Check out the most recent episode of the Smoke Signals podcast on the keys to the rest of the season and postseason for the Tribe.

Despite an unfathomable eight-game losing streak, the Tribe heads into the final 10 games of a bizarre 60 game 2020 season without a ton to play for.

With three more games against the Tigers and three against the Pirates, and really, four games against the White Sox that might mean a whole lot of nothing, the Tribe still looks to be locked into a playoff spot in this field of eight teams per league.

That being said, there’s a checklist of things this team needs to accomplish over the season’s final 10 games, really for its own sake and for anyone else to believe they can win a playof series. Here’s 10 items to check for over the season’s final 10 games:

1- Line up the pitching rotation:

As things currently stand, future AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber is set up to pitch Tuesday, September 22 against Chicago and then, Sunday September 27 against the Pirates in the season finale.

The first game of the Wild Card series starts Tuesday, September 29. Barring another completely catatonic stretch of disaster here, Cleveland should have NOTHING to play for on the 27th regardless of their playoff seed at that point. There is no chance Bieber should be, or will be allowed to pitch the season finale. Because that would take him out of pitching with full rest in the first round. 

The White Sox have already shuffled their rotation so that their ace, Lucas Giolito, pitches Thursday, September 24 against Cleveland, which lines him up to pitch Game 1 of the Wild Card series for the White Sox. 

Be it pitching Adam Plutko, or calling up Logan Allen to make the start, they need to line up their rotation so Bieber is pitching Game 1. If he’s not, well, let’s just not talk about how it would look if they don’t make that move.

2 – Line up the rotation behind Bieber:

With regards to Game 2, there’s really no bad choice Cleveland can make. You can make an argument for Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac or Aaron Civale to start Game 2. 

Since his three-start skid in late August, Carrasco has struck out 24 and walked just six batters in 26 innings and allowed just five runs (1.88 ERA). He’s essentially eliminated his curveball, and increased his changeup usage. Since August 29, his fastball velocity is back to around 94 and hitters only have one extra base hit off of the fastball (a double).

Carrasco is also the only member of the starting rotation to have made a postseason start, and is only one of three pitchers on the roster to have pitched in a postseason game (Oliver Perez and Brad Hand are the other two), so he is the only one with postseason experience.

Zach Plesac didn’t have a great outing against the Twins last time out, but he settled down as they game went on. He’s tamed the White Sox twice this season, so a potential opponent has seen him, but he’s pitched well against them so far.

Aaron Civale has been mostly consistent this season and you have a good idea what you’re going to get from him on the mound, and he’s pitched well against the White Sox twice this year. He feels like a good bet to start Game 3 at the least.

Right now, the rotation looks like this:

9/18 – Zach Plesac

9/19 – Triston McKenzie

9/20 – Carlos Carrasco

9/21 – Aaron Civale

9/22- Shane Bieber

9/23 – Plesac

9/24 – McKenzie

9/25 – Carrasco

9/26 – Civale

9/27 – Bieber

9/29 (Game 1 Wild Card Series) – Plesac on six days rest, or McKenzie on regular rest

9/30 (Game 2) –  Carrasco

10/1 (Game 3) –  Civale 

Some shuffling will need to be done. 

3 – Make a pitching plan:

Due to the fact that there’s no off days in the playoffs until the World Series, that means potentially having 15 straight games if each series goes the distance and assuming Cleveland even wins a series.

Of course, the Tribe needs to worry about winning the series first. Having a rotation lined up the way you want is great, but it’s going to be hard to say “well, we didn’t use (this starter) in the bullpen because we had him lined up for another game” if the game never happens because you lost.

Does it make sense for them to line up their five starts to try to keep them on schedule and hope to advance through the playoffs that way? Or, do they use a starter in the bullpen and use everything they have to get through the first series and figure out the rest once they’ve won?

That will be a question they’ll have to answer. Given the team’s offensive woes and the inexperience and recent bullpen inconsistencies, the best chance at winning the first round best-of-3 probably lies in putting a starter in the bullpen to better leverage their pitching. But if they have hopes of winning a second playoff series, it’s a tough act to balance.

Who would those options be?

Carrasco has experience in the bullpen that turned his career around, and during his comeback from leukemia last year as well. His arsenal would work just fine in a two-inning stopper role.

Plesac has no MLB bullpen experience but has an arsenal similar to Carrasco (fastball, change, slider), the command this year (2 BB%) and maybe the mentality to be a high leverage reliever. It could work, even without the experience. But it’s dangerous.

Civale probably makes the least sense in the bullpen. His cuts and sinks his fastball, and is really at his best throwing the kitchen sink at hitters. Could it work in a two inning stint? Yeah, probably. His command is good too. He’s also very even keel, so a high leverage spot shouldn’t get his heart rate too high. I’m not sure you’d want to waste that arsenal in the bullpen or if it would even play up.

McKenzie is an interesting option here. Since his electric start against the Tigers where his fastball averaged almost 95, he’s more settled into the 92-93 range. In a two inning stint, he could air it out and touch it up to 95-96 consistently. His command, slider and curve could all play up in the pen. Out of all the options, I think his stuff has the best chance to be a swing-and-miss reliever. That being said, he missed all of last year with an injury and has never pitched in the postseason, let alone the bullpen. You probably wouldn’t be able to have him pitch back to back days (and the Tribe brass probably wouldn’t want to) so you’d have to be comfortable going a day between outings with him if that were the case. Would they risk that? He is going to be on a pitch count, so I wouldn’t rule them out of going this way but I also don’t know if they’re willing to take that risk on his body and inexperience.

