A look at some of the surprise performers of 2011.
The Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona Diamondbacks all have had surprisingly good seasons, even with the Pirates going into a strong tailspin in the second half. No one expected these teams to contend this year but the Indians and D-backs are still in the hunt. The question however is are they showing us a look into the future or were they simply the recipients of good fortune. Let's break each team's season down and look to see what we can expect from them looking forward.
First the Indians. Last year the finished 4th in the AL Central with a record of 69-
93. Coming into the year most the prognosticators predicted them to finish near that mark again if not a little worse. Their opening day starter was Fausto Carmona who has been less than impressive since his break out 19 win campaign in 2007. He would be followed by Carlos Carrasco, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin and Mitch Talbot. On paper that didn't look like a team strength in April. Last season the five of them combined for a record of 37-46. The starting rotation was expected to be the biggest weakness of a young struggling team that was waiting for some of their recent draft picks to finish their grooming in the minors.
The starting lineup didn't look much better. Shin-Soo Choo was expected to be the bright point in an other wise extremely weak lineup. Asdrubal Cabrera, Orlando Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Matt LaPorta, Jack Hannahan, Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Austin Kearns and Travis Hafner. None of these names outside of Choo and Santana inspire much confidence with the bat coming into the 2011 campaign. Hannahan was nothing more than a place holder while Lonnie Chisenhal finished learning the position at AAA. Austin Kearns was expected to be the fourth outfielder as soon as Grady Sizemore could finish his rehab stint in the minors to return from micro-fracture surgery. Orlando Cabrera, well past his peak years, was to help add a veteran presence and leadership until Jason Kipnis was ready. Asdrubal Cabrera was considered and everyday player with a great glove and .300 BA ability and little power. Brantley and LaPorta, both coming to the Tribe in the CC Sabathia trade, were expected to break out and settle in to be every day players of the future. Hafner having battled injuries over the last couple of seasons was figured to be past his prime. No one was expecting much from the club this year however, it was just going to be a chance for the Tribe to see what they had and build for next season.
After opening weekend the predictions looked correct. However after that opening set with the White Sox the Tribe pitchers got into a rhythm and the bats came to life. They went on a tear through April and into May posting 30-15 record after 45 games. They burst into first place in the division and looked like they may put a big enough gap between them and the rest that they could just coast into the playoffs. In June however injuries began to set in and the team cooled off. By the All-Star break the had fallen to second in the division and most assumed that was the end of a nice fairy tale. However they haven't gone into the tailspin most expected. They have managed to stay within reach of the division crown all the way into September. Although it's unlikely that they will be able to catch the red hot Tigers, it appears they aren't going away and should at least make it an interesting season ending series with their Motor City Rivals.
When looking at the Indians season to date it's easy to write it off to an extremely hot start and little more at first glance. However a closer look really does grant some excitement for a Tribe fan. The big contributors have been young players who are under contractual control for a few more years at least. Justin Masterson has shown that he has ace type ability and would likely be in the discussion for the Cy Young award if the team had been able to grant some run support to his amazing season, (and Justin Verlander wasn't having the season he is having). Masterson has posted an 11-8 record and an ERA of 2.92.
Josh Tomlin has shown that he has the ability to hang in a game nearly every time he takes the mound. Until his final start before going on the DL with elbow swelling he had made 37 consecutive starts of 5+ innings to start his career becoming the first player in MLB history to do so in his first 37 appearances. His high 80s fastball isn't impressive but he can control it to both sides of the plate and keeps batters off balance.
Fausto Carmona got off to the start that most would have expected. Coming out of the gates showing flashes of brilliance followed by complete blow ups. After a brief trip to the DL however he has been amazingly effective. His over all 4.84 ERA is largely the result of his early season blowups. Over his last 40 innings he has put up a respectable 3.38 ERA with 28 Ks and only 10 BBs.
Asdrubal Cabrera has emerged as one of the best offensive shortstops in the game. He has given above average defense up the middle to back up the Tribes sinker ball heavy rotation and put up a .278/.337/.467 line with 22 HRs 16 SBs, and 80 RBIs thus far. Getting the starting nod for the All-Star game in the first appearance of his career.
Carlos Santana started the season slow after his amazing rookie campaign that was cut short with a torn MCL in 2010. Santana has looked a bit rough around the edges to say the least behind the plate this year. His BA of .240 is rather uninspiring however his .72 BB/K rate is very impressive as are his 21 HRs. His 67 RBI are not overwhelming but are pretty decent especially for a catcher.
Matt LaPorta has not yet seemed to find his groove in the Majors and is currently back in triple-A for that reason. He has shown flashes of the right handed power bat the Indians where hoping he could become but has failed to be consistent and has turned into a simple hacker at the dish. Brantley on the other hand played a good left field and put up good at bats until he was shut down with a wrist injury.
The thing that is truly amazing though about this Cleveland team is the number of injuries to key players that they have managed to move past. Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Michael Brantley, Fausto Carmona, Carlos Carrasco, Mitch Talbot and Josh Tomlin have all had trips to the DL. Just a look at the roster that took the field tonight as I write this is quite telling. Eziquiel Carrera, Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Santana, Jim Thome, Jack Hannahan, Jason Donald, Lonnie Chisenhall, Cord Phelps, and Jared Head with David Huff pitching. Only 2 of the 10 starters were on the opening day roster. However even with the amazing number of roster moves needed this season and the fact that the Tribe's triple-A team is starting for them right now they are still in contention.
In short I would say the Indians have a bright future. Key players seem to have emerged this year and shown amazing resilience. Even though it seems unlikely that they will win the division this season it seems likely that they will be in the hunt for years to come. If this season is any indication to the true potential that these young players have, the Indians are going to be more than just competitive.