Baseball is an amazing game. After 161 games, the Indians, Rays and Rangers are separated by just one game in the standings. A long season that started way back in April comes down to a single game for these three teams, with a playoff berth on the line. The “every game is important” mantra was one that Indians fans learned well in 2007, when one more Tribe victory would’ve given the Indians home field advantage in the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. We all know how that turned out. Here we are again six years later, and one game could make the difference between a postseason run and hitting the golf course in the first week of October. The Indians have won 91 games already, not bad for a team that Vegas put the over/under at 76 ½ coming into the 2013 season. They’ve won 23 more games than they did in 2012. They’ve won 20 games in September, including 14 of their past 16. And yet, it could all be for naught if the Indians lose today and Tampa Bay and Texas both win. That would trigger a complicated scenario in which the Indians would host Tampa Bay on Monday, with the loser of that game traveling to Texas, and the winner of those two games making the playoffs as the two AL Wild Card representatives. All of the potential scenarios are laid out here, including who plays where and when regardless of who wins tomorrow. Worst case scenario, the Indians have two cracks at a tiebreaker game, both of which would be played at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. But the whole thing will be academic if the Indians take care of business in Minneapolis tomorrow afternoon. So really, it’s simple; win tomorrow, host the AL Wild Card game. Win that, and it’s on to Boston. It’s both exciting and stressful, and twitter follower @themadlibs used the very appropriate term awesome/awful to describe the adrenaline rush associated with watching the Indians down the stretch. Living and dying with every pitch is a great feeling, one that hasn’t been associated with Indians baseball since that fateful Game Seven in Fenway Park back in 2007. My stomach has been churning and sleep has been hard to come by the past few nights, but I’ll gladly take this over another September spent playing out the string in a series of meaningless games while other teams plan for the playoffs.
Naturally, not everything is all sunshine and roses. Unless you’re new to Indians fandom, you are aware that Chris Perez has not been without some struggles in both his personal and professional life this season. He was actually having a decent season heading into September (massive breakdowns against the Red Sox and Tigers notwithstanding), but the wheels have really come off the cart in the last month. In 10 appearances here in the final month of the regular season, Perez has thrown 9 1/3 innings, allowing 10 ER on 18 hits, striking out 13 and walking 5. Amazingly, the Indians are 9-1 in those 10 appearances, and Perez does have four saves. Opposing batters are hitting (hide the women and children) .419/.490/.814 (1.304 OPS!), and over half of the balls put in play off of Pure Rage have turned into base hits. Yikes. The only good thing that’s come out of Perez this month was that his blown save against the White Sox set the stage for one of my favorite walk-off HR’s that I’ve seen as an Indians fan, called here perfectly by Tom Hamilton. And if you don’t think that I bought this “Mardi Gras in September” t-shirt that the good folks at Homage.com came out with immediately after the game…well, we just don’t know each other that well.
So after giving up 6 earned runs over his final two appearances of the regular season, blowing one save and nearly losing a 5-run lead in the other contest, Tito Francona announced on Friday that Perez is no longer his closer. That of course begs the question as to who exactly will fill that role for the rest of the regular season and (hopefully) beyond. The most obvious candidate is righty Joe Smith, who has been the Indians primary set up man with Vinnie Pestano’s struggles in 2013. Smith has a 6-2 record with a 2.32 ERA, striking out 53 and walking 23 in 62 innings of work this season. Unlike Perez, Smith has improved as the season has progressed. Since August 1, Smith has thrown 23 2/3 innings, allowing just 2 ER (0.76 ERA) with 23 K and 8 BB. Opposing hitters have posted just a .590 OPS against Smith in that timeframe, and he’s given up just 1 HR. Perez has allowed three HR in his past two outings, more than Smith has given up in the past two months.
Any other season, Smith would be the easy choice for closer. But this year, there’s a wild card option that Francona has to be considering; his ace, Justin Masterson. Masterson went down with an oblique injury on September 2, and didn’t pitch again until a one-inning appearance on September 25. In that inning, Masterson struck out a pair while allowing a hit, and looked very similar to pre-injury Masterson. He hasn’t been stretched out over more than one inning of work in a game situation yet, and might not be ready to start a playoff game. If not, it would be an incredible luxury to be able to go to your best pitcher in the 9th inning of a one-run game. Not your Closer ©, but your actual best pitcher. Now, being that Masterson is the Indians best pitcher, he’s obviously much more valuable if he can start multiple games in a 5 or 7-game series. If Masty is ready to start, he should start. With Ubaldo starting today’s season finale, Masterson should be the Wild Card starter if the Indians are able to clinch today. But if Tito and Mickey Callaway feel like he’s not ready to start and pitch up to his normal workload, then he’d be awfully nasty out of the bullpen. For his part, Masterson has stated that his plan is to go back to the starting rotation if the Indians make the playoffs, but that’s something that will be determined more by his body than by his mind. When asked who would close, Tito Francona mentioned Smith, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Masterson as possibilities, so he’s clearly keeping his options open heading down the final stretch of the 2013 regular season.