4 – Do what has been needed to be done since July – find an outfield combination and stick to it:

There’s been very little rhyme or reason since Oscar Mercado was recalled to when he’s going to play, or if it will be Delino DeShields Jr., or if they both play (as they did Wednesday). The Tyler Naquin/Jordan Luplow platoon has been a consistent lineup theme, but sometimes they both play (like tonight!). Josh Naylor has played against right handers, but he’s struggled. 

They need to pick who is going to start in the outfield for the next 10 days and get them ready. It’s been 50 games, but this is still a problem.

5- Play mistake free baseball:

This team doesn’t have a lineup that can out-hit making even one error in the field, let alone the base paths.

In the last few weeks they’ve had Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and DeShields all picked off first base. That cannot happen. They’ve also run into other outs on the bases. They made several errors during the eight game losing streak, from bad throws from Sandy Leon, Yu Chang, Josh Naylor and DeShields. DeShields and Mercado have also both misplayed fly balls lately too.

The defense and base running mistakes have to get cut out immediately and become disciplined over the next 10 days. The only shot this team has at winning in the playoffs is pitching well and backing their pitching with good, fundamental defense.

6 – Get Austin Hedges more reps:

Between Roberto Perez’s shoulder and now lat, he’s probably not 100%. He’s still managed to play impeccable defense despite that. His hitting has suffered because of it. Get him some rest and get Hedges some reps.

Sandy Leon may be a good clubhouse guy and had a past reputation of good defensive, but Hedges is the only catcher who is Perez’s equal. (Hedges actually edged Perez is Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average for catchers in 2019 at 28.2 to Perez’s 25.7

Leon has a 45 wRC+ going back to 2019 while Hedges has a 47 mark. You’re not asking either to save the lineup. But Leon has three catchers interference this year and has only thrown out two of 10 runners. (Hedges has thrown out six of 15). Hedges is clearly the better option and if they use the excuse of using Leon in the playoffs because Hedges doesn’t have enough experience with the pitching staff, then it will be their decision to not let him get the experience necessary. Perez probably needs the rest with his injuries. Hedges should play at least two or three games down the stretch to get more experience with the staff and should be the backup catching option.

7 – Carlos Santana needs to find a rhythm:

Just before the end of August, Santana had a six game hitting streak with seven hits in that time including two homers. After back-to-back hitless games he had seven in his next three. He had a three hit game in Minnesota last weekend but is 4-26 with eight walks. At least he has the eight walks. But they need Santana to find his bat a little more heading into the playoffs to string the lineup together through the top five.

8 – Hope Franmil Reyes’ next hot streak comes at the end of the month:

There was a 20 game stretch where Reyes’ wOBA hovered around .400 and higher. Over the last week his wOBA has been below the league average. This offense hums much better when Reyes is hitting balls over the right-center field fence. He might be streaky, but if his next hot streak can come in the playoffs, it would be some great timing.

There was a 20 game stretch where Reyes’ wOBA hovered around .400 and higher. Over the last week his wOBA has been below the league average. This offense hums much better when Reyes is hitting balls over the right-center field fence. He might be streaky, but if his next hot streak can come in the playoffs, it would be some great timing.

9 –  Get the bullpen back in order:

Brad Hand hasn’t pitched since the 13th and then last pitched before that on the seventh. Maybe they’re saving some bullets for the postseason, but he’s going to need some work over the next 10 days and you have to see if his better performance continues.

Nick Wittgren, Phil Maton and Oliver Perez have all had hiccups over the losing streak. James Karinchak has allowed just one run over his last four outings, but he’s walked four. They all need the last 10 games to get things ironed out and figuring out their roles. It looks like Perez or Karinchak might be the first options out of the bullpen where some combination of Wittgren or Maton handles the seventh and eighth. 

What will they do with Cam Hill and Adam Plutko? Should Adam Plutko even be on the postseason roster? 

His last three outings have been mop up duty in St. Louis and then 2.2 innings in two games against the Royals, one of which was also in mop up duty. There is no place for a mop up arm on a postseason roster. If you’re up big, ride the starter as long as you can or decide to use a reliever that will be unavailable the next game, or don’t overtax any one arm. If you’re down big, you need to throw your best arms anyway to keep the game from getting away. Same strategy applies. Does having a reliever you only use in mop up duty, no matter how great he in the clubhouse maximize your playoff roster? Probably not.

10 – Get the bench in order:

Fans complain about the team carrying three catchers. They probably do so because of Perez’s injuries and the ability to pinch hit/run for a catcher and then still have a backup in case of another injury. So that spot can be taken care of, but as of now, they have Mike Freeman and Yu Chang both on the bench. Should they add another reliever or bench piece to take Plutko’s spot? Probably, maybe a bat for an extra pinch hitting option, maybe from the left side. They also need to use DeShields off of the bench. His arm is too much of a liability in centerfield. Kyle Schwarber went first-to-third on a grounder into centerfield this past week. He’s also not provided the base running value you hoped for this year (0.5 BsR compared to 4.8 last year). He only has three steals in five tries. His defense hasn’t been great this year in center (0 DRS, +1 OAA) (for reference, Mercado is 3 DRS in CF). Use DeShields as a pinch running option and a defensive replacement if he’s going to be on the roster. Bradley Zimmer could do that role from the left side and perhaps provide better production, but that’s probably out of the question by now. But that’s the role that DeShields best fits on the roster the way he’s played in 2020. 

Bonus –

The Tribe plays the White Sox next week four times and see’s Lucas Giolito on the 24th. This is their last look at him before the playoffs. They’ve seen what he does to them and how he does it. He might not be out there long, but his attack won’t change against them. They need to find a way to pick up something on him to devise a game plan if they play the White Sox in the Wild Card series and have a Bieber/Giolito matchup. They need to win the Bieber game in the playoffs to have a good chance to advance, and finding an offensive plan against Giolito in their last look at time is important. 

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