The Mets visit the Cleveland Indians with a three-game series starting tonight at Progressive Field. With a 74-65 record, the Indians are currently in second place in the American League Central, 6.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers. They're also 3 games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the AL's second wild card slot. The two teams last met up in 2010 with the Mets sweeping them in three games in Cleveland. To help us get a better perspective of the Indians, Ryan Richards of Let's Go Tribe answered a few questions for us about the team.
Amazin' Avenue: After winning just 68 games a season ago, the Indians sit in second place in the AL Central behind the Tigers and find themselves in the thick of the AL wild card hunt. What has been the difference between 2012 and 2013 and do you think they can grab a wild card slot?
Let's Go Tribe: The main difference has been the starting rotation. A year ago the starting rotation staff was the worst in baseball, and this year it's league average, an amazing improvement given that the majority of starts have been by players that were here a year ago. Mickey Callaway, the new pitching coach, deserves a lot of credit for this, whether it be going to the Dominican Republic to work with Ubaldo Jimenez last winter or helping Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber establish themselves as major-league starters.
The Indians hurt themselves quite a bit by dropping 5 out of 6 on their last road trip, but they've recovered by taking 2 out of 3 from Baltimore. So they still have a chance at the second wild card spot, but they have to make up 3 games on Tampa Bay (who currently hold that wild card spot) and have three other teams in the same boat (Baltimore, New York, Kansas City). Their schedule seems to be favorable compared to their competition, but right now they are still in my opinion a long shot to claim that spot.
AA: The Indians spent a lot of money to import Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (at the expense of the Mets) as free agents last offseason. How have those deals gone so far and do you see them working out well for the Indians in the long run?
LGT: I'd characterize those signings as "ok" so far. Bourn and Swisher have been worth 4.2 bWAR between them, and the two are making a total of $18M (Bourn is making only $7M this season). But starting next year that salary hit is going to be $28.5M, a very large chunk of the payroll for a club that has rarely spent more than $80M on salaries. So the Indians will definitely need to get more value from them in the future.
AA: The Mets face off against their former top prospect Scott Kazmir for the first time ever in Friday's game. Kazmir has resurrected his career in Cleveland this season. How has he done it and what does his stuff look like now? Do you think he can keep pitching well going forward or is this a flash in the pan?
LGT: Kazmir has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. The Indians originally signed Brett Myers to take up a spot in the rotation, but he was a complete disaster both on and off the field and was released recently. They also signed Daisuke Matsuzaka to an NRI contract, presumably to fill another rotation spot. But it was Kazmir, who was almost an afterthought, that panned out. Kazmir had spent the entire 2012 season in independent ball, but after a couple B squad games in spring training it was apparent that the stuff he had early in his career was back, and an ill-timed Dice-K injury gave him the opportunity to make the team.
Kazmir seems to be running on fumes now, as he's well past his innings totals from last year, so the Indians have been trying to give him extra days between starts whenever possible. In addition, they're being very careful with his pitch count, so I'd expect him to be pulled before he gets to 90 pitches (assuming that he's pitching well).
AA: Coming off of a bad year in Detroit, Ryan Raburn has been a revelation for the Indians, knocking 15 home runs with a .303 ISO, and a .366 OBP. What has he done to turn things around this year and how do Indians feel about the two year extension the team gave him last month?
LGT: I agree, Raburn has been a revelation, being more valuable than many other more expensive acquisitions (for instance, the aforementioned Bourn and Swisher). Last year with the Tigers he was an everyday player, and he never got on track. This year he's played about 3-4 times a week, and that seems to have worked for both him and the club. The extension he signed is very reasonable, even for a bench player, and I'd expect him to be used very much the same way in the future, though his position might change depending on what the Indians do this winter.
AA: Mets fans likely don't know a whole lot about Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar, who are scheduled to start Saturday and Sunday's games. Give us a scouting report of each and what to expect from them in their starts.
LGT: If you like to look at pitching rates (SO/9, BB/9, SO/BB), you'll love Corey Kluber. He's been one of the best pitchers in the American League in several rate categories, including xFIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), just behind guys like Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw. Unfortunately he's been out of commission for a month, having sprained a ligament in his middle finger. His start on Saturday will be his first since coming off the DL, and as he wasn't able to get a rehab start, he'll be on a strict pitch count. Kluber throws a two-seam fastball (mid-90s), a cutter (low-90s), a very good slider, and a changeup.
Danny Salazar has some of the best pure stuff in baseball. He's working his way back from Tommy John surgery (2011), so like the other two starters this weekend, he's going to be watched very carefully. Salazar throws three pitches: a high-90s fastball, a devastating split-change, and a slider that is still developing. He's going to have to work on that slider, but right now he's doing just fine with a that fastball/changeup combination.
Thanks again to Ryan Richards for giving us a preview of the Indians!