Cleveland Sports Weekly: The September playoff push reaches its fever pitch

Jim Piascik

Based on the recent attendance at Progressive Field, Northeast Ohio might not realize baseball’s playoff race is in full effect.

Yet, here we stand on Sept. 18 with Cleveland in the thick of the wild-card race. In fact, Fangraphs’ playoff projections have Cleveland’s chances of making the playoffs around 50 percent. That’s a simple coin flip! Take a coin out, flip it, and call it in the air.

Of course, baseball doesn’t work that way. But following last year’s 68-94 debacle, any fan would have been thrilled to know Cleveland would have a coin flip’s chance at the playoffs in mid-September. Barring some kind of historic collapse, this will be Cleveland’s first winning season since 2007 and will erase some of the bad memories formed over the last five seasons.

Even more importantly for the future, this Cleveland team is built to last. The three best position players this season are second baseman Jason Kipnis, catcher/first baseman Carlos Santana, and catcher Yan Gomes. Kipnis, Santana, and Gomes are all just entering their prime.

The typical baseball player peaks in his late-20s, and all three of these players are just hitting that age. That, plus the fact that they are under contract until 2017, gives Cleveland a strong base to build on.

It is not all about the position players, though. No team would succeed without strong starting pitching, and Cleveland has gotten stronger throughout the year. The starting rotation was considered a weakness heading into the season, but now, it looks like a strength.

Justin Masterson may be out with an oblique injury, but he established himself as a true top-of-the-rotation talent before missing some time. More importantly, Corey Kluber’s development from fringe major leaguer to a legitimate starting pitcher gives Cleveland another quality pitcher to take the ball every fifth day.

Rebound seasons from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir also stabilized the rotation. Jimenez and Kazmir are helping to push Cleveland toward the playoffs, and both consistently give the team a chance to win.

Rounding out the rotation is the biggest surprise and thrill on the team right now in Danny Salazar. The flamethrowing Salazar started the year in the minors, and since his call-up he has dominated the major leagues. Salazar is still on a limited pitch count after having Tommy John surgery in late 2010, but when he is on the mound, the results have followed.

Between Masterson and Salazar leading the way at the top of the rotation, Kluber and Zach McAllister firming up the middle of the rotation and Kazmir and Jimenez pitching extremely well in their free-agent seasons, Cleveland is actually in good shape for the rest of 2013 and beyond.

Rounding out the lineup are more solid contributors, like veteran free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Neither Swisher nor Bourn is having an outstanding season, but each adds something positive to the team.

Those two, plus the always-steady Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera make Cleveland a real threat to make the playoffs. The American League wildcard is a mess of teams within a game or two of making the playoffs, but Cleveland’s final 10 games of the season are against teams that are more than 100 games under .500 combined.

Cleveland does not have any national stars, but the team gets by with contributions from everyone. No player is close to 35 home runs or 100 RBI. There is no Most Valuable Player or Cy Young consideration surrounding the team.

That is what makes this such a great team to follow. Going into each night, fans do not know who will play the hero. But considering the success of the team, odds are someone is going to step up and keep Cleveland in the hunt for the playoffs.

Contact Jim Piascik at [email protected].