I was all set to write a post mortem for the Indians. A second straight home lost to the Giants dropped them into last place. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 2% chance of making the playoffs; PlayoffStatus.com, 1%. THe entire team seemingly is injured or underperforming. Mitchell at Juiced Sports Blog says that CC Sabathia is all but traded.
Then I read this Baseball Prospectus article. As MLB.com's standings page shows, the Indians are vastly underperforming their pythagorean (expected) win-loss total. Sure, that is due to a few 12-0 wins followed by stretches of 3-2 losses (either from nine innings of inept offense or one inning of inept relief pitching), but still that's a sign for hope. As the BP article points out, Ryan Garko and Jhonny Peralta are currently underperforming, and should bounce back to their career averages at least to some extent.
The good news is that we're still over a month away from the trade deadline, so the Tribe can delay their buy/sell decision a little longer. The bad news is that of the host of injured players, only Fausto Carmona is due back before the deadline. That would give the Indians a great top 3/5 of the rotation and a capable fourth starter in Aaron Laffey. Paul Byrd's ERA is around 5, but that isn't horrendous for a fifth starter these days.
What about the lineup? The outfield has now settled down, with Grady Sizemore, Ben Francisco, and Shin-Soo Choo all hitting well. Dave Dellucci and Franklin Gutierrez are capable backups, especially Gutierrez as a defensive replacement for Francisco and Choo. As mentioned above, Garko and Peralta are underperforming, but Jamey Carroll and Casey Blake are actually playing respectably. Blake has an OPS+ of 105, which sadly is the fourth best on this team (after the three starting outfielders). Carroll's OPS+ is in the 90s, as is Kelly Shoppach's.
That leaves the bullpen. GM Mark Shapiro willingly admits that bullpens are a crapshot, and the fact that this year's bullpen is that much worse than last year's despite few major personnel moves is proof. The next two players expected to get a show in the Indians pen are former Twins reliever Juan Rincon and prospect Jeff Stevens.
So should the Indians buy, sell, or hold? No matter how optimistic you are, the odds of making the playoffs this year are slim. If the Indians do buy, they should do so with 2009 and 2010 in mind. If they happen to luck out and make the playoffs this year in the process, great.
On the same token, the Indians do not need to sell and start rebuilding again. With a limited budget, Cleveland has to operate within certain "windows of opportunity" of competitiveness. Does the current window of opportunity close if CC Sabathia leaves? Not in the slightest. If Sabathia leaves, Grady Sizemore becomes the new face of the franchise, and he's signed through 2012. Most of the other current core players will be around until then as well. So the Indians need to work to stay competitive over these next five seasons, including this year. And remember, CC Sabathia isn't gone yet.