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5 reasons to be optimistic about Indians

May 27, 2016

The premise for a small-budget baseball team with questionable offseason upgrades is that everything -- especially the big stuff -- has to go right.But for the Cleveland Indians, some of the big stuff has gone absolutely, positively wrong. And yet, here they are, half a game out of first place

The premise for a small-budget baseball team with questionable offseason upgrades is that everything -- especially the big stuff -- has to go right.
But for the Cleveland Indians, some of the big stuff has gone absolutely, positively wrong. And yet, here they are, half a game out of first place in the American League Central entering Memorial Day weekend.
This was supposed to be a season that hinged on Michael Brantley, coming off November surgery to his right shoulder, and perhaps it still does. But Brantley has played just 11 games, hit lightly and with very little power in those 11 games, and then retreated back to the disabled list with continued shoulder soreness.
This was supposed to be a season that hinged on the top three in the rotation. But Carlos Carrasco strained his left hamstring on April 24, and Corey Kluber has only recently begun to resemble his old Cy Young Award-winning self.
And on the off chance you thought this season hinged on Mike Napoli's sliding prowess, well, um… 
Gif: Napoli silde
To be where the Indians are without Brantley and without Carrasco and with no regulars turning in OPS+ marks higher than 111 (and five lineup spots with below-average OPS+ marks) is fairly remarkable. The looming return of Carrasco, who will make his first rehab start this weekend, and the remaining hope that maybe, just maybe, Brantley can still salvage a respectable season after he rests the shoulder makes Cleveland a little bit dangerous.
Here are five other encouraging things about the Tribe's start.
1. Carlos Santana's improved power
Terry Francona took the bold step of inserting Santana in the leadoff slot for the first time on April 22. In Santana's 17 starts at that slot, the Indians are 11-6.
And yet, it's not Santana's bounce up the batting order that stands out in his 2016 season. It's his improved power production. After failed defensive stints as a catcher, third baseman and first baseman, a move to designated hitter seems to have benefited Santana. His homer/fly-ball rate hasn't improved significantly, but his fly-ball rate itself has -- from 37.1 percent to 47.1 percent, per FanGraphs. Santana is on pace for his first 30-homer season, having hit his eighth on Saturday -- an earlier point in the calendar than any other time in his career and four weeks ahead of when he reached that tally a year ago.

2. Francisco Lindor's sophomore stat line
The only problem with having your offense suddenly sparked by the emergence of a rousing rookie one year is the potential sag associated with his sophomore adjustment the next. But Lindor has so far avoided any truly significant slumps en route to posting the sixth-highest weighted runs created plus mark among qualified shortstops (119).
As expected, Lindor is seeing a bit more breaking and offspeed stuff than he did last year. But he's decreased his whiff percentage against both of those types.
Also as expected, Lindor's homer rate isn't what it was last year (8.6 percent of fly balls versus 13 percent), when his 12 home runs were a pleasant surprise. But he's been consistently productive, and, yes, he can still play defense just a little bit.
3. Unexpected utility output
The lone benefit of the Brantley injury has been the revelation that is Jose Ramirez's season. He has started 20 of 45 games in left field while bouncing between the outfield and infield, and he's delivered a .287/.350/.426 slash line. Compare that to Ramirez's .219/.291/.340 slash line in 97 Major League games a year ago, when he lost his starting shortstop slot to Lindor.

One key is what the switch-hitter is doing to left-handed pitching. Ramirez has seen a 158-point jump in his OPS vs. lefties this year over last. The Statcast™ data tells us that Ramirez's average exit velocity on pitches from lefties across the middle of the strike zone has increased from 88.5 mph to 99.5 mph.
The Indians brought Juan Uribe aboard in part because of the positive influence he could have on young Latin players, and Ramirez has been the chief beneficiary. Francona loves versatile players who can produce at various spots in the lineup, and Ramirez has fit the bill.
4. The Tomlinator
Even if you acknowledge that pitcher wins is a dubious stat, you've got to appreciate that Josh Tomlin is in the midst of a special stretch. He's Cleveland's first 7-0 starter since Dennis Martinez in 1995, and in his past 18 starts dating back to last year, he's 14-2 with a 3.16 ERA and 93 strikeouts against 14 walks in 116 2/3 innings. Tomlin doesn't flash much of a fastball, but he's grown increasingly confident in his cutter, and his change and curve are both generating sub-.400 slugging percentages.
Tomlin, the longest-tenured member of the Indians, had shoulder surgery early last season, but he looked sharp and steady enough in his return to receive a two-year, $5.5 million contract that bought out his first free-agent year. That's now looking like a smart, proactive move by Cleveland, given the weak free-agent class next offseason.
5. Trade chips
When the Indians were (surprisingly) in the hunt for a playoff bid in 2011, they made a big play for Ubaldo Jimenez, parting with their two top pitching prospects (Drew Pomeranz and Alex White) at the time.
Whether Cleveland would bid so boldly this year very much remains to be seen, but its farm system has been built back up enough to give them options in the summer market. It is fronted by outfielders Brad Zimmer and Clint Frazier, with the latter off to a particularly strong start at Double-A (.313/.400/.544). The Tribe also has an assortment of young pitching, including Mike Clevinger, Justus Sheffield and Brady Aiken, the Tommy John recipient who is currently throwing in extended spring camp and nearing a return to game action.

This is a pertinent point for a team that might want to investigate what is looking like an interesting market for outfield bats (Jay Bruce and Nick Markakis are certainly available, while the likes of Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran could be made available).
For now, the Indians' clearest need is a dependable lefty reliever. But that's a smallish concern for a team that, frankly, could have had much bigger ones.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.