Cleveland Indians

AL Central pecking order becoming clearer as White Sox push winning streak to five

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USA TODAY

AL Central pecking order becoming clearer as White Sox push winning streak to five

Exciting. Fun. Watchable.

Words of praise thrown around during the first five games of this homestand were rarely applicable during the first two seasons of the South Side rebuilding project. But the White Sox haven’t lost since returning from a three-game sweep at the hands of the Minnesota Twins, delivering the same fate to the Kansas City Royals before taking the first two of a four-game weekend set against the Cleveland Indians.

It’s a rather apt illustration of where the AL Central is at the moment, the Twins towering above the competition this season while the White Sox look to be in a better spot than the other three teams. They pulled even with the Indians, at 28-29, thanks to Friday night’s 6-1 victory. In the first two games of this series, the White Sox have outscored the Indians by a combined 16-5 margin, and while the Indians booted and threw the ball all over Guaranteed Rate Field on Friday, the White Sox took advantage against Trevor Bauer.

That’s two straight wins against Carlos Carrasco and Bauer, two of the Indians’ supposedly elite starting pitchers.

Regardless of whether or not you think this streak is a harbinger of October baseball coming to the South Side — and it’s certainly far too early for that — what can’t be argued is that these are the kinds of accomplishments the White Sox didn’t have in 2017 and 2018, when they lost a combined 195 games. Bright spots on this team have shone a promising spotlight on the future, and they might be rewarded in the present, with multiple guys playing at All-Star levels.

The Indians looked as if they had one more run in them, perhaps. Even with a less than inspiring lineup when the season began, they had the best rotation in the game and two MVP candidates in the lineup in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. While Carlos Santana has been fine, Ramirez has not. Lindor hit Dylan Covey’s third pitch out of the park Friday night, but the limitations of an offense with few other dependable hitters were on display. Cleveland couldn’t scratch across another run the rest of the night.

And so with the Indians caught, the White Sox have done what some had hoped but fewer had expected: They’ve established themselves as the No. 2 team in this division. What that’s worth, though, is potentially inconsequential.

Tim Anderson might not have been drawing up playoff scenarios in his head — or reliving just how badly the Twins beat up on the White Sox just a weekend ago in Minneapolis — but he outlined the White Sox true desire before Friday’s game.

Does second place mean anything?

“No, man. We want to be in first place and we want to keep working and keep getting better,” Anderson said. “We're going to stay hungry.”

Anderson was likely just providing another example of pro athletes’ “if you’re not first, you’re last” mentality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s true that second place in the AL Central might not mean much when it comes to the postseason. The New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox figure to keep battling it out in the AL East, and the Oakland Athletics have made their annual out-of-nowhere surge into contention.

True, the White Sox are not at all far from the second wild-card spot in the American League. But it’s also May 31.

This isn’t to rain on the ongoing parade on the South Side, however. The White Sox are winning right now, and that’s more than could be said during the vast majority of the last two seasons. The rebuild was always going to yield something positive at some point. This winning streak might not foreshadow the White Sox reaching baseball’s mountaintop by the end of this season, but it’s a positive sign made up of a bunch of other positive signs that spell good things for seasons to come.

As for the rest of 2019, there are nine games left against these Indians, 10 left against the Royals and 14 still to play against the Detroit Tigers. The White Sox can rack up a lot of wins against those teams, not to mention their still-to-come series with the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners, who they’ll see a combined 10 times before the season’s end. There are scattered National League opponents of various quality remaining, as well.

The White Sox, unsurprisingly, are not concerned with playoff projections or which teams remain on the schedule. They’ve got a good thing going on this homestand, and they’d like to keep it rolling for as long as possible.

“The guys are playing with some energy,” manager Rick Renteria said after Friday’s win. “I think they are having fun, they are focused. Clubs when they start to get on a little bit of a roll, they are enjoying their time, they know what they are doing. They are going with the moment and hopefully this will be a moment that lasts a long time.”

Long-lasting success is the ultimate goal of this rebuild, of course, and getting to the top of the game first requires getting to the top of the division. The Twins hold a 10.5-game lead as the calendar turns to June, meaning the White Sox might have to settle for only getting to second place in 2019. But that’s a lot better than where they were last year.

The rebuild progresses.

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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How the White Sox stack up against the Cleveland Indians

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USA TODAY

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How the White Sox stack up against the Cleveland Indians

As the 2019 season nears and the White Sox get ready to take on the rest of the American League, we're taking a team-by-team look at all 14 of their opponents.

The Indians have dominated the AL Central in recent seasons and are just three years removed from a trip to the World Series, just two years removed from that 22-game winning streak and a 102-win season.

But the Indians are not one of the American League's uber teams. In fact, despite having perhaps the best starting rotation in baseball, they seem to pale in comparison to the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Houston Astros. Somehow, in a weak division that features three teams that combined for more than 300 losses in 2018, it's hard to describe them as a playoff lock. They still have to enter 2019 as the favorites in the Central, but that's a status earned as much by the weak teams around them as it is by their own strength.

We'll start with the positives, though, the things that should send the Indians to a fourth straight division title, and of course that begins with the starting staff. The quintet of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber features as many as four Cy Young candidates, depending on how much you like Clevinger — and that should be a lot after his 3.02 ERA and 207 strikeouts over 200 innings in 2018. And that was the fourth, yes, fourth most strikeouts of that group. Carrasco led the way with 231 (to go along with his 3.38 ERA). Kluber was his typically amazing self with a 2.89 ERA and 222 strikeouts. And Bauer, in only 27 starts, went all the way to 221 strikeouts with a rotation-leading 2.21 ERA.

That's four potential aces, right there, and there's no rotation in the game that comes close to that.

The Indians are also the home of two of the best position players in the game: Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Lindor will likely miss the start of the season while injured, but that doesn't strip him of his ability to mash, as he did last season when he launched 38 homers. But Ramirez was even better in 2018, challenging for the MVP with a .939 OPS, 39 homers and 105 RBIs. Those two guys are absolutely fantastic, and a better 1-2 punch than you'll find elsewhere in the AL Central.

And that's why the Indians should remain atop the division. None of the other four teams, including the Minnesota Twins, the only non-rebuilding squad of the four, have anything close to what the Indians have in their rotation and in the middle of their lineup.

Good thing for the Clevelanders, too, because the rest of this group isn't terribly imposing.

Edwin Encarnacion and his 32 homer, 107-RBI production was sent away so that Carlos Santana could come back to town, even though as an inductee of the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame he never left. Santana had eight fewer homers and 21 fewer RBIs than Encarnacion last season. The quiet steadiness Michael Brantley brought to the proceedings is now playing for one of those uber teams in Houston, and there's still nothing replacing him in the outfield. The Opening Day outfield is projected to consist of Jake Bauers (a .201 batting average as a rookie for the Tampa Bay Rays last season), Leonys Martin (a sub-.300 on-base percentage in just 133 games over the past two seasons with four different teams) and Tyler Naquin (three homers and a .287 on-base percentage in just 80 games over the past two seasons). Former Colorado Rockies MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez was signed to a minor league deal recently. He's no longer an MVP candidate but would figure to be an upgrade to that outfield. Jason Kipnis is well removed from his glory days, with a .704 OPS over the past two seasons.

Then cast your eyes to the bullpen, where you might expect to see Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. But those two departed via free agency for the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Angels, respectively. Brad Hand is still an All-Star closer, but this is a team that had claimed the relief corps as a strength for so long, only to finish with a relief ERA of 4.60, 25th out of 30 teams.

The Indians do seem, in certain areas, a far cry from the team that was good enough to reach the World Series and rattle off that 22-game win streak. But thanks to a weak AL Central, it'd still be somewhat surprising to see them toppled from the top of the division. They have a dominant starting staff and two legitimate MVP candidates. Who can compete with that. Not the Twins. Not the rebuilding squads in Kansas City, Detroit or on the South Side of Chicago. The Indians' window might be nearing its close. But it won't slam shut this year.

2018 record: 91-71, first place in AL Central

Offseason additions: Carlos Santana, Jake Bauers, Hanley Ramirez, Kevin Plawecki

Offseason departures: Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Melky Cabrera, Josh Tomlin, Rajai Davis

X-factor: Brad Hand made the NL All-Star team with the San Diego Padres in each of the last two seasons, sensational in 2017 and quite good again in 2018. But his numbers were even better last season after the trade that sent him to Cleveland. He posted a 2.28 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 27.2 innings with the Indians.

Projected lineup:

1. Leonys Martin, CF
2. Jason Kipnis, 2B
3. Jose Ramirez, 3B
4. Carlos Santana, 1B
5. Jake Bauers, LF
6. Hanley Ramirez, DH
7. Tyler Naquin, RF
8. Roberto Perez, C
9. Eric Stamets, SS
*Francisco Lindor, SS, expected to start the season on the IL

Projected rotation:

1. Corey Kluber
2. Trevor Bauer
3. Carlos Carrasco
4. Mike Clevinger
5. Shane Bieber

Prediction: First place in AL Central

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Trevor Bauer trolls Cubs with A+ World Series Tweet

Trevor Bauer trolls Cubs with A+ World Series Tweet

Trevor Bauer is at it again. 

The Cleveland Indians pitcher is one of Major League Baseball's best trolls and this time Cubdom was the subject of his latest exploits. 

First the joke (and a dynamite drop-in by @Cubs), then the backstory:

The thread began when Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard Tweeted a Ron Burgandy GIF of him watching MLB Network as his name popped up in trade rumors this week during Winter Meetings. National reporter Jon Heyman Tweeted Syndergaard might have the best player account out there, to which fans responded with their thoughts that Bauer should be included in that short list:

When @daphnesmomshell commented that she hoped Bauer would come pitch for the Cubs, the pitcher was quick on the draw with a comeback implying that his drone accident altered the course of Cubs history as we know it.

Bauer cut the finger of his pitching hand on a drone blade in October 2016, limiting him to just 5.1 innings of work in the ALDS and ALCS that year. 

He was able to return for the World Series, pitching in 3 games (2 starts), but struggled badly. Bauer went 0-2 (losing Games 2 and 5) with a 5.40 ERA and 1.68 WHIP and is clearly intimating the Cubs would not have won the World Series had he been 100 percent.

It's all in good fun, which is pretty much the only thing Bauer does online.