth spot was a rotating door between Bruce Chen, Shaun Marcum and others, which was a guaranteed loss every week. For a while, it felt like one of the starters, bullpen or offense would blow the game every night. Nothing clicked at the same time.
Injection of young players like Giovanny Urshela and Francisco Lindor have helped the offense a bit and been a tremendous boon for the defense. Although it’s arguably too little too late at this point.
Keefe: Corey Kluber won the Cy Young last season after leading the league in wins (18) and FIP (2.35). This season, Kluber has had similar numbers aside from ERA, which is over a run higher (2.44 to 3.46) and leads the league in innings pitched, but also leads the league in losses with 12.
What changed for Kluber from 2012 to 2013 and from 2013 to 2014 that made him the pitcher he is today, as sort of late bloomer the way Cliff Lee was for the Indians? Do you believe in him as a true ace the way Indians fans believed in Lee or CC Sabathia?
Lyons: Developing a cutter/sinker, for sure. Prior to 2012, Kluber was a typical fastball/slider/changeup guy, but he developed his cutter in the minor leagues, which he now leans on in the majors. Movement in general on his fastballs can be devastating, but when that sinker is working, he is unhittable.
The losses and his ERA are not an indicator of much for him. He consistently has some of the lowest run support in the league, and before Urshela and Lindor were called up, he (and the rest of the staff) was at the mercy of a terrible left side of the infield. I still wake up in panicked cold sweats thinking about this team’s defense in April/May.
He is an ace, absolutely, and not many Indians fans are going to dispute that. It’s no fault of Kluber’s but he hasn’t played on many big playoff run teams so he hasn’t a chance to produce a lot of heroic performances that help the Tribe in the end and grab a lot of national attention. Because of that, I don’t think he’s as well regarded as Lee or CC quite yet.
Even in the 2013 run, the story on the staff was Ubaldo Jiminez, not Kluber. I still see team’s fans asking who this 2014 Cy Young winner is when the Indians go up against them, so I can’t wait until he gets that chance to get more attention.
Keefe: Terry Francona is now in his third season with the Indians after taking the year off in 2012 following the end of his tenure in Boston. Looking back, Red Sox fans aren’t happy with the decision to get rid of Francona after the Bobby Valentine disaster and now second last-place finish in three years under John Farrell.
Francona has led the Indians to a 228-206 (.525) and the calm demeanor he brought to Boston has carried over to Cleveland. Even though his time with the Indian hasn’t translated into consecutive postseason appearances or a championship like it did with the Red Sox, he seems to have the Indians on the right track for the future.
Are you a Francona fan and has his stock remained as high as it was two years ago
Lyons: I’m a mixed bag on Francona. I love some things he does, like bullpen management and the team’s general attitude, but his small ball mentality can make the team unwatchable. It’s just frustrating how often the team bunts. His lineup configurations can be bizarre at times, but I never get too hard on a manager for lineups.
At least from my own observations, I’ve never seen too much “Fire Francona” chatter when the team stumbles, which is interesting. The manager is usually the first piece thrown under the bus, but I get the idea a lot of the Indians fan base believes in him.
Keefe: After reaching the playoffs in 2013 for the first time since 2007 and then coming within three games of going back to the playoffs last year, what were your expectations heading into this season?
Now that we’re in August and things aren’t looking so good for the Indians’ postseason chances, what do you want to see down the stretch and what will your expectations be for 2016?
Lyons: Can I lie and say I saw this collapse coming? No? OK … well I was fully on the hype train coming into 2015. This pitching staff looked nasty from the start, and I thought for sure the lineup would be something special. Surely Jason Kipnis would bounce back after his poor 2014 season (which he did), surely Yan Gomes would keep better (nope), surely Carlos Santana would keep being Carlos Santana (nope), surely Jose Ramirez would keep being a solid defensive shortstop (nope), surely Lonnie Chisenhall would take the next big step (nope). Just a whole bunch of things we all thought would happen did not pan out this year.
As for the rest of the year, I just want to watch young players. It’s already happening with Lindor, Urshela and outfielders Jerry Sands, Tyler Holt and maybe even Tyler Naquin down the line. Watching Lonnie Chisenhall play effectively in right field since being called back up from Triple-A has also been a treat, and I want to keep an eye on how that develops.
2015 has been such a weird year of no one playing like they are “supposed to” and that it makes it hard to predict for 2016. Will any of these players bounce back, or is this what they are? Unless it involves trading one of the big four starting pitchers, I don’t see the front office making any big deals so this is more or less the team we have for 2016. I would be equally surprised to see them go all the way, as I would be to see them as a basement dweller. It’ll be exciting either way.