Indians reach crossroads

CLEVELAND — Hours before the first pitch of Sunday’s series finale against the Yankees, two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber sprinted across the sun-soaked outfield inside an empty Progressive Field.

Except for getting the occasional glance from ushers and vendors preparing for the crowd, Kluber was alone.

When he finished a down-and-back between neon yellow cones, Kluber checked a stopwatch to make sure he was hitting his marks. In a day or two, his broken right arm will be re-evaluated to see if he can pitch for Cleveland again this season.

For now, his status remains uncertain.

Same as the Indians.

Approaching the halfway point of a season starting to snake sideways, it is hard to get a handle on the three-time defending AL Central champions, who will host next month’s All-Star game.

Slowed by a too-often-limp offense, injuries to Kluber as well as starters Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco and the curious case of All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez, the Indians are at a crossroads.

They’re 10¢ games behind the surprising Minnesota Twins. As the July 31 trading deadline nears, the Indians are facing some major decisions that could alter the franchise’s path for years — or further alienate a fan base wondering why owner Paul Dolan slashed payroll and gutted the team’s power with some surprising decisions last offseason.

At 33-32 heading into a two-game series starting Tuesday with Cincinnati, the Indians have been maddeningly inconsistent since opening day. They’ve won series from AL powers Boston, Houston, New York and Minnesota but struggled against the White Sox (5-7) and Royals (0-3).

“Kind of like the Midwest weather,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said with a laugh. “80 and sunny one day, 50 and raining the next. Be that as it may, if that’s the way we’re going to be, the more good games we put together, the more confidence we’ll build and hopefully we’ll keep running with it.”

The injuries to Kluber and Clevinger (strained back muscle) along with Carrasco’s recent diagnosis with a blood condition has weakened the club’s greatest strength, it’s starting pitching, and put more strain on offense with more holes than a country club putting green.

Cleveland’s .227 batting average is the American League’s second-lowest and only Detroit and Toronto have scored fewer runs. Like the spring weather, the offense has warmed up of late, but the lack of a big bat in the middle of the lineup makes the Indians’ best hitters — Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana — that much easier for pitch around.

And then there’s Ramirez, who has been in a mystifying slump since late last season. No one seems to know why.

After seeming to come out of nowhere to become one of baseball’s best all-around players, Ramirez, who finished third in the AL MVP voting in 2017 and 2018, has fallen from grace as quickly as he arrived. He’s batting under. 200 in his last 100 games, and his stellar defense has slipped as well.

Many of his at-bats have become painful to watch with switch-hitting 26-year-old either swinging at bad pitches or flailing at fastballs he used to rip into the gap or over the fence. His mechanics are a mess.

“Every time I think he’s going to turn a corner, he doesn’t,” manager Terry Francona said. “I have so much belief in him that he will. It’s just been hard for him. It’s been a prolonged period and I know it’s got to be wearing on him. But I feel so strongly that he will figure it out.”

What the Indians have to figure out in the weeks ahead is what to make of this season.

The Twins are showing no signs of slowing, so Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff must decide whether to make a run at a wild-card berth or begin plans for seasons ahead.

The emergence of Shane Bieber and Zack Plesac have increased the likelihood Trevor Bauer will be traded before the July 31 deadline. Cleveland badly needs hitting, and although Bauer has lost his last five decisions, the right-hander could bring back some quality help.

The club may consider dealing the sensational Lindor, under club contractual control through 2021. He has shown no interest in signing a long-term deal with Cleveland, and the Indians may have to maximize his value by sending him to a contender for a bundle of prospects to speed up any rebuild.

The next few weeks could be among the most important in years for the Indians.

None of this is new to Kipnis, who has been with the club since 2011. The 32-year-old said the Indians can make all of those tough decisions easy — by winning.

“Our job is to put them in position where we want them to make moves,” he said. “You hear all about our (championship) window. I think any time you have guys like Lindor and this starting staff, you’d like to consider that a window. So it’s our job to make them at least think about bringing more pieces, if we’re not that far out of first place in our division.

“It would be our fault if they’re sellers. We need to make it so they’re buyers.”

Right now, tagging the Indians is impossible.

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