For the first time since 2007 and only the second time since 2002, the Cleveland Indians are AL Central champions. They beat the second place Tigers on Monday night to clinch the division title (CLE 7, DET 4).
The Indians are on pace to win 94-plus games for the first time since winning 96 games in 2007, and they've done it by being very good on both sides of the ball. Cleveland joins the Cubs and Blue Jays as the only teams in baseball to rank among the top eight clubs in both runs scored per game and runs allowed per game in 2016.
As successful as they've been in the regular season, the Indians will head into the postseason at less than full strength as they look to win their first World Series title since way back in 1948. Cleveland with head into the postseason without three, possibly four, important players due to injury, however. Look at this list of injured players.
With all due respect to Francisco Lindor, who should receive some MVP votes this season, Michael Brantley is the Indians' best player. He hit .319/.382/.494 with 90 doubles, 35 home runs, 38 stolen bases (in 40 attempts!), and more walks (112) than strikeouts (107) from 2014-15 to establish himself as one of the game's elite hitters.
The Indians were able to win the AL Central this season even though Brantley played only 11 games -- 11 generally ineffective games at that -- due to shoulder surgery and subsequent setbacks. He had a second procedure in August and is done for the season. Cleveland has survived Brantley's injury thanks to the emergence of Tyler Naquin and the Brandon Guyer trade deadline pickup, but make no mistake, they're a far less dangerous team without him.
The plan for the postseason was Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber in Game 1 and Carlos Carrasco in Game 2, but Carrasco's recent hand injury puts an end to that plan. He took a comebacker to the pitching hand that fractured his fifth metacarpal a week or so ago, ending his season. Here's the play:
Carrasco missed time with a hamstring injury earlier this year and his 2016 season wasn't quite as excellent as his 2014-15 efforts. He had 3.17 ERA in 317 2/3 innings those years, and sabermetric stats loved him even more; Carrasco's 2.67 FIP from 2014-15 was fifth lowest in all of baseball.
Before the hand injury this year Carrasco had a 3.32 ERA in 146 1/3 innings this season, including a 3.71 FIP. Obviously very good, even if it doesn't live up to the standard he set the last two years. Either way, Carrasco was going to be Cleveland's No. 2 starter come postseason time. That's a huge hole in the rotation.
Of all their injuries, losing Yan Gomes to a wrist fracture probably hurts the Indians the least. That's because Gomes has had an absolutely miserable season on both side of the ball, offensively and defensively.
Check out Gomes' performance this season compared to Chris Gimenez and Roberto Perez, who are handling catching duties for the Indians right now:
(FRAA is Baseball Prospectus' all-encompassing catcher defense metric.)
Wow have the Indians have some bad catching this year. Gomes was the worst of the three offensively and defensively on a rate basis, so while Gimenez and Perez have been no great shakes themselves, they give the Indians a better chance to win.
Losing your starting catcher to injury is always tough because they're counted on so much to lead the pitching staff. And, of course, there's always a chance Gomes would have been able to right the ship and perform like he has in the past. Now the Indians will have to rely on two backup catchers throughout October.
Losing Carrasco is a huge blow to the rotation. But losing Danny Salazar too? Few teams can survive losing two of their three best starters, and that's exactly what the Indians will have to do this postseason.
Salazar is out with a strained flexor muscle and it's his fourth arm-related injury of the season. He had shoulder fatigue in June, elbow discomfort at the All-Star break, and elbow inflammation last month. Now his flexor is acting up. The difference in Salazar's numbers before and after his first injury is alarming:
|Before first injury||68 1/3||2.24||1.13||10.7||4.3||0.5|
|Since first injury||69||5.48||1.55||10.4||3.9||1.6|
Salazar recently resumed playing catch and there's a chance he will be ready in time for the ALDS, though that's far from certain. Even then, it's likely he'll have to pitch out of the bullpen, at least initially. There simply isn't enough time remaining in the regular season to stretch Salazar back out to start.
The Carrasco and Salazar injuries have the Indians considering a three-man rotation in the ALDS. The plan would be using Kluber and Trevor Bauer in Games 1 and 2, then on short rest later in the series. Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger would then tag team Game 3 together. What happens in the ALCS? Who knows. The Indians have to get there first.
The Indians have had an incredible regular season and were the best team in the AL Central pretty much all season. They took over first place on June 4 and never looked back. Manager Terry Francona did a remarkable job, and the emergence of players like Naquin and Jose Ramirez and others carried this team into the postseason.
Unfortunately all these injuries mean the Tribe will have to go into the postseason at less than full strength. The timing stinks, but that's baseball. No one is going to feel sorry for them. The Indians have the talent to overcome those injuries, and hey, anything can happen in a short postseason series. They might be at a disadvantage now, but Cleveland will still be a force to be reckoned with in October.