While the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals romped in the first week, going undefeated while cranking out plenty of offense, it has been a much tougher time for the Cleveland Indians, a club pegged by more than a few of our analysts to win the AL Central this season. A 2-4 start isn’t that big a deal, not by itself, though losing both of reigning AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber's starts isn’t exactly a cheering prospect.
No, the really bad news for the Tribe isn’t in the standings -- it’s on the injury report. The Indians were already down Nick Swisher, on the DL as he continues his recovery from last year’s knee surgeries. But one week into the season they have added a pair of grim developments.
First, left fielder Michael Brantley has only been available to start two of the first six games because stabbing pain in his back has kept him day-to-day. Worse yet, star catcher Yan Gomes landed on the DL on Sunday and will miss six to eights weeks with what was termed a “moderate” sprain of his right knee.
Delete the two most exciting players in any lineup, and it’s going to be tough for a team to succeed. But for Cleveland, Gomes and Brantley were the guys to be excited about. They’re the duo who busted out big last year and whose continued success fueled expectations that this might be the Indians’ year. In 2014, Gomes hit 21 home runs and slugged .491 in his first campaign as an everyday catcher. Behind the plate, he earned good marks as a receiver while throwing out 31 percent of opponents’ stolen-base attempts. Brantley was better still and arguably last year’s breakout hitter in the entire league, cranking out a career-best .891 OPS in his age-27 season. Projection tools such as Dan Szymborski’s reliably conservative ZiPS were nevertheless optimistic and pegged Brantley for his second-best year (.788 OPS), with Gomes to slug .455.
We’ll see how much time Brantley misses. Ideally, none, but his absence was already something the Indians could ill afford, and with Gomes out, their need for Brantley's power has become that much more pronounced. Their lineup is chock-a-block with journeymen Ryan Raburn, David Murphy and Jerry Sands in the outfield, while Roberto Perez and Brett Hayes get time behind the plate. That leaves the Indians with Carlos Santana as their one reliably dangerous power source, and nobody would peg that sort of lineup to win a division -- especially not the parity-plighted AL Central.
Any hope that Swisher might be back to help soon seems pretty optimistic. Sunday’s news on that front was that Swisher is now getting reps in the outfield in extended spring training, which means those mid-April estimates for his return to action seem unlikely. That’s without getting into whether the 34-year-old Springer bounces back from a terrible 2014 season. But his presence, plus a healthy Brantley, would at least limit Murphy and Raburn to platoon roles, in which they could be useful complementary players.
Although this was just one week, the problem for the Indians is the hole they dig for themselves early on, not really what the Royals and Tigers do in the meantime. Last year’s team, handicapped by those big, early gambles on defense with Carlos Santana stretched at third and Murphy in right, stumbled coming out of the gate, couldn’t make up the difference down the stretch and wound up three games short of a wild-card slot.
A 2-4 week isn’t that big a deal, but the state of the Indians lineup and who is available to be in it? Those are things to take very seriously because without Brantley cranking and with Gomes and Swisher shelved, runs will be hard to come by, not just this week but in every week to come until they’re back at full strength.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.