The Indians aren't the best team in the AL, but here's why they could make a deep run in the playoffs
Cleveland should benefit from its roster and circumstances
No contender's weakness is more obvious than the Cleveland Indians' ratty bullpen. Cleveland's relievers entered Tuesday ranked 28th in the majors with a 5.13 unit ERA. The front office has already spent more than a month seeking relief help through trades and waiver claims -- hence Oliver Perez (who has pitched well), George Kontos, and Marc Rzepczynski, among others -- and figures to continue its search up until the August 31 waiver-trade deadline.
Cleveland's blemish, plus the powerhouse nature of the other top American League squads, explains why a second consecutive appearance in three years in the League Championship round feels unlikely. Yet the erstwhile Naps are better positioned for a postseason run than many realize, due in part to the fortunate marriage between their roster and their circumstances.
Blessed with the majors' largest division lead, Cleveland is all but assured entry to the postseason. They needn't feel the same sense of urgency the other contenders do as it pertains to trades or injuries. They can take their time, exhaust their options, and keep the bigger picture in mind. That, twinned with the stylistic differences between postseason and regular season baseball, should permit Cleveland to leverage the best parts of its pitching staff once October rolls around -- or, in other words, its rotation and endgame duo of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller.
Cleveland's starters lead the majors with 6.3 innings per start. Manager Terry Francona is unlikely to tighten the leash once the playoffs begin, but a runaway lead in the American League Central should enable him to ease off the gas during the season's waning days, preventing his starters from shouldering an unwieldy workload. The same division lead should allow Cleveland to play it low and slow with Miller's body (remember, he's been limited to 17 appearances this season due to injury), and that's important because a hearty and hale Miller can team up with Allen to cover as much late-and-close ground as they did in 2016.
The combination of a workhorse rotation and two high-leverage rovers ought to help Francona hide his woeful middle relievers. Still, he's certain to gain at least one new quality arm in his bullpen between now and October -- that being whomever is bumped from the rotation. If healthy, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger should make up the postseason rotation. Such an arrangement leaves Shane Bieber as the odd man out.
Bieber doesn't fit the typical reliever profile, in that he sits around 92 rather than 95 mph. But he throws strikes and he can miss bats with his breaking balls. His fastball command renders him able to challenge hitters at or above the hands late in counts, too. Although there's no telling how he would take to life in the bullpen, where he might work back-to-back nights and/or deal with runners on base as he enters the game, one figures he could prove to be an asset there.
Of course none of the above means Cleveland should cease its pursuit of relievers. Adding another setup type who can assume the Bryan Shaw role would be a huge boost, and would cover Cleveland in case of an injury to Miller or one of their starters. Additionally, Cleveland isn't necessarily assured an easier series against the Red Sox, Yankees, or Astros just because of the reasons provided above. Make no mistake, they'll be the underdog against any of the three.
Nonetheless, Cleveland is a team who is better suited for postseason play than most realize -- and we should keep in mind during the coming weeks that they don't need to overhaul their bullpen to be a threat.
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