The Indians, reigning American League champions, sure didn’t play like World Series finalists in the first half of the season, hovering around .500 for the majority of the time before the All-Star break. They looked as though they were hung over from their 2016 success.
Ups-and-downs come with inconsistent play, and there were plenty of those prior to the break.
Manager Terry Francona needed surgery and missed the last week. Shortstop Francisco Lindor endured an extended slump. Cleveland sent five players to the All-Star Game, and one of them — third baseman Jose Ramirez — emerged as one of the AL’s best players.
The Indians, who added premier slugger Edwin Encarnacion in the offseason, certainly didn’t dominant the competition, as many had predicted. But thanks to a whole lot of talent and a weak pack of Central Division opponents, the Tribe’s performance was good enough to enter the All-Star break 47-40 and in first place with a 2ﾽ-game lead over Minnesota.
The Indians will begin their push toward the postseason tonight against the A’s.
But before we turn our complete attention to the remaining 75 games, we take a look back at an eventful first half, reviewing the biggest moments, the best and worst players and more:
Oh, no, Tito!
Health concerns resurfaced for manager Terry Francona, who was forced from two games and missed a handful of others, including the All-Star Game, just prior to the break before undergoing surgery for an irregular heart beat. It was a minor procedure, but Francona is a huge presence within the organization and his absence was felt.
Jose, Jose, Jose, Jose
A star has been born this year in third baseman Jose Ramirez, who followed up a surprising breakout 2016 season with a top-shelf first half that earned him the Indians’ first fan-elected All-Star nod since Juan Gonzalez in 2002. The energetic infielder was among the AL’s first-half leaders in multiple offensive categories.
Cleveland’s big-name, big-money (3 years, $60 million) free-agent acquisition Edwin Encarnacion had fans wanting Mike Napoli back with a slow start to his debut season in Cleveland. But the Indians’ clean-up hitter found his power stroke and looked more like himself over the last two months of the opening half.
- The Indians sent five players to the All-Star Game — Ramirez, shortstop Francisco Lindor, left fielder Michael Brantley, starting pitcher Corey Kluber and reliever Andrew Miller — the most representatives for Cleveland since 2004.
- With their own version of the “Big Three” — Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw — at the forefront, the Indians’ bullpen posted a major league-low 2.84 ERA in the first half. Allen and Shaw, and even Miller to a lesser extent, took their lumps but remain a stingy back-end conglomerate.
- Kluber started slowly before missing a month with a lower-back injury. Since returning from the disabled list, he’s been the same old dominating pitcher, putting himself in contention for his second Cy Young award.
- The Indians have seen the emergence of highly touted prospect Bradley Zimmer, who has provided a spark with his athleticism in the field and at the plate. It’s a good thing, too, since former top outfield prospect Clint Frazier is doing big things with the Yankees.
- The Indians have handled the best team in the American League and World Series favorite, Houston, which leads the West Division by a whopping 16½ games. Cleveland has won five of six games against the Astros.
- The Indians were one of the majors’ best teams at home last year. Through the first half of 2017, they’ve been one of the worst, posting a 21-24 record at Progressive Field. On the bright side, Cleveland has been one of the best on the road, going 26-16.
- Outside of Kluber and ace II Carlos Carrasco, the rotation, which was expected to serve as a strength, has been a major weakness. Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin have been inconsistent and subpar overall, but the continued decline of Danny Salazar, who was an All-Star last year, has hurt the most. On a positive note, young right-hander Mike Clevinger hit the break riding a string of five effective outings.
- Not that it really matters outside of losses in the standings, but the Indians have posted the worst record in the majors in interleague play at 3-11, with two of those losses coming to the lowly San Diego Padres at Progressive Field. Again, not reading too much into it, but the Indians do have to play an NL opponent should they be fortunate enough to advance to the World Series.
- Lindor made the All-Star team for the second straight season but he is in the midst of the first extended slump of his young career, entering the break batting .252 after hitting .301 in his first full season in the big leagues last year. How Lindor responds at the plate in the second half could make a big difference.
- Indians catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez were still top defenders, but the duo provided little offensively, batting .206 with six home runs and 36 RBIs. Gomes has been unable to find his 2014 Silver Slugger form, while Perez has not displayed the power he did during Cleveland’s postseason run last year.
Top three position players
- Third baseman Jose Ramirez: If he keeps this up, he just might replace Lindor as the most popular player on the team. He probably already has supplanted the face of the franchise as the best one. Who saw this coming? The guy looked like a utility player at best at the start of his career.
- Right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall: The first-round draft pick has always shown flashes, but he maintained it throughout an All-Star worthy first half that saw him bat over .300 and lead the team in RBIs. Unfortunately for him and the Indians, the converted third baseman will begin the second half on the disabled list with a calf injury.
- Left fielder Michael Brantley: Following an agonizingly long bout with a right shoulder injury, Brantley returned to form and to the All-Star Game with a Comeback Player of the Year-worthy first half that was a welcome sight for everyone in the organization.
Bottom three position players
- Second baseman Jason Kipnis: He’s always been a streaky hitter, but Kipnis was never able to catch fire for an extended stretch prior to the break. He started the season on the disabled list with an injured shoulder, which could have played a part. He’ll begin the second half on the injured list as well after suffering a right hamstring strain.
- Catcher Yan Gomes: Though he’s shown spurts of his old self offensively, it hasn’t been nearly enough, dropping to ninth in the batting order. He seemed to come up all the time in key situations during the first half and he rarely came through.
- First baseman Carlos Santana: He hasn’t been terrible, but the Indians were expecting more from Santana, who spent some time in the cleanup spot in place of a struggling Encarnacion before being moved out of the middle of the order.
Top three pitchers
- Right-hander Corey Kluber: Despite missing a month, the Indians’ ace ranks fifth in the AL in strikeouts and looked as healthy as ever heading into the break. An inconsistent rotation has needed everything its No. 1 starter has to give.
- Right-hander Carlos Carrasco: Probably deserved an All-Star nod after putting up ace-like numbers in the first half and filling Kluber’s role when the Indians needed him most. He missed all of last year’s postseason run and appears dead set on playing a factor this time around.
- Left-hander Andrew Miller: Indians saw more of the same stuff from Miller as they did after acquiring him at the trade deadline last year. He earned his second straight All-Star nod, and he’s not even technically a closer. What he is, though, is arguably the best relief pitcher in the game, and the Indians have him for at least one more year.
Bottom three pitchers
- Right-hander Josh Tomlin: The soft-tossing right-hander has been hit hard and often during a first half that saw him post more poor outings than good ones. He showed he had the heart last year, performing well in the postseason, but hasn’t shown the ability enough thus far.
- Right-hander Dan Otero: He bounced back and rescued his career with an impressive 2016 season but hasn’t been the same this year. Of all of the returning members from last year’s bullpen, he’s been the worst.
- Right-hander Trevor Bauer: The perplexing pitcher has had the chance to take a big step in the progression of his career, but the former first-round draft pick has been the same old average and inconsistent starter he’s been since he was acquired.
Consistency counts: A 14-game winning streak in mid-June ignited the Indians last year, but they weren’t able to come close to that in the first half, with their largest win streak standing at six games. Cleveland doesn’t need a double-digit streak to achieve its postseason goals, but the Indians could sure use more consistent play down the stretch.
Pitching wins championships: If the Indians make a move at the July 31 trade deadline, it is expected to come in the starting pitching department, where Salazar doesn’t look like an option in the postseason and Clevinger is too unproven. It would hurt to lose a mega-prospect such as Double-A Akron catcher Francisco Mejia, but if that’s what it takes to add a frontline piece to the rotation, that’s what has to happen.
Central-ly speaking: Minnesota was a surprise story for much of the first half, and the 2015 World Series champion Royals got hot prior to the break, but there isn’t a whole lot of competition in the division. Even if Kansas City pulled off something drastic at the trade deadline, it likely wouldn’t be enough to challenge the Indians, who are better than every team in the Central in every area.