September 2, 2014

Medina
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Indians: Chemistry, pitching, key to Tribe’s success

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — We learned when we were children that the essential appendages of a well-rounded baseball team are offense, defense and pitching.

Pitching, of course, is at the top of the list. A team that has no pitching has no chance. Offense is nice, especially in the American League, whose lineups include a designated hitter. And to the extent that defense keeps pitchers out of trouble, it is a key element of the complete baseball unit.

And that’s it. Good pitching equals success, particularly if it’s abetted by a high-scoring attack and nine defenders who can slap leather.

That was before Terry Francona came along. The new manager of the Indians has stressed from the beginning of his tenure last fall that there is a fourth element that needs to be included when building a winning club.

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Kumbaya conjures up a lot of stale jokes and cliché images of people arm-in-arm swaying to music. Chemistry is the most common expression of what Francona is trying to instill in the Tribe, but that also can be misunderstood by fans, whose idea of togetherness in baseball is everyone sitting around the clubhouse roasting marshmallows in the microwave.

The essence of chemistry in the locker room is this: Even if two middle infielders dislike one another in life, when they are on the field, the shortstop will throw the ball where the second baseman can catch it, so he can turn a double play.

This exact example played itself out in Cleveland when Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar were the Indians’ stellar middle infield combination. Alomar resented Vizquel’s popularity with the fans, but not once did he fail to give his best effort when both men had to collaborate on making a play.

Francona has another description of chemistry: Teammates who have each other’s backs when the battle is joined. And if the entire roster meets for tea and croissants at a Circle-K on the way to the ballpark, all the better. But Francona has taken the concept a step further by bringing in a chemistry specialist. Almost from the moment the Tribe signed Jason Giambi, Francona began heaping praise on him as the ultimate clubhouse sage and counselor.

Giambi already carried that reputation around with him. He has experienced virtually everything that can happen to a ballplayer: World Series games, an MVP season, All-Star Game appearances, involvement with performance-enhancing substances (which he admitted) and now advanced age.

At 42, been there, done that could be Giambi’s vanity license plate. He has lived up to his label as a great guy to be around and a man willing to listen and set a player straight. But how many wins will that produce? Impossible to say. Sabermetricians have no metric for what keeping the clubhouse free of acrimony and envy is worth. And I dare say they never will.

Let’s just say that it probably helps, and no Indians manager in my memory has given as much weight to the concept of chemistry as Francona. That said, the manager has his feet planted squarely on the ground. Which means pitching, hitting and defense receive most of his attention.

He has said only complimentary things about his starting pitching: “We don’t know how good we can be,” is one of his optimistic statements.

And he’s right. We don’t know how good the starters can be or how bad they might be. We just don’t know. If any area of the club lends itself to being unpredictable, it is how these five guys will perform, and therein lies the greatest mystery of the Tribe’s season.

Can Justin Masterson, whose pitches move like a black snake on uppers, command the strike zone? Will Ubaldo Jimenez revert to being the pitcher who dominated all of baseball in the first half of 2010, when he threw a no-hitter for the Colorado Rockies?

Is the 11.25 spring ERA of Brett Myers an accurate reflection of what we’ll see once the regular season begins? Can Zach McAllister continue the upward curve of his career? Will one of baseball’s feel-good stories of spring training, the rejuvenation of Scott Kazmir’s career, endure throughout the year?

The good news is that the Tribe can compete with most teams if three or four starters do the fundamental things that starters are supposed to do: Pitch at least six innings and keep the team in the game.

Granted, this is far from a given. The recent track records of Masterson, Jimenez and Kazmir don’t instill confidence. But at least they all have performed at a high level at some point in the past, and all of them are under 30. And lest we forget: Each of them possesses a live arm that most fathers wish their sons had.

Myers spent all of last year in the bullpen, so he represents another example of the unknown. McAllister was the club’s most consistent starter in 2012, and he showed how hard work and a little experience can translate into progress. McAllister was light-years more proficient last season than he was in his first tentative starts as a rookie in 2011.

Three consistent starters isn’t going to turn the Indians into contenders for the Central Division championship, but if someone in the rotation falters, Carlos Carrasco will be waiting for his chance to leave Triple-A behind. Francona could have made a case for Carrasco taking one of the five starting jobs, but he is coming off elbow reconstruction surgery and will benefit from pitching in Columbus to sharpen his skills.

And what about the phenom, Trevor Bauer, who will be part of the Triple-A rotation? Hard to say when his command of the strike zone will match his velocity and the sharp movement of his pitches (including his dreaded reverse slider). Daisuke Matsuzaka also will be in the Clippers’ rotation, but his fastball has not regained its heat, even though almost two years have passed since he underwent elbow reconstruction surgery.

So while there is realistic hope but not much proven success among the starters, the bullpen is sturdy and deep, with closer Chris Perez, setup man Vinnie Pestano and seventh-inning specialist Joe Smith as the foundation.

As lockdown as these three guys were in 2012, the man to watch will be Cody Allen, who could be the next back-end star for the Tribe, if and when Perez prices himself out of the Northeastern Ohio market. Left-hander Nick Hagadone has superb stuff and velocity befitting a right-hander, which makes him a candidate for eighth- and ninth-inning employment at some point.

The best thing about the offense is that it is multifaceted, and it is not dominated by left-handed batters, a circumstance that made last year’s lineup virtually helpless against left-handed pitchers.

During the winter, General Manager Chris Antonetti brought in Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs. Combine their power with that of Carlos Santana, and the Indians will have the capability to win games with one swing of the bat.

But the most intriguing characteristic of the attack will be speed that has the potential to rattle pitchers and force defenses into making mistakes. Michael Bourn, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Stubbs and even Asdrubal Cabrera have the capacity to succeed at least 75 percent of the time when they attempt a steal.

How Francona uses this speed and how efficiently the players execute — not only steals, but also going from first to third and taking the extra base — will be fascinating to watch.

The defense? With Brantley, Bourn and Stubbs roaming the outfield, grass-stained baseballs will be a thing of the past. At least theoretically. There are no Alomars or Vizquels strutting around the infield, but at worst the defense should be satisfactory.

So what is the bottom line for an Indians team that won 68 games in 2012? To win 12 more would be a significant improvement, even though 80 victories won’t put the club in the playoffs, even as a wild-card entry.

This is really a two-year process, and 80 wins this season would be a big step in the right direction.