Team president Chris Antonetti gave Terry Francona a break recently, filling in for the Indians manager during a pregame media session.
The Indians — projected World Series contenders — haven’t lived up to advance billing, at least recordwise, in large part due to a substantial bullpen collapse. However, they have been atop the Central Division for nearly the entire season, now with a 42-33 record and a seven-game advantage (the largest among division leaders) over second-place Detroit.
“The good news is, despite us not playing as well as we collectively could as a group, we’re still in first place in our division and have a lead on some of the other teams,” Antonetti said. “Now, that doesn’t mean anything moving forward, but what it means today is that we haven’t dug ourselves a hole. So that’s at least an encouraging sign.”
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Antonetti touched on a wide range of topics during his meeting with reporters:
On bullpen issues ...
“Any time you go through a season, you have to expect that you’re going to encounter some adversity and things are not going to go as planned. It’s one of the reasons we try to pay particular attention to depth within an organization and why sometimes some of those minor league signings or low major league signings in the offseason that may not seem significant, can end up having a meaningful impact on a team.
“This season, we’ve had some unexpected performances and a substantial amount of injuries in the bullpen that we’ve had to withstand. I’ve been encouraged by the way we’ve pitched over the last few weeks. Having a little bit more stability in the bullpen and seeing guys settle into roles has been good.”
Adding bullpen help moving forward:
“I think this time of year we will always be looking for ways to improve our team. In the years in which we’re in contention, I think that’s been the way we’ve operated and that’s how we’ve continued to operate this year.
“Really since the day after the draft, the intensity and frequency of trade conversations has picked up, and we’re actively seeking ways to improve, whether that’s in the bullpen or elsewhere. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve been aggressive. And if there are guys that are out there that might be available, we’re exploring it.”
On trades, signings ...
Weighing short-term options against players under contract in potential trades this season
“As we always approach opportunities to acquire players, we try to take a multiyear approach. It was evident in our trades in 2016. We targeted players that could have an impact beyond just that season. Now sometimes those players aren’t available and you can’t align on value and you end up trading for guys like we did last year with Joe Smith or getting Jay Bruce late.
“That’s just the opportunity that was available to us. We’ll explore guys that are pending free agents, but we’ll also be active in trying to acquire players that could impact not only this season but our team moving forward.”
Ongoing discussions with potential free agents (i.e. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, etc.)
“Those are conversations we typically have in the offseason and in spring training, not something we usually engage in during the season. Not to say it’s a hard and fast rule, but that’s typically the way we’ve operated.
“We did talk with each of those guys over the course of the winter and in spring training — discussing where we were, where we were positioned and what the future could be. But we’ve not had those conversations during the season.”
On the outfield ...
Questions in an ever-changing outfield
“There’s been a lot of movement in the outfield, and we’ve had a lot of combinations out there, but we continue to think we have a good group from which to choose.
“We do feel like we need to get a bit more consistency from center field and right field. Hopefully, now that guys are back (from injury), we can find a bit more continuity there.
“On the flip side of that, Michael Brantley has been impeccably consistent. He’s been the Michael Brantley we’re all accustomed to seeing when he’s healthy. And for him to not only perform at a high level, but manage the amount of volume he’s had this year — plate appearances and innings he’s played in the outfield — has been a huge boost to our team.”
On starting pitching ...
The concern of starting pitchers’ workload
“It’s a conversation we continue to have. I think the good news, as Tito shared, is that our guys condition to do that. And so they’re in a good spot. But it’s something we’ll continue to be mindful of as we go through the season.
“So, one of the things we look at in addition to just pitch count is how do guys respond in their recovery after they start. How does their body feel? What level of fatigue do they have? And then we also look for other markers of fatigue while they’re pitching.
“So far, guys have maintained really good strength levels and have been able to maintain their condition. But it’s something we’re cognizant of and would like to manage a little bit better.
“And hopefully, now that we have a little more continuity in our bullpen, that’s an option for us.”
The performance of right-hander Trevor Bauer
“One of the things that we have always appreciated about Trevor specifically is his relentless desire to improve. No matter how well he’s done, he is seeking to be better. He wants to be the best pitcher on the planet and is relentlessly motivated to do that.
“And I think what we’ve seen is his continued maturation and progression as a pitcher, as a professional and as a teammate, and it’s been fun to watch and be a part of.”
The progression of right-hander Mike Clevinger
“One of the great story lines of our season so far is Clev’s continued development and maturation as a pitcher. I think he’s starting to become much more efficient with his pitches. Where we saw last year in the fifth inning he had a lot of deep counts, he’s getting close to 100 pitches.
“With his mindset being a little more aggressive throughout the game, he’s able to have more efficient plate appearances and pitch deeper into games. It’s been really great to see. He’s been a huge presence in our starting rotation.”
The emergence of young pitchers Adam Plutko and Shane Bieber
“The great thing about both of those guys is that they’ve earned their opportunities.
“Adam rebounded from a tough year (injuries) and got off to a really good start this year, getting back to some of the things that allowed him to be successful throughout his college and minor league careers. Now that he’s back to doing those things, he’s seeing it can translate to the major league level and be successful.
“Shane has continued his development as a pitcher and has thrived in every single challenge put in front of him, meeting all of them head on and proving he’s capable of succeeding. His next thing is continuing his development and maturation at the major league level.
“Both of those guys have provided a great lift to us and we’re confident giving them the ball going forward.”
Strong start. Strong finish?
The Indians have been a second-half team under Francona
“We don’t plan for that. We try to win as many games as quickly as we can, as frequently as we can.
“It’s encouraging, though, that we do have a backdrop in that this group of guys under Tito has typically played its best baseball in the second half, but there’s urgency every day to try to win a game.”