Q: The Indians are currently in a dogfight with the Kansas City Royals for second place in the AL Central. Do you see the Royals as a serious threat, or a flash in the pan who will fade down the stretch? And what has to happen for Cleveland to pass Detroit for first place?
A: I think the Royals have the talent, especially in their rotation, to stick around. All season the starters have kept them on the edge of contention while the offense flailed around. Now the offense is picking things up, and they're going to be formidable the rest of the way. Now their schedule from here on out is difficult (11 left with the Tigers, including a 5-game series this weekend) and they've apparently lost Mike Moustakas for a while, but I still think they'll stay in it to the end.
What has to happen for the Indians to catch Detroit? A miracle. They had their chance last week to make it interesting but got swept in a four-game series at home, with two of the losses coming in gut-wrenching fashion. Now they're six games out, and they just aren't good enough to make up that kind of ground.
Q: Cleveland's big offseason addition was free agent outfielder Michael Bourn. Has he lived up to expectations and earned his salary?
A: I think he's lived up to expectations, though not the way you'd think he would. Until the last couple weeks he's been surprisingly productive at the plate, but at the same time he hasn't run as much as he had in the past. He's looked pretty good on defense, but many of the advanced defensive statistics say that he's lost a step. That's a concern when much of Bourn's value is tied up in defense and base running. He's only making $7M this year, so a 2ish WAR is fine for that salary, but starting next season he'll be making $13-14M/year through 2016.
Q: Ubaldo Jimenez absolutely fell apart over the last two seasons, but he's having a solid year in 2013 (4.11 ERA, improved strikeout/hit/homer rates). However, he's still walking hitters at almost exactly the same clip as last season (4.8 per 9 innings, 12.1% of plate appearances). Since his control clearly hasn't improved significantly, and his velocity has continued to plummet, what has changed that has allowed him to once again become a respectable MLB starter?
A: He's starting to figure out how to survive with a low 90s fastball. He used to be able to miss with his fastball and still throw it by batters, but those days are over. Right now he's a 4th/5th starter, a guy who rarely pitches into the sixth inning, but who generally only allows a couple runs a game. Pitching coach Mickey Callaway deserves a lot of credit helping in the transition from flame-thrower to decent pitcher, simplifying his delivery and emphasizing his fastball rather than his off-speed pitches. If you had five Ubaldos on your pitching staff your bullpen would be gassed by Memorial Day, but he's been a cromulent pitcher in the back of the Tribe rotation.
Q: Wait, when did Justin Masterson become a strikeout pitcher? And how did he do it? (9.2 K/9, up from his career rate of 7.4)
A: It's his improved slider. If you fall behind in the count to Masterson, you're going to get his slider, and you aren't going to hit it. Opposing batters are hitting .101/.179/.152 against it, and if you're right-handed and fall behind in the count, you're really in trouble. The standard defense against Masterson in the past has been stacking your lineup with left-handed hitters, but he's pitched much better against them this season.
Q: Scott Kazmir is back after missing two full seasons to injury and kind of sucking for a season or two before that. Can you tell us a bit about how his comeback season has gone, as well as what to expect from him on Sunday?
A: Kazmir spent last season pitching for a team called the Sugar Land Skeeters, and although that seemed like a giant step back, it probably helped set the stage for his comeback, as he was able to work on his mechanics in a low-pressure environment. He came into camp a longshot to make the club (Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be the NRI to make the rotation), but he immediately wowed everyone with his stuff. At times he's thrown his fastball at 95-96 mph, and when he's had his good stuff he's been as good as any pitcher in the league. But because he essentially was out of baseball for two seasons the Indians have had to really manage him throughout the season, whether it be taking him out early if he tweaked something, or even skipping his spot in the rotation.
Q: The Indians recently dropped Mark Reynolds and extended the contract of Ryan Raburn. What do you have to say about these transactions, and are they at all related? (That is, is Raburn taking at-bats which used to go to Reynolds?)
A: You're right on the money. Reynolds almost single-handedly carried in the Indians in April, but since early May he's been one of the worst hitters in baseball. And with players like Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes having very nice seasons, Reynolds saw his playing time dwindle. And it's hard to break out of dreadful slump if you don't get regular at-bats.
Q: Your favorite former Athletic: Nick Swisher or Jason Giambi?
A: Wow, that's a tough one. The Swisher signing was a real big deal for a franchise that free agents normally stay from, and with his Ohio roots (there's now a section in Progressive now called "Brohio," named after his favorite phrase) he's been very popular with the fans. While Giambi has had some of the biggest hits of the year, including a three-run homer on Wednesday that tied the game, all while serving as a de facto coach, I'll go with Swish.
Q: Chris Perez: Passionate athlete, or kind of a douchebag?
A: He's a tough player to root for. He's always lacked a filter between his brain and his mouth, and while at times that kind of honesty is refreshing from an athlete, many other times it's gotten him into big trouble. He's stopped talking to the media and has shut down his Twitter account, but that hasn't stopped the controversies, as earlier this summer he was charged with a drug misdemeanor when he had marijuana sent to his house (addressed to his dog). And he hasn't been that effective as a closer this season, missing some time because of injuries and blowing some crucial saves. There's a good chance he will be pitching for someone else next season, and I don't think many Tribe fans will be sad to see him go.
Q: Who do you like more: Carlos Santana the catcher, or Carlos Santana the guitarist?
A: I'll hedge my bets by saying that I like Santana the hitter better than either. Santana the catcher has struck some discordant notes this season, to the point where Yan Gomes is getting about the same amount of innings behind the plate as Santana right now. But Santana the hitter is still impressive, and the Indians have tried to find ways to get both Santana and Gomes in the lineup at the same time.
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The series kicks off tonight at 7:05pm, with A.J. Griffin facing Justin Masterson. The A's will also see Jimenez and Kazmir in this series, so it could go anywhere from really, really well to really, really poorly. That's the kind of expert analysis that you can only get on Athletics Nation. Baseballgirl will have your thread.