What If?

First of all, it feels good to be back in the States and back from Spain. But you didn’t come here to read about Spain, did you? You came here for all the sports you can handle and you can be damned sure I am going to give it to you. The Clowns are officially back in business!

To quote Nas in “We Major” (by Kanye West on Late Registration), “First line should it be about the hoes or the ice?” We here at OTC have the same problem, except maybe without the hoes and ice. Or maybe with both. You be the judge. Anyway, after being gone so long, where do we start? In the interest of avoiding old news, let’s tackle something new, something exciting, and something that kept me up until 4AM many times while madrugando (staying out late) in Madrid. That’s right, baseball. Where better to start than with the one, the only, MY Cleveland Indians.

Yes, I am having more fun with this baseball season than I have in a while. More fun (so far) than 2007 when the Indians were just one game away from the World Series, more fun than 2005 when the Tribe won 93 games, and more fun than 2009 and 2010 when the Tribe failed to crack 70 games and was forced to trade away two defending Cy Young winners. I found myself on multiple occasions staying up til the wee small hours for May games against the Royals, hoping, knowing, that there would be fireworks over the Jake (fuck you, Progressive) tonight. Over just 2 months of baseball, I have come to love Michael Brantley, the bullpen minus Chad Durbin, acknowledge Asdrubal Cabrera as the best SS in the American League, and realize that even without Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, the Indians are not completely lost. Coming into the year, I was telling friends that the Indians would either be the worst team in baseball, or would be that sneaky team that gets up near .500 and stays there and everyone is scratching their heads asking “how?!” as they make a sneaky push for the playoffs.

Sneaky my ass. 33-21, first in the Central by 4.5 games, and up until recently, the best run differential in the majors by a country mile. Who the hell are these guys?

Asdrubal Cabrera is a name most baseball fans know. He has seemingly been around for a while, pretty smooth fielder, solid contact hitter, and the 2nd most important guy in making Jhonny Peralta a redundant slouch. 1st place in that field goes to Mr. Peralta himself, who is having a fantastic/unsustainable year. Well, Droobs is still a good fielder, but has suddenly found a power-stroke he has always had but feared would lower his average. His current OPS is a staggering .875, which is pretty incredible for a shortstop, and he is only 25. That’s right, the guy you have been hearing about for years as another solid shortstop is only 25 and breaking out like Andy Dufresne. If Jeter starts the All-Star Game instead of him, I will publicly urinate on Yankee Stadium and I don’t even live near New York. It would be a complete joke.

The other guys you have heard about on the Indians are Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana. Grady and Hafner spent solid stints on the DL but have been back to them old selves otherwise, but Choo and Santana have been utterly underwhelming on the Indians’ magnificent sprint out to first. Santana’s OBP remains sky high given’s the youngster’s penchant for walks, but the reality is that both have struggled. So how the hell is this team still winning in spite of that?

The answer is pitching and Michael Brantley. It should be noted that as I write this, the Indians are struggling a little bit as all teams do, making some of the stats seem less impressive, but some will remain impressive regardless of the current slump. Justin Masterson is finally getting some defense behind him and rewarding his team with a 3.07 ERA, a solid GB% which he needs, and an ability to go deep into games that you would never expect from a guy the Red Sox relegated to the bullpen. He still struggles a little more with lefties as righties, as is to be expected with his arm-slot. He has been a stud so far.

Carlos Carrasco has been good, but nibbles too much around the plate at times with his outstanding stuff. Carmona has been pretty outstanding but still has his Twilight Inning issue where he falls asleep for an inning and hangs a crooked number, and the combination of Mitch Talbot and Alex White has been pretty damn serviceable when healthy, especially White. These guys have all been good, but not my favorite.

Josh Tomlin has middling stuff. He has no out-pitch, gives up too many fly-balls, and as a result, gives up too many home runs. But none of that matters because he has both the ability to walk on water, and get by without really anything. He works quickly, gets the defense to work behind him, doesn’t waste time, and basically tells hitters, “here it is, hit it”, and more often they hit it weakly or at someone. He has a BABIP you would expect to come back to hurt him, but there is just something about him that makes you think it won’t. Know how you watch a Red Sox-Yankees game and it takes literally 90 seconds between pitches because the pitchers hold the ball for an hour and a half? Josh Tomlin is the complete opposite of everything about that, and I love him for it, even if he gives up a lot of home runs.

The bullpen has been pretty spectacular too, and has been just as good as it was toward the end of last year. Chris “Pure Rage” Perez puts too many guys on, but still is sporting a 2.61 ERA and has been just about everything you want a closer to be. The rest of the bullpen has followed suit and has been among the key reasons that the Indians have had so many opportunities to win games in the last at bat. They have been every bit as randomly spectacular as the Indians themselves.

You say the Indians lost the Sabathia trade because LaPorta isn't what we thought? My response: Michael Brantley.

But here is the key, and call me insane if you would like, but I stand by it. Michael Brantley is the key to this team’s success. Coming into this year, he was a solid ballplayer. He had speed, could play some defense and, on occasion, hit. Most of us Tribe fans were just hoping he would be decent enough to fill in when Sizemore is hurt and maybe even help a little. What he has done instead is become my favorite Indian right now. He doesn’t give away at bats, plays pretty good defense, still has that speed, and is hitting .281 with a .345 OBP and has been just about everything you’d like out of a lead-off man. When Sizemore went down, the only thing I was really concerned about was more playing time for Austin Kearns because I knew Brantley would be just fine. He has been the embodiment of this team so far. We knew he had some potential coming in, but what he hsa done has done nothing but put a smile on my face permanently, and I don’t mean like the Joker.

So what if they have been struggling with the better teams in the AL right now. This is a young team that is going to grow and, let’s face it, doesn’t have half the talent as the Rangers or Red Sox. This comparison is completely ludicrous and has a million divergences, but it took Jordan a few tries to get past the Pistons. The Indians are not Michael Jordan, but the point is, a lot of things happen early in the season that do not matter. That could apply to both the Indians current record as well as their current struggles against the elite of baseball.

We all have heard the voices wondering when the Tribe will go ice cold or when they will die off but what if they don’t? What if Choo and Santana start producing like we thought, hitting for power, average and being the two best hitters on the team? What if the law of averages starts to catch up, but cannot quite catch up completely to the clutch Tribe and the late inning drama? What if Orlando Cabrera gets replaced, keeps Tribe fans’ blood pressure down and Jason Kipnis or Cord Phelps gets his shot? What if everyone gets healthy by August and all of a sudden no one can keep up in the Central, or elsewhere? What if the Indians are for real and have what it takes to make an, admittedly improbable, run through the playoffs. They might fall off the face of the Earth, but what if they don’t and all of a sudden, the City That Lost LeBron and the Mistake by the Lake becomes the City of Redemption? What if I just want to be excited about my team in the now instead of “next year”? What if “next year” is really this year?

Who knows, really. I wonder if anyone else asked themselves “What If” heading into this year in Cleveland. Oh… wait. They did. The 2011 slogan for the Cleveland Indians: WHAT IF.

The Tribe just keep on #winning

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