The Astros play their final interleague series as a member of the National League this weekend when the A.L. Central leading Cleveland Indians come to town. To get geared up for the Tribe I enlisted the help of Lewie Pollis. Lewie, the Senior Editor at Wahoo’s on First, drops in to answer the questions Astros fans are asking. Well, I’m the one who asked the questions, but I’m sure you would have asked the exact same things. So let’s get right to it.
CTH: Ubaldo Jimenez is pitching the first game of the series. Last season his velocity was down. Has he rediscovered the 100 m.p.h. heater this year?
Lewie: Nope. He’s actually lost even more speed. According to Pitchf/x his average fastball velocity is 92.3 mph (last year’s “down” average velocity was 93.9), and he hasn’t hit 98 mph even once. That’s a big reason why he’s had so much trouble striking batters out—his K/9 rate is under 6.0 after striking out over 8.5 per nine in 2010 and 2011.
CTH: Johnny Damon seems to be playing better lately but his overall numbers aren’t that great. How has he looked on defense and do you think we will we see him in LF this weekend?
Lewie: He hasn’t looked very good in the field. He’s still got decent speed, but anecdotally his reactions are a little slow, his tracking is off, and his arm isn’t very good. Ever since we learned that Grady Sizemore would miss the start of the season the Indians have made it clear that offense was their top priority in left field—that’s why they were willing to consider Damon.
In all likelihood, yes, you will be seeing him out there this weekend. The Indians have three real options in left field: Damon, Aaron Cunningham, and Shelley Duncan. Cunningham isn’t cut out to be a starting player, and while I’d like to see Duncan as the everyday starter, this team seems to have some moral opposition to giving him regular playing time—the front office spent all of spring training trying to find someone else to play left field, and a lot of Clevelanders blame Duncan’s rapid cool-off from his early hot streak on Manny Acta benching him.
CTH: Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera make up one of the most powerful middle infields in the league. Might one or both of these guys be headed to Kansas City for the All-Star game? Who else could represent the Tribe?
Lewie: They’d better be. Much as it pains me to say it, Robinson Cano is having a better season than Kipnis, so he should be the starter at second base. But Kipnis absolutely deserves to make the team, and with apologies to Elvis Andrus, Cabrera has been the best shortstop in the American League so far. I’d say that Chris Perez is definitely worthy as well, and he’s a popular enough player that he has a good chance of getting picked.
CTH: Francisco Lindor and Jesus Aguilar were just invited to compete in next month’s futures game. Those two guys are still a couple of years away. Can you tell us about a prospect or two that may be able to help the club as early as this season?
Lewie: The upper rungs of the farm system are a little bare right now. Most of the Triple-A roster is composed of complementary players who’ve bounced up and down between Columbus and Cleveland (Zach McAllister, Scott Barnes), former MLB players who’ve lost their jobs (Matt LaPorta, Jason Donald) and veterans trying to work their way back to The Show (Kevin Slowey, Andy LaRoche).
In terms of actual prospects, McAllister and Barnes are the most likely to find themselves (back) in Cleveland at some point this year, with Jared Goedert as the dark horse. McAllister is probably about as good as current No. 5 starter Jeanmar Gomez and he would probably get the call if a starter gets injured or traded. Despite his 10.38 ERA, Barnes actually looked pretty good in three of his four MLB appearances this year. Meanwhile, Goedert has been tearing the cover off the ball in the upper minors while learning to play left field, so the Indians might give him a shot.
CTH: The Indians are in first place. What the hell happened? Are people in Cleveland pretty excited about this team?
Lewie: Well, this wasn’t really a surprise. The Indians were basically a .500 team last year despite being hampered by youthful inexperience, ineffective veterans, and a plague of injuries to key players. This year’s roster looks much stronger and all the youngsters have more experience under their belts—doesn’t it make sense that they’d be a good team? National writers loved to hate on the Tribe before the season, but no one who was actually paying attention to what was happening in Cleveland is now shocked by the Indians’ 86-win pace. The only thing that’s really surprising about this is that the Tigers have been so bad.
As for the fans, they’re not as excited as you might think. It’s really kind of sad. We’re dead-last in average attendance—they don’t even open some of the nosebleed sections most nights at Progressive Field. Clevelanders are jaded after years of losing in every sport. Just last year the Indians got off to an even hotter start yet ended up 15 games behind in the worst division in baseball (though in fairness this team is much better than last year’s).
After lifetimes of sports heartbreaks, we Cleveland fans are glass-half-empty skeptics who wallow in our teams’ failings far more than we celebrate their victories. Luckily I’m guessing we’ll see more of the latter this weekend.