In what was a low-key move at the time, the Indians acquired lefty relief specialist Mark Rzep…ok, I’m just going to call him Scrabble…for minor leaguer Juan Herrera. It was the Indians only move at the trade deadline this year, and GM Chris Antonetti was widely panned for not “going for it” when the Indians seemingly had a shot at winning the division. Conventional wisdom at the time held that the Indians needed at least one more starting pitcher to have any shot at the playoffs, and many lamented Antonetti’s failure to offer enough for starter Matt Garza, who will be a free agent following the 2013 season. Well, maybe Antonetti knew what he was doing after all, as the Indians starting pitching has been outstanding in the 2nd half of the season, and Scrabble has been the consistent lefthanded arm the Indians bullpen so sorely needed. Since coming over from the Cardinals, Scrabble has allowed just 2 ER in 19 2/3 IP, striking out 19 and walking just 6. He has faced 41 lefthanded batters since coming over from the NL, and just 6 of those 40 have reached base. All told, lefties are hitting just .143/.231/.229 off of Scrabble, and righties haven’t been much better (.222/.323/.370). It was an under the radar move, but it’s paying big dividends down the stretch for Antonetti and the Indians. Rich Hill has been inconsistent at best, and the slightly surprising reliability of Scrabble has been a calming influence on what has been a restless bullpen this year.
Speaking of under the radar trades, I feel the need to remind everyone that Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes were acquired this offseason in exchange for Esmil Rodgers. Rodgers was a useful bullpen arm for the Indians in 2012, going 3-1 with a 3.06 ERA with 53 K in 53 IP after coming over from Colorado in exchange for cash. Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos decided that Rodgers could start, and agreed to send the Indians Aviles and Gomes in exchange for the righthander. Rodgers went 5-9 with a 4.77 ERA in 137 2/3 innings for Toronto striking out 96 and putting up an 86 ERA+. Baseball Reference credits him with 0.4 WAR. Meanwhile, Gomes has put up a 135 OPS+ and has contributed 3.9 WAR, and Aviles has been a valuable utility player with 0.6 WAR of his own. I don’t find WAR to be a perfect stat and tend not to rely on it, but it can be helpful when trying to compare position players to pitchers. Going by WAR alone, the Indians are 4.1 wins in the black when it comes to the Gomes/Aviles trade for this year alone. And I’d actually submit that Gomes has been worth more than 3.9 wins, especially when you consider the defensive gap between Gomes and Santana behind the dish. It was an outstanding trade, and we wouldn’t be sitting here on the last day of the season talking about playoff possibilities if Chris Antonetti hadn’t pulled it off this past November.
In what is becoming a nice recurring theme, Baseball Prospectus included some scouting notes on Indians 2013 1st round draft pick Clint Frazier. This time it was Nick Faleris writing about the Flying Ginger, listing Frazier as his most memorable scouting experience this spring:
I had more fun following Frazier June 2012 through June 2013 than any other draft prospect I can recall. Frazier doesn’t make the game look easy, as so many highly touted prospects do, but rather appears to attack the game and, through sheer will, impose himself upon it. In each of my looks in on him, Frazier stood out as a potential future impact major leaguer in all facets, showing plus speed in the field and on the bases, elite bat speed and big raw power, and steady improvement in center as a new convert to the outfield.
The highlight of my scouting year was a high school game between Frazier’s Loganville High and fellow first-rounder Austin Meadows’ Grayson High. During batting practice, Frazier launched more than 20 home runs, while roughly 70 pro evaluators watched on, and that was just the opening act. In his second at-bat of the game, Frazier took a first-pitch fastball and drove it over the left field wall, past a road running parallel to the fence, and into a tree line some twenty feet beyond the pavement. It was such an impressive shot even Grayson second baseman Jeril Dawson gave Frazier a big grin and handshake as he rounded the keystone (video here). Later that evening the future fifth-overall selection homered again, for good measure.
So…yeah. If you didn’t click on the link for Frazier’s monster HR, please do so. He hit the ball so far that the opposing 2B felt the need to shake Frazier’s hand on his way around the bases, something I’d never seen before. Here’s an alternate view of the titanic blast, and here’s a look at the 2nd HR he hit that night. I’m getting irrationally excited about the Clint Frazier era, and it is still (at least) several years away from the North Coast.
So this is it…less than ten hours from the time this column appears on the interwebs, we’ll know whether or not the 2013 Indians are a playoff team or if they’ll have to earn their way in with a 163rd (or even 164th) game. The disastrous August series with the Tigers feels like it happened a year ago, and the seeds of hope that were planted with the Indians unusually active offseason are finally ready to bear fruit. Ubaldo Jimenez, the pitcher we all want on the bump, has the ball today (can you imagine someone seriously writing that sentence back in April or May?) Meanwhile, I’m sure the national media are surely already racking their brains for a fun name to attach to another potential Cleveland heartbreak if the Indians fall short. Here’s hoping Tito and the boys take care of things on the field today and we all get to hang out on the North Coast for playoff baseball later this week.