How Good is Cleveland, Really?
Image courtesy of Adam Hunger, USA TodayThe Yankees springboarded off their four-game sweep of the Twins – they've won 10 of 11 games since, and that only ties them with Mookie Betts and the dazzling Red Sox for first place. It'd be a staggering upset if the loser in that AL East slugfest didn't procure a wild-card berth. Toronto is even looking like a factor early on.
In the West, the Astros and Angels are living up to their billings. Both are currently on track for around 100 wins, and there's not much reason to view the success of either club as a mirage (though the Halos could become vulnerable if MIke Trout or Shohei Ohtani were to go down). Seattle looms as a credible threat there as well.
Meanwhile, Cleveland leads the Central by a game with a ho-hum 18-18 record. While the Twins have generated some doubt early on, they have also had a number of key contributors – Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Ervin Santana, Jorge Polanco, and now Jason Castro – miss time.
The Indians have mostly had their stalwarts on the field, minus Andrew Miller who's been sidelined by a hamstring injury.
Fans in Cleveland are probably fretting more right now than those in Minny, and reasonably so. The Twins have shown their warts, to be sure, but the pervasive ineptitude that haunted them for two weeks doesn't seem reflective of any crippling long-term weakness. The offense and pitching staff both look capable, and have shown it enough to inspire some confidence.
As for the Indians?
Their offense has scuffled even with Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor hitting well. Jason Kipnis, who hasn't been a significantly above-average hitter since 2015, sports an OPS 90 points lower than Logan Morrison's. Edwin Encarnacion (.696 OPS) will probably come around, but then again, he is easily their oldest regular, at 35.
In the rotation, it's true Danny Salazar has been amiss, but the Indians might need to grow accustomed to that reality. And besides, his replacement Mike Clevinger has given as much (2.76 ERA, 1.07 WHIP) as you could hope to get from Salazar. In the bullpen, even Miller's absence can't come close to excusing the woes that have haunted Cleveland recently.
In terms of direct points of comparison, the Twins and Indians appear quite evenly matched. They played neck-and-neck during their two games in Puerto Rico, with the second stretching for 16 innings before a victor emerged.
Just as Minnesota suffered a demoralizing sweep at Yankee Stadium, so did Cleveland this past weekend, getting walked off twice in three days. And while the Twins have pulled themselves out of a dreadful early-season slump, the Indians are now trying to steer clear of a lesser one – Wednesday's victory over Milwaukee was just their fourth in 12 games.
Of course, slumps happen. I'm not going to cast judgment or draw conclusions in the middle of one for Cleveland, especially after the Twins just showed us how quickly things can turn around. But whereas this upstart Minnesota club was expected to have its flaws, setbacks and tribulations – especially early – the defending Central champs were supposed to run like a well-oiled machine.
While the other bona fide AL contenders have all solidified their top-tier statuses, Cleveland sits with the league's seventh-best record as the season's quarter-point approaches. They're still the division favorites but the Indians appear far less formidable than many feared.
If winning the Central is Minnesota's only path to the postseason, at least it looks eminently surmountable. This is shaping up be a fun and competitive race that twists and turns throughout the summer. Both teams will have the advantage of copious matchups against the White Sox, Royals and Tigers, so it may very well come down to who takes care of business.
The Twins did so in Chicago over the weekend, and will get their first looks at Kansas City and Detroit later this month. The four-game set between Minnesota and Cleveland coming up in three weeks is already one worth circling on the calendar.
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