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The View From Pluto: How The Indians Pieced Together a Contender

A photo of Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona
Indians manager Terry Francona has led the team to the playoffs four of the last six seasons

The Cleveland Indians have gone from the bottom to the top over the course of two months. In early June, they trailed the Minnesota Twins by as many as 11.5 games in the American League Central Division. As of Wednesday (Aug. 14), they're a half-game back of the Twins. 

WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says fans on June 4 had all but written off this season when the team was 29-30. And it appeared the front office had, too.  "The big question was, were they going to trade all their good players for prospects and just pack it in?" Pluto said.

A winning manager
Pluto said a big factor in the comeback has been manager Terry Francona. "In some sense, he's managed with a sense of desperation because his feeling was if this team didn't get turned around and start to win right now it was going to get ugly by the middle of July," Pluto said. 

Francona has had 14 consecutive winning seasons, the longest streak by any active MLB manager and longest by any skipper since Joe Torre's 14-year streak (1996-2009) with New York-AL and Los Angeles-NL. 

"I remember when he came here and people said he was going to have a hard time. And I said, 'Terry Francona didn't come here to lose'" Pluto said. 

Veteran players 
Pluto said first baseman Carlos Santana has been key to the Indians' success. He has 26 home runs on the season, including two game-winning blasts this past week. Santana returned to the Indians after one year with the Phillies, where he signed a $60 million deal during free agency. Pluto said other players who started the season cold have gotten hot: Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis.

'The front office was savaged in the off-season...Well, this team is playing much better than the team a year ago'

12 starting pitchers 
Pluto said the most remarkable aspect of the season has been the starting pitching rotation. In spring training, the roster was set: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. 

"By middle of May, Kluber got hit by a line drive and broke his arm. Clevinger makes two starts and grabs his back. He's out for quite a while. And all of the sudden Carrasco comes down with leukemia. So this big five was down to two guys: Bauer and Bieber."

The Indians have used a total of 12 starting pitchers throughout the course of the season. "The last time the Indians did that was like 2009 and they went 65-97. It usually means you don't have a starting rotation."

In this case, Pluto says it's turned some minor league players into clutch players, including Zach Plesac, Adam Plutko and Adam Civale.

"Francona said it almost seems like our AAA team and our big league team have merged. But he said that's what a team like Cleveland has to do because you're not going to go out in the middle of the season and bring in all these high-priced players," Pluto said. 

The trade
By the MLB trade deadline, the Indians ended up making a big deal with the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres. They traded starting pitcher Trevor Bauer to the Reds for outfielder Yasiel Puig and Minor League left-hander Scott Moss. The Padres shipped outfielder Franmil Reyes, lefty Logan Allen and infielder/outfielder Victor Nova to the Tribe. 

"The Indians always have to be kind of bold in trading a guy before he leaves to get other young players to keep them coming in here. The front office was savaged in the off-season for letting a bunch of free agents leave for what seemed like a bunch of nobodies. Well, this team is playing much better than the team a year ago."

"They've got a manager who knows how to get a team to the playoffs, which Francona has done each of the last three years. This is not a guarantee they're going to beat the Twins. But they're going to have a great finish," Pluto said. 

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.