Every spring, a rebuilding team expected to go through the motions gets off to a great start fueled by surprising performances and a little bit of luck. Sometimes it goes on to great things—see the 1991 Twins, who won the World Series a year after finishing in last place. Sometimes that team fights deep into the season and falls short at the end (see last year's Padres). All too often the early-season surprise turns out to be a mirage: See the 2003 Royals, '05 Orioles and the '08 Marlins.
No matter how the 2011 Indians end up, they've already provided a season's worth of memories for the sparse crowds at Progressive Field. When Travis Hafner blasted a mammoth walk-off home run last Friday, turning a 4--3 deficit into a 5--4 win, it was just the latest in a string of dramatic victories for a team with enough offense to make any opponent's lead a shaky one. Through Sunday the Indians, who didn't win their 24th game last year until June 11, were 24--13 and sitting in first place in the AL Central, 3½ games ahead of the Tigers.
Making the biggest surprise of the season's first quarter possible is a lineup that was sixth in the league in runs scored while waiting for its core to get on track. Neither catcher Carlos Santana (.220/.345/.382) nor rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo (.222/.301/.354) has hit as expected. In their stead the Indians have seen outfielder Michael Brantley blossom: The 24-year-old had a .372 OBP and has held down the leadoff and centerfield jobs when Grady Sizemore has been injured. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, 25, has bounced back from an injury-plagued 2010 to hit .288/.353/.484. Even first baseman Matt LaPorta, who arrived with Brantley in the 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers, has chipped in with a .248/.328/.450 line that is impressive in this year of low offense. The brief return of Sizemore—he came back in April from microfracture surgery on his left knee and slugged .641 with 16 extra-base hits in 84 plate appearances before going back on the DL with a right-knee bruise on Monday—and the resurgence of Hafner bolstered a lineup that is in the top three in the AL in average, on-base and slugging.
The biggest surprise is that the Indians' pitching staff has matched that performance: It's fourth in the AL in ERA (3.49) with almost the same cast of characters that ranked 11th a year ago. Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin have anchored the rotation by cutting their walk rates. After finishing next to last in walks allowed and last in strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2010, Cleveland has issued the fewest free passes in the league in '11. It's 12th in the AL in strikeouts, so the lack of walks is key for a staff that is going to give up a lot of balls in play.
Those balls in play haven't been quite so damaging this year. For the first time since they won the AL Central in 2007, the Indians have a good defense. They're fourth in the league in defensive efficiency—their ability to turn balls in play into outs. In contrast to their counterparts in Minnesota, the Indians have backed a high-contact pitching staff with players who can get after balls, especially in the outfield.
These Indians are not going away. Having already called up 2009 first-round pick Alex White to bolster the rotation, they could also get internal reinforcements at their two weakest positions from top prospects Lonnie Chisenhall (third base) and Jason Kipnis (second base). The bullpen is a concern—Cleveland has a lot of relievers with mediocre strikeout and walk rates—but that's a weakness that can be addressed in the trade market cheaply. The Indians will be buyers this summer; in addition to starting fast, they play in the weakest division in baseball. The preseason cofavorites, the White Sox and the Twins, are among the worst teams in the game. Only the Tigers, winners of seven straight through the weekend, seem poised to push the Tribe.
Maybe this ends in the waning days of September. Maybe it stretches into October, with the Indians pushing to extinguish one of the great losing streaks in sports history—the city of Cleveland's. What seems certain is that this isn't a quarter-pole fluke. The Indians are relevant again.
Return of The Rays
• The Rays were expected to return to the middle of the AL pack this season in no small part because their bullpen disappeared over the winter. Tampa Bay lost the top six relievers from a pen that led the league in 2010 with a 3.33 ERA. Instead the team is in first place thanks largely to a rebuilt bullpen that had a 3.24 ERA (fourth best in the AL), with 80% of the innings coming from pitchers who weren't in the organization a year ago.