BE CAUTIOUS WHEN BETTING THE CLEVELAND INDIANS
The Cleveland Indians are riding high. They just completed a four-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals and sit atop the AL Central. The Indians have a great manager in Terry Francona and have a team that ranks near the top of the American League in both hitting and pitching. What's not to love? Well, actually there's plenty of reasons to stay cautious when it comes to betting the Tribe.
Cleveland's pitching staff is top-heavy dependent on three starting pitchers: Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin. On its face, there's nothing wrong with that, but Tomlin has to be considered a major question mark. He's got a solid 3.54 ERA in ten starts this year, but injuries have trailed him through his career. Tomlin has never worked a full season of 30-plus starts and the last time he even went to the post twenty times was in 2011.
The pitching the Indians are getting is reminiscent of what the White Sox were getting early in the season, when Mat Latos pitched out of his mind and joined with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana to give Chicago a devastating 1-2-3 punch. Latos came down to earth, so did the White Sox and those days when Chicago was in first place seem like a distant memory right now. If Cleveland can't shore up its bullpen or the back end of the rotation, they'll be dependent on a full season from Tomlin to avoid the same fate.
Cleveland's bats are similarly reliant on a small handful of players. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are the team's two most productive players to date. Both are young, Lindor at 22 and Ramirez at 23. Now these are two excellent young players - Lindor in particular, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting last season and is playing at the same level this time around.
But teams that survive the long summer months to win a division are balanced with good veteran help. The Indians are getting a bit, with Mike Napoli hitting 14 home runs and Lonnie Chisenhall responding well to a position shift to right field, posting a .350 batting average. Even so...Chisenhall's career has been inconsistent at best and Napoli is 34-years-old with a history of hip problems.
If the Indians were staying under the radar, these issues wouldn't be problems. But they're not. Cleveland is the betting favorite in the AL Central and had that status before they even passed Chicago for the division lead and then swept the Royals. But when you compare the Indians' roster with the Royals and the relative experience in a playoff race that each has, and it's hard to consider Cleveland the team to beat.
That doesn't mean there aren't reasons to feel good about the Indians and to see opportunities for value that may develop. The Salazar-Kluber punch to start the rotation is terrific. Salazar has a 2.24 ERA and at age 26, he's continuing a pattern of early-career improvement. He's an early contender for the Cy Young Award. Speaking of which, that's an award Kluber has already won, back in 2014. He's got a 3.84 ERA in twelve starts and appears to be rounding into form. Kluber tossed six shutout innings against Kansas City on Sunday and two of his previous three starts, went 7-plus innings and gave up just two runs in each.
Help should also be on the way in the everyday lineup. Michael Brantley had emerged as an elite player the past two seasons and finished third in the MVP voting in 2014. He hasn't played yet this year after offseason shoulder surgery, but has been moved to the 15-day DL, has started to swing off a tee and can be a valuable addition to this lineup.
Where the Indians are most intriguing on the future market is not so much in the AL Central race, but for winning the pennant and the World Series. Their depth problems, especially in the bullpen, make it tough to bet them to win a long regular season battle. But could they make the playoffs? Sure. And then the great top-of-the-rotation pitching takes on an outsized importance. Right now, the Indians are at 8-1 to win the American League pennant and 18-1 to win the World Series. This is probably not the best time to buy given their hot streak, but if those numbers ripen, it can be a smart investment.
But approach the Tribe with caution - they've got some issues that the current hot streak is papering over.
